That vampires could not enter churches was a myth: it was just that many of them chose not to, either out of concern at their own immortal and godless existence or because they simply did not care to pursue a faith that would surely have condemned them.
Josef had never given either reason much consideration. His four hundred years had been spent in happily pursuing all the darker aspects of being undead, from the bloodlust that often overcame him to the simple pleasure of being formidable once the sun went down. But as he pulled up outside the stately establishment reeking of piety and reverence, he had a flicker of uncertainty at the idea of stepping inside. It was only a building, a representation of the faith of millions, a house of worship, but like any other, remained empty and unimpressive without the presence of believers in it. It was the power of faith that made religion so impressive, but there were no services tonight and the church was empty, the street solitary and the cemetery beyond ghostly in the absence of a moon. The only light shimmered out through the windows, dim against the stained glass and flickering like candlelight.
He ascended the shallow stone steps, his footsteps slowing as he reached the door and tugged on the handle. It creaked open beneath his fingers and admitted him into the darkened cathedral. Candles and statues surrounded him, rows of pews facing forward to the altar, covered in a white cloth, golden adornments threading upward around the silver crucifix on prominent display. It was much quieter than he expected and there was a momentary pang of unease at being there, as if he had broken some unspoken judgment. But he had not been wrong in his suspicions: Lamia was here, somewhere, and so was Blair. He could smell both of them, though at first glance the church appeared empty. He lurked on the threshold, all his senses on alert, listening for any movement that might indicate their hiding place. There was another scent as well, a mysterious scent that he had never before encountered, but there was no indication that a figure lurked anywhere in the shadows.
Blair was nearby but he did not discern where until his gaze fell on the confessional. Moving forward lightly on silent feet, he drew open the curtain and hauled her to her feet. She was astounded to see him and resistant as he tried to pull her down the aisle.
"Let me go, Josef," she complained, but his grip never wavered. She planted her feet and slid behind him, unable to contend with his strength, trying in vain to dig the heels of her flats into the strip of red carpet that ran the length of the cathedral. A figure stepped out from the shadows directly into his path. He was quite tall and timeless in appearance, rather youthful in his countenance but very old about the eyes, and Josef sensed something was not quite right with him. He was human yet was not, his presence bringing them both up short, for he had managed to appear unannounced. The Roman collar indicated his profession, but there was nothing stern about him, only commanding as he observed them both through a pair of docile blue eyes.
"Let her go," he said, and there was no intimidation to it, not any indication that he was offended or even concerned, his mannerisms quiet and authoritative. Josef did not know why he responded, but he did, releasing his companion's wrist. Blair pulled it back from him, curious at the flicker of understanding between them. There was only a little light left and in it, Josef was luminescent, his skin taking to the darkness and casting the usual spell that accompanied vampires in the dead of night. It was inexplicable and mysterious, but his kind was beautiful in such surroundings and he was well aware that the minster was studying him with renewed suspicion. A dangerous hint of comprehension was surfacing, long dormant but now awakening as the room around them shifted into evening.
"I have seen many things in my time," the minister said softly, "but you do take me rather by surprise." It was not condemnation in his gaze but something else, a fascination that Josef found informative. There was no fear, only comprehension.
From the yawning darkness of the observation loft overhead came a movement that removed their attention from one another and sent it searching upward, captivated by the faintest flutter of white, the only indication they were not alone. The minister stepped back, turning his head as he followed the shadow that passed through the darkness. Josef could feel her presence, sense each movement, and if he had dared close his eyes would have seen the form that accompanied it, a creature so old that she made everything around her seem timeless. It was difficult to find her in the gloom, to know where she was or how rapidly she changed her position, for Lamia was a child and as such had the speed and cunning of one. To her, it was a game and her mocking laughter lingered in the air, haunting their footsteps and bringing a chill to Blair's spine as she unconsciously stepped nearer to her companions.
It was the scraping of a match that drew their attention to the back of the church, flickering to life in a small pair of hands and casting an ominous glow around the young face that appeared above it. Reverently, she touched the flaming end to the nearest candle wick in the back of the church and it sprang to life. The faces watching her were ghostly pale, all of them transfixed, even the minister, who was staring at her with a kind of morbid fascination, numb to all but her influence. Lamia blew out the match and dropped it into the little glass tray, her dark hair loosely pulled back as she turned their attention to them. "Fancy finding you in a church, Josef," she said as she came forward. "I'm surprised the statues have not begun to weep tears of blood."
"It would not be the first time," the minister replied quietly.
Her focus turned to him, eyes darkening with fascination as she sensed the same thing Josef had, that this was no mere mortal. There was something otherworldly about him. Her head tilted slightly as she observed him, narrowing her gaze as she attempted to discern whether or not he was a threat. His initial fascination had worn off and he was watching her knowingly, cautious in the awareness of her power. "What have we here?" she asked. "Not immortal but not human either. I cannot say I have ever encountered anything quite like you before."
Blair was pressing against him; her slender form was warm against his shoulder, a reminder of her presence, for Josef had almost forgotten her in the intensity that flourished between their companions.
The minister lifted one brow and answered, "The same might be said for you, although I am rather curious to know what has brought you to this sacred place. Surely, there is nothing for you here."
"Why is that, because God condemns my existence?" Lamia accompanied it with a malicious smile that indicated she cared nothing for the opinion of higher beings. That she was standing so complacently before them, engaging in perfectly cordial conversation, was astounding, but Josef knew she liked to toy with her food, to play games with it of an intellectual and physical nature. Her reasons for coming there were mixed, but she had now a clear indication of what she wanted, and that was the formidable figure in front of her, so calm despite his knowledge of what she was capable of. There was a primal instinct about him that Josef did not trust, an indication that he was far more than he let on.
The minister smiled, his features mysterious in the flickering light, handsome in his own way but not overly so, just enough to make him alluring without discounting his peculiarities. "Not at all," he replied.
"God governs over all. There are aspects of this world I cannot understand, but none of the numerous creatures I have encountered over the years have ever given me cause to doubt His influence. It is that you have chosen the wrong side. Everyone must choose a side. Some choose evil, as you have done. For that is why you are here, is it not? For some malicious dark purpose having to do with Father Timbolten? I expected those malicious lies about him to gather some attention, but not the appearance of one such as yourself. It's not true, any of it, and at any rate, he is not here. I had the wisdom to send him away, so I might look after his parish for a time until his name is cleared. Your purpose in coming is in vain, unless by some miracle you have come to repent."
It was apparent by the sneer on her face that this was not the case. The minister stared her down, not intimated, and in a tone that maintained authority, stated, "I think you should leave."
Lamia composed her childish features into a pout, then moved so swiftly that she was no more than a blur, leaping toward him and connecting the back of her hand with the side of his head. The cleric went flying through the air, slammed into one of the columns, and crumpled to the ground. Blair gasped and moved as if to go forward, but Josef stopped her with one hand and she obeyed him, turning her gaze to their companion, who was crouched like a cat, her ominous pale eyes shimmering in the darkness. The motion had knocked the minister senseless and Lamia was fearless as she stared them down, having had enough of his moral superiority. "How kind of you to bring me a decent meal, Josef," she purred, her gaze fixed on his companion. "I was growing rather tired of my current diet, however satisfying it was to rip them limb from limb."
"Why did you do it?" Blair demanded, and Lamia looked at her in surprise, astounded that such concern would be shown in the presence of almost certain death. The church was now completely shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the candles in the background. Her hand reached out and trailed the edge of the nearest pew, lingering there as she came to a pause.
"It's all about purifying the gene pool," she said. "Vampires live on blood, and bad blood does none of us any good. There is a great deal more bad blood these days than good, I find. I suppose I could use that as justification, or some moralistic platitude no doubt you would find comforting. You strike me as one who cares a good deal about people, which is more than I can say for most humans. But the simple and profound truth is that I tend to get dreadfully bored. Every century or so, I must change my tactics and this time around, it is so much easier to get what I want. It's fun, because they are such easy prey. They open car doors, ask me tender questions, tell me wonderful things about candy, and puppies, and taking me home to my mother. It's amazing how stupid they are, how unaware that even the smallest of forms can contain the most ruthless of powers… and how frightened when they realize I am stronger than they are, that in opening their door to me they have signed their death warrant."
Behind them, the minister lay unmoving, knocked unconscious for the moment, and the candlelight flickered around them eerily. Every muscle in Josef's slender frame was tense, knowing he was in for a fight. Lamia did not like interference and their presence at her feeding ground was enough to indicate a severe threat that she would not take lightly. For the moment she was complacent, amused with her own dark designs, unwavering as she stared at them. "Why did you come here, Blair?" she inquired. "Was it curiosity, the desire to see someone die, to attempt to stop me? Or did you want to see my dark form of justice served? I saw it on you the moment we first met. You can understand my motives, can you not? For in some way, they are your own."
"I am nothing like you." Blair was adamant but her lips were as white as her face, tension spiraling through her veins and bringing a flush into her neck. It was seductive and powerful and even Josef felt a lurch of his primal instincts when he saw it, but he was too preoccupied by her frustration to act on it.
"Now there I digress. In some secret part of your soul, you approve of what I'm doing. They are monsters, much more horrible and life-destroying creatures than vampires. They are human vampires, feeding off the lives of other people and leaving devastation in their wake. You know that. You deal with those consequences every day."
Blaire's heart stopped. Josef felt it, before it pounded on in her chest, and he looked at her in a mixture of amazement and dawning comprehension. Lamia was forgotten for the moment as Blair returned his gaze, dropping it when she found she could not keep the emotion out of her eyes. Suddenly, everything made sense. Her reluctance to be intimate, her resistance to pushy and overbearing men, and why she had trusted him so completely, because he had never sought to take advantage of her. He had respected her enough to maintain the distance he knew she needed, but never comprehended the reason why until now. Lamia was enjoying the moment, for she liked to watch uncomfortable exchanges, and so much was transpiring without them ever saying a word. He looked on Blair in astonishment and she returned his gaze with misery.
"What you are doing to them…"
"Is justice, is it not?"
"No, it's not. Even the worst dregs of mankind do not deserve to die that way."
"Fortunately, none of us get what we deserve—do we, Josef?" Her pale blue eyes looked at him with intense amusement, a malicious undercurrent to her words. Lamia knew far more about his past than most of his friends, had born witness to some of his most ruthless acts. He had never been ashamed of them and would not begin now, even standing in the midst of a place of reverence. Long shadows moved on the walls around them, and it was these more than instinct that warned him of her attack. Blair didn't know what hit her, only that one moment she was standing beside him and the next she was on the floor, Josef having pushed her out of the way. He turned with inhuman swiftness and caught the vampire across the face as she leapt for his throat, the force throwing her like a rag doll. Lamia landed on her feet and opened her mouth to reveal a pair of perfect, sharp fangs as she snarled at him. She was older and therefore stronger, but he had the advantage of size. His features changed, his eyes sharpening and teeth appearing as he hissed back at her, the sound magnifying in his throat as they leapt for one another. It was a flutter of white fabric and pinstripes, movement so rapid that Blair could not discern them from one another as they met in midair, all sharp teeth and grasping fingers.
Josef was bleeding, her fangs having caught him across the arm and opened a deep gash, but he had given almost as good as he had received and Lamia sprang away from him, leaping effortlessly onto one of the columns and using it to launch herself at him. He flipped her over his head and she smashed into the altar, falling in a tangled heap of garments, blood dripping from her lips. Something akin to rapture came across her face as she licked the blood off her fingers, and its presence was apparent in his mind, spiraling through his senses and making him almost lose his composure. Fresh blood caused the same reaction in all vampires, an inner yearning that could not be resisted without great strength. It changed them, was incontrollable, and often led to devastating consequences. Lamia looked from her fingers to Blair and he read her intentions even before the slow smile crossed her face.
Her swiftness and small size made it difficult to contend with her, for it gave her speed and agility. How it happened, he never quite knew, but one moment he had the upper hand and the next was laying on the ground, in the most pain he had ever encountered, blood from the sharp point of the cross she had used to slice him open seeping into the carpet around him. Lifting his head, through the haze of anguish at the traces of silver left behind in the wound, Josef watched as she made a graceful descent to the ground. She was graceful, beautiful in her movements, perfectly poised and seemed to move in slow motion as stalked Blair, who was scrambling backward in fear. But Lamia had made one profound mistake—in her bloodlust, she had forgotten the minister. He came out of the darkness behind her like a ghostly visitation and in one swift, brutal motion, drove a stake through her heart.
There was a strangled half-cry half snarl of rage and pain before she went limp in his arms, her childish form slipping to the ground and remaining unmoving as he stepped over her to lift Blair to her feet. She was trembling but concerned for Josef, as she came running toward him. He was finding it difficult to heal, for he had not eaten since the evening before, but slowly consciousness was taking hold of him, the bloodstained crucifix lying on the floor between them. Blair drew him into her arms, caring nothing for the dampness that soaked into her clothes, and the minister looked at them for a long moment, his features masked in the gloom. "Josef," she whispered, tears in her eyes, pressing her hand against the wound. He felt his eyes and mouth returning to normality, leaving him weakened as the minister approached, wearing an expression of subdued concern.
"Please, help me take him outside," Blair pleaded, knowing what had to be done and not daring to do it there. The minister looked from her tearstained face into that of the creature she held in her arms so lovingly and nodded. He pulled Josef to his feet and both of them supported him as they went out into the night air, the cold swirling around them as he was lowered to the church steps. A narrow ribbon of light extended out the church doors, bathing their faces eerily in white. The minister moved as though to withdraw, but Josef caught him by the arm and demanded, "What is to be done with her?"
Complacent blue eyes watched him with surprising compassion. "I will deal with her," the minister replied. "There are other ways of controlling her than death, secrets of my profession that have never failed me. I will see to it that she never harms anyone again." His gaze shifted to Blair and something passed through his eyes, a mixture of empathy and sorrow for her position, but it was gone as he rose to his feet, his movements graceful as he deliberately walked into the light. Granting them a lingering glance, he drew the doors closed, isolating them from the magnificence of the church, but the feeling of awe remained, an indication that their experience had bordered on the otherworldly. Josef had never believed in God, but in that instant was closer than he had ever been before, simply for the miraculous nature of the minister's forgiving nature.
The pain in his chest was tremendous, silver remnants floating in his blood as his body attempted to fight them off. Blair understood what he needed and was prepared, pulling back her hair and offering him the sleek whiteness of her neck. Instinct took over and his hand reached for her, cradling the back of her head as he drew her throat to his lips. Blair was trembling with uncertainty and he bit down as gently as he could, feeling her stiffen and then relax against him, her pulse slowing with his careful attentions.
Flashes came into his mind of previous incidents, of haunted memories from the past, of a little girl running through the woods, stumbling, falling, getting up and continuing to run, her dark hair flowing out behind her. Blair. She was running away from something but he could not discern what it was, for itwas represented by nothing but darkness. The vision so overwhelmed him that he was oblivious to the fact that she was resting against him, drowsy beneath his influence. He could feel his body healing and released her. Blair was extremely calm as she lifted her head, touching the side of his face with gentle fingertips before she caressed his lips with hers. There was no intensity or passion to it, just a gesture of relief and gratitude as their shadows melted into one there on the church steps.
"Now I know how Beth feels," she whispered. "Wishing somehow that you weren't what you are, but never wanting to experience the threat of losing you." Her forehead rested against his and then they helped one another to their feet, Josef keeping an arm around her waist in order to steady her as he walked her to the car. Blair slipped into the passenger seat without a complaint, relieved to be in out of the cold, and turned her head toward him in the partial darkness as he slid in beside her. "I'm sorry for pulling you into this," she said. "I know you loathe getting your hands dirty. If it weren't for me coming here…"
"Lamia is an ancient evil you cannot possibly understand. Trust me: the world is better off without her."
The loss of one vampire did not concern him. Lamia had been a threat to his position of authority and he felt no concern on her behalf. He was just rather annoyed that he'd been forced to deal with it himself. He had lackeys for this sort of thing, private paid individuals who took out humans and vampires alike with astonishing precision. Blair smiled at him from her position against the headrest, and he looked at her a long moment, searchingly. "How did she discern it when I could not?" he inquired, and her lips lost their upward curl. Blair became serious as she considered the silence between them. It had been so obvious that he should have sensed it at once, but somehow it had remained beyond his grasp.
"I suppose she had a child's logic rather than reason clouded with uncertainties. You have astounding insights, Josef, but should never presume you know more about me than you do." Her smile this time was sad, clouded with memories. She did not confide in him, but he knew what she had experienced. It had been a cousin, a boy she had been rather fond of who was older, and took advantage of her. But Blair was more forgiving than he was; somehow, she had come to peace with it long ago. She reached for his hand, her presence warm and full of life. Maybe that was what he liked about her most, that she was heart and soul most of all, more than just pulsing blood and a pretty frame. There was nothing manipulative or tormented about Blair.
Her fingers entwined with his as his thoughts returned to the church and its single human occupant. The candlelight was still flickering through the stained glass windows, but there was no other indication that anything transpired within. It amazed him that a man of God had looked on him without judgment or repulsion, even compassion, and he remembered what the minister had said to Lamia about choosing sides. Religion was obscure to him but Blair had some measure of faith, and he suspected that's where her thoughts were as well. Mick would have been relieved to know there was some measure of forgiveness for what he was, in the actions that indicated he had chosen the side of good. Josef was different. He was far older and more distant, content in his existence, but for the first time wondering if he were not striving in different ways for redemption, if his devil-may-care attitude did not conceal his tremendous guilt over various actions throughout his undead existence.
"No regrets," he said, and it was so unexpected that it caused his companion to look over at him, her features partially concealed in the darkness. The emotions of guilt he had been harboring over previous hours faded as he turned the key in the ignition, pleased not only that this unfortunate instance was over but that he had also managed to live through it, thanks to the unexpected intervention of someone he would have considered in earlier times to have been an enemy. As much as he hated to admit his inferiority in any respect, maybe there were forces in this world he couldn't explain.
Blair reached across to rest her hand on his knee, her fingers delicate. "No regrets," she agreed.
None whatsoever, not about Mick, or what he was about to do. It was simply to leave her ignorant of it, to pretend nothing was wrong, that he was not infuriated against the figure that had brought her such emotional torment and pain, who had damaged her beyond comprehension. Blair trusted him. She never anticipated what he would do, and he left it more than a week while he located the instigator of her torment. It was no different than what Lamia had intended, but slightly more humane and less conspicuous, because his men were professionals. One of them came to him in the wreckage of his office building, holding the address of her assailant with an expression of unconcern on his face.
"He lives alone," the vampire stated. "No real family, few friends, a social outcast with an interesting collection of images on his computer."
Ah, the privileges and abuses of the internet, so useful for corporate powers and equally useful to online predators. Josef stared at the page for a long moment, memorizing the features of the man before him. Blair would not want him to do it. Or maybe she would. He had no intention of asking her. "Deal with it," he said, and his associate nodded and left the room, encountering Mick on his way out. Josef had not seen him since the turning and was relieved that there was no sense of reluctance in his presence. It had been an intensely difficult moment for both of them, but Mick was at peace with his decision, and Josef had subdued his guilt. There was the customary banter, jiving little digs at his newfound position of authority as Mick's sire, the lightheartedness that accompanies old friends jesting with one another. Josef was composed and non-revealing, concealing the entirety of the previous fortnight beneath his usual indifference.
On his way out, Mick stopped and turned to him. "I hear that your old adversary has left the country in a silver box, Josef," he said thoughtfully, his eyes searching. "Did you have anything to do with that?"
It was true. Lamia had gone out on a European flight immediately, locked in a silver box and bound for destinations unknown. Josef did not answer, and with his customary smile, Mick shook his head and went out. What did particulars matter, whether it had been him or an unexpected alley, the same desired end had been achieved. Humanity did not interest him beyond what it could provide. In some instances, the removal of intervening forces was necessary. He experienced no grief over his actions, or those that would be taken that night on his orders. He had sworn a long time ago to protect and avenge his friends, at any cost, and he would do it, whether or not they ever discovered the truth.
No regrets. That is what he had decided. After all, humans and even vampires died every day.