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The two vampires moved with steady purpose, the low fog curling around their ankles as if the oily darkness of the moonless night were caressing them. And why wouldn’t it? Hadn’t Sergius often embraced the darkness, drawing it close like a lover, letting it wrap around him, smothering him even as it soothed him with its warm familiarity?
And yet he yearned to be free of it—unbound from the pinch of the dark. That was why he’d come tonight, because he’d heard rumors about this witch. About her extraordinary powers. How she could heal. How she could make people whole.
People, perhaps. But what about vampires?
Her gifts might not extend to his kind. More than that, she might refuse to help him. He shoved the possibility aside, burying it beneath a blanket of false optimism. No matter how poor the odds, he had to try. The burning inside him had become so violent—so raw—that he had no other options. Because if he couldn’t ratchet back the darkness, it would certainly consume him. And once that happened, Sergius would be gone forever, lost inside an inky black void filled with only the scent and taste of blood.
“There,” Derrick said, grabbing Serge’s arm and tugging him to a halt. He tilted his head back, his nostrils flaring. “Can you smell it?”
Sergius glanced sideways at his companion, noting the harsh gleam in his eyes and the hardness of his jaw. He forced his thoughts aside, afraid that Derrick might somehow discern his true purpose merely by glancing at his face. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and let the night wash over him. The magnolia trees were in full bloom, and the cloying perfume of their blossoms battled with the more woody cologne of the cypress and pine trees that dotted this stretch of land upriver from the Vieux Carré. He caught the scent of the Mississippi River, the coolness of the water coupled with the fetid tang of decay. And beneath it all, the pungent, heady smell of death.
“War,” Derrick said. “It’s as if the stars have aligned for our pleasure, bringing death and chaos along with the approaching Union fleet.” He sighed. “I haven’t dined so blissfully well since the British blundered into the colonies. Although, no. We feasted well in 1812. Do you recall?”
“How could I not?” Serge replied, the memory bringing a fresh wave of decadent hunger. They’d spilled much blood those nights. Had practically bathed in the sweet, metallic liquid. At the time, Sergius’s daemon had roared in ecstasy, powerful enough to battle down Serge’s petty protests and hesitations. Strong enough to take over until Serge lost himself in the warm, glorious wonder of fresh blood, only to claw his way back to the surface days later, heavy with self-loathing and furious with his inability to suppress the daemon as so many of his kind had managed to do.
The daemon lived in all vampires—a bone-deep malevolence that emerged from the human soul when the change was brought on. But some vampires were able to successfully fight it, to regularly battle it back down until their human will took precedence. Serge did not count himself among that fortunate group. His daemon ran high and wild. Pushing. Craving. Battling Serge’s will with such persistence over the centuries that he inevitably succumbed, sliding into a bloodlust that caressed him as sweetly as madness.
How he envied those of his kind who had learned to either tame that vileness, or at least conjure the strength to suppress it. He longed for the mental clarity that accompanied being in charge of his own body and mind.
He’d been fighting his daemon for almost two millennia now, and its power still humbled him. Even now, his daemon was rising at the mere thought of blood.
Beside him, Derrick threw his head back and laughed, undoubtedly anticipating the glory of the kill. He shared none of Serge’s hesitations and experienced none of Serge’s guilt. They had traveled together on and off for years, and Serge knew that it was almost time for them to part ways. Being with Derrick only stoked the hunger that burned deep within him. Tonight, though, Serge had his own purpose for joining Derrick. The witch. But that was not a purpose he intended to share. He knew only too well that Derrick would neither understand nor approve. Like Serge, the younger vampire had a daemon that clung close to the surface. Unlike Serge, Derrick was more than happy to fan the flames of its appetite.
“How far?” Serge asked.
“Just down that lane.” Derrick thrust his hand out toward the left, indicating an overgrown dirt road. There was no moon, but with his preternatural vision, Serge could clearly see the once white plantation house, now gray and in disrepair. And not because of the war thrumming around them and threatening to subsume this genteel property, but because of neglect, pure and simple. The occupants of Dumont House had priorities other than the upkeep of their family’s homestead. The Dumonts were vampire hunters.
“They may not all have gone on the hunt,” Serge said. According to Derrick’s sources, the Dumont men had ridden earlier, intent on their goal of attacking a vampire nest hidden within the tombs of the St. Louis Cemetery that bordered the Vieux Carré.
“I hope they didn’t,” Derrick said. “Nothing would please me more than to drain them dry and leave them to rot in the cotton fields. Nothing, that is, except doing the same to their women.”
An unwelcome trill of pleasure shot up Serge’s spine, brought on by the inescapable truth of Derrick’s words. There was pleasure in pain. Pleasure in the release of blood. In letting the daemon rage free and surrendering to the power of its foul appetite. Pleasure, yes. But torment, too.
“You’re quiet tonight,” Derrick said.
“I’m savoring the feed.” The lie came smoothly to his lips, and he knew that Derrick would not doubt him.
Derrick laughed, low and hearty. “Ah, my friend. So am I. Look—one of the slaves making rounds.” Across the clearing, a dark figure moved. An elderly male carried a single candle, the flame protected by a bowl of glass. He walked swiftly, his head turning to and fro, and Serge couldn’t help but wonder if the slave had sensed their presence. But surely not. The inky night was impenetrable to human eyes. Undoubtedly he feared for the safety of the menfolk in the city, and was ill at ease with his obligation to protect the women in the big house.
Beside him, Derrick stood as still as a statue. “You hesitate?” Serge asked. “That old man would have made a tasty appetizer.”
“Let him live and suffer from the knowledge that he had no way to protect the females.” He turned to Serge, eyes dancing with mirth. “Besides, I prefer the flavor of blood that’s not quite as aged. Come on.”
They strode boldly to the house, then rapped hard at the heavy front door. At first, there was no sound from within; then Serge heard the light tread of footsteps. A woman. He imagined her in a loose gown, breasts full and unbound by a corset, her lithe limbs naked beneath the thin material. Immediately, his body tightened and the daemon twisted within, ready to take and taste. And oh, by the gods, wasn’t that so very tempting . . .
The footsteps stopped on the other side of the door, and for a moment there was only the tremulous sound of a woman’s breath. Then the stern clearing of her throat, as if she was bolstering her courage. “It’s late. Who’s there?”
“We come to warn your men,” Derrick said, thickening his accent. “The Yankees approach, and they mean to occupy this property. Is your husband home?”
“Who are you? I don’t recognize your voice.”
“The brothers Wilcox, ma’am,” he lied smoothly. “We’ve ridden hard from Metairie Ridge to warn your pa. Please, this plantation can’t fall. Not with its proximity to the river, the train, and the main road. Let me speak to your menfolk.”
Serge caught the scent of her hesitation. The rumors of the Union’s impending arrival were as thick as the famous New Orleans fog, so Derrick’s story was wickedly credible. More than that, he’d used the Wilcox name, referencing the two brothers who were known to be well-placed Confederate supporters. A risky proposition if the woman knew the men personally, but brilliant if she believed.
“Please, ma’am,” Serge said. He saw Derrick shift forward, as if losing patience. With one solid blow, Derrick could break down the door, and that was a result Serge didn’t want. The noise would draw the rest of the house’s occupants, and he needed to face his quarry alone. “We must speak to your father. Open the door and call him down. We realize the impropriety of the hour, but war ignores all social graces.”
For a moment, he feared that the woman would brush off his plea. But then he heard the thunk of the lock turning. A moment later the door swung inward, revealing a young woman of about twenty. Derrick and Serge bowed deep, removing their hats in a broad, gallant motion.