Far stronger than his lanky body suggested, the ecclesiastic hauled me up, and dumped me beside the grave. He searched my belt and pockets, seizing a second pistol, throwing knives, and explosive munitions. Though Darrien concealed himself well, I did not question his aversion to the forest. Something lurked nearby, giving vampires and their familiars pause.
The crimson door creaked open, a slender shadow slipping from it. “Again the dream beckons, casting forth the night. I tread shadows, but cannot discern the song from my hunger,” she murmured. She stepped into the moonlight, blond tresses falling past her shoulders. “Her verse fades, and a sadness fills me. A world away that song of innocence, nothing more than a dream.” Her golden dress trailed behind her in a glittery blur.
She bent over, and put her face in mine. “Hello, Lawson.” Her eyes were more yellow than brown, pulsing with an inhuman energy. I strained, unable to bring her name to my lips. Delilah traced an icy finger across my brow and frowned. “Careful not to kill him, dear. Like you, he is fragile. Forget not your own mortality till you’ve traversed the divine path.”
The vampire stood, and then approached Darrien. “Besides, he is useful to us,” she whispered, running her fingers through his curly, brown hair. “What is this?” Delilah shook bits of flesh and bone from her fingers.
“My escort, or what’s left of him.” Darrien offered his handkerchief.
“More and more these days, I find myself wiping away the blood of others that are not my kill. It sours my cheer, taking my delicate form with it. Look at me—I cannot afford to lose a whit more. Just one shade shy of a ghost.” She stained the virgin cloth with her hands.
“You are perfect, my love. Divine.” Darrien reached around and kissed her hand.
“Only if it were so.” Delilah took the lobe of his ear in her mouth. “Tell me, what became of him?”
“Yves? He attacked the marksman head-on, and met his end at the point of an arrow. Poor fool. He never should have called the old man’s bluff.”
Delilah spotted the repeating crossbow dangling from my horse and grinned. Abruptly she discarded the soiled cloth, and slipped away from her adherent. The horse bristled as the vampire neared. Captivated by the silver bolt resting in its groove, Delilah groped the bow’s maple stock and exhaled.
“Careful, Delilah. ‘Tis not a toy.” Darrien wrapped his arms around her. “It has enough contempt for us both.”
I wallowed in the upturned earth, unable to carry through with my escape.
“We must uncover the hansard in his employ. Perhaps he can craft something wicked for us both,” she replied.
“It is my understanding that he forges his own weapons.”
“Intriguing.” Delilah turned. “Then we shall put him to good use before sending him off.”
“No, we must kill him now. He is too dangerous to be kept alive.”
“His bounty is special indeed, one that you must collect.” She licked her dry lips.
“Do you still think me fond of such heirs?” Darrien pulled away. “I gave you Avarié as a wedding gift, and in addition, myself. Gold coins mean nothing to me.” His ring sparkled in the moonlight.
“Ironic that you would take your father’s ring in addition to his head,” she sneered.
“He sought to destroy you, and I would have none of it.”
“‘Twas your father’s affection, as misguided as it may seem.” Delilah brushed against him.
“At one time the house of Laroche stood for something: opulence, refinement, and above all, honor. The ring passed from father to son, one black heart to the next. But when father fled his debts, and traded Hanover for Avarié, I knew he was no longer capable of carrying our good name. What designs he had faded into the countryside. So I reclaimed it from him, vowing to be the visionary he never was. Though gold conquers many hearts, religion knows no bounds.”
Darrien turned, and kissed Delilah deeply. “I owe myself to you, my love. In my despair you filled me, giving birth to new perspective.” He brushed her golden locks aside. “Take my offering of Lawson’s head, and be done with it.”
Delilah pressed her lips gently against his, and pulled back. “The black pope desires Lawson for himself.”
“Pope Ruminus of Abber Sur?”
“The one,” she replied. “Lawson Parker will fetch you an audience, but only if he is alive.” She glanced at me. “There you will showcase your findings, and how you intend to improve life for my kin. Thus, The Order will embrace you, and bestow its highest honor: the mark of the papacy. ‘Tis the only reason I haven’t turned you myself.”
“Anointed by the pontiff himself?” Darrien pondered. “One step closer to divinity.”
“My gift to you, my love.” She kissed him like fire over dry brush. “But until that day, we must keep you healthy and unscathed. Pope Ruminus will not accept you if he cannot to turn you himself, and shape you into the instrument of his choosing. And when he realizes you have located his wayward daughter, and guided her back to the path, he will offer whatever you wish.”
“I love you, Delilah,” said Darrien.
“As do I, my love.” Delilah pulled him into her, burying his face in her chest. Unable to restrain himself any longer, Darrien took her there in the graveyard. The vampire peered over her shoulder, exposing her fangs as he unleashed his passion in her.
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