Evening dropped slowly over the walls of the Convent of Our Lady of Bitter Tears. Against the backdrop of orange sunlight and multi-hued clouds the structure stood silent, cresting a small rise with the huge expanse of the Cambrian Mountains rising up from behind. The last of the sunlight seeped over the tips of the peaks, slipping down at odd angles and sending huge, elongated shadows to grope at the old stone walls, as if trying to pry loose secrets long buried.
There was no movement in the gardens, and the bell in the small chapel was silent. The hour of meditation had arrived and transported the sisters to communion with their Lord. Each had taken to her quarters, waiting expectantly. Each expected that He might come to them, or His servant. Each believed in her heart that it would be her time.
Behind the heavy oak doors of the Mother Superior's chambers it was no less silent, but the similarities ended with the lack of sound. Heavy, rasping breaths scratched from a darkened corner of the room. The small table that sat before her window, commanding a view of the valley below, was set for a meal that had gone untouched. Flies buzzed lazily about the rotting remains of that meal and the sickly-sweet stench of rotted meat permeated the air.
As the last of the light leaked from the room a chair creaked. Old bones crackled as limbs too-long in one position were set in motion. A wracking cough, brittle and harsh, broke the silence followed by the grating sound of a flint being struck. The wick of a tallow candle came to life, wavering softly in the slight breeze from the window, and thin, frightened face came into focus.
Mother Agnes sat with both hands cupped about the base of the candle, unmindful of the hot wax dribbling slowly down the sides toward her withered hands. She stared straight through the window into the black void beyond, waiting. As the sisters who no longer took her counsel, she considered that He might come, and the thought chilled her to the center of her brittle, arthritic bones. There was no warmth in her anticipation. Death comes to all that wait, in his own good time. Agnes felt that her time must be near. There was no other way to explain away the madness, and her God wasn't answering her prayers.
So many days had passed since He'd first come to them, so many dark nights and endless days. Such beauty. Never, in all the years of her service to her savior had she felt drawn so completely to a man. She should have known then -- should have felt that it was wrong. Nothing had mattered when he turned his eyes upon her. Nothing but pleasing him -- nothing including her faith. He had taken that faith and twisted it, returning it only after it was worn away and useless.
Beyond the window a wolf howled, and a shiver shot through her weakened frame, nearly dropping her from her seat to the cold stone of the floor. What light there had been had been consumed by the night. The moon had not yet risen to her throne of white light, leaving the world cloaked in black. A cloak of mourning. There was no way to know what might be out there, and yet Agnes knew. She felt it in her heart of hearts, the approach of eternity and the lack of light.
She prayed under her breath, a low, keening moan of words that were no more comprehensible to her mind than they would have been to any who listened. The verses were mis-matched and random, matching her grasping attempts at coherent thought. One anchor remained to her sanity and she clung to it with the patience of the damned and desperate.
The supply train would arrive soon. There would be contact with the villages below the mountain, and Father Joseph would be with them. He would arrive, God willing, by the light of day, and she would find some way to make her tongue function properly. She would gather the strength to go to him and to tell him of the hell that had descended upon her convent. She would make him drive that evil forth, or they would all perish in the attempt, but it would happen in less than a day.
There was a whisper of sound from beyond the window, and she cowered further into the shadows, willing her heartbeat to silence and clamping down on the suddenly raucous sound of her own breath. She felt the wood of her chair and the cool stone of the wall behind her, and she imagined herself a part of them, inanimate and uninteresting to whatever might be seeking her out. It was a vain hope. The shadow slipped across the sill of her window and came to rest, upright and towering above her, just within her chamber. She didn't have the energy left to scream.
The shadow figure stood suddenly at her side. She couldn't remember if he'd walked across that space, glided, or merely appeared at her shoulder, but he leaned forward and his lips brushed her ears as he spoke. She tried to pull away. The words of her prayers became more chaotic and meaningless, and the strength bled from her frame as she pressed against the stiff wood of her chair, digging her fingernails into the wood of the seat until they broke from the pressure. She stared straight ahead, avoiding the sight of him, but his words seeped through the wall of concentration she'd erected as easily as wind beneath an ill-fitting door. The taste of anticipation altered, but she continued her prayer.
"I have waited for this moment," the dark one whispered, breathing the words into her ear and sending tingles of energy down the hairs of her arms. She'd never been so intimately close to a man, not since her vows had removed her from the mainstream of life. She felt the magnetic pull of his flesh and nearly cried out in shame and desire at once.
"Leave me..." she rasped, surprising herself with the strength of her words. "Return to whatever shadow spawned you, leave me -- us -- in peace."
"I cannot do that, Agnes," the shadow continued smoothly. "You mean so very much to me now. I have learned so much from you, shared so little. It is time for you to share in what I have to offer, as your little sisters have shared. You want that, don't you, Agnes?"
She turned her head further away, aware that the motion bared her throat, and tossing the graying locks of her hair aside in the same motion, though she knew it was not proper. There was no touch, not of breath or pain. All that she sensed was his nearness, and it wore away at her control as he continued to speak.
"You pray to a savior who has been too long gone from the earth," he said. "You waste your life and your love on one who will see you only after you have fallen to dust, if ever. You were a beautiful woman, Agnes . . . full of life."
"I serve my Lord," she whispered desperately. "I will stand at his side in Glory, and this will be nothing but a dark moment in time -- a nothingness without meaning."
"You are wrong," he said, laying one hand gently on her shoulder. "You will still be standing when he comes again, in the flesh that binds you now, and he will turn away."
Then the pain came, the bite of something sharp penetrating her throat, followed by wave upon wave of pleasure. She shuddered, and her arms dropped to her sides in sudden release, then returned to their grips on the chair. She felt the life draining swiftly from her aged frame, and she felt the faith of a lifetime being stolen away. It was too much.
There was a small flame still burning within her, a light that she could make out through the murky haze of sensations that began where the flesh of his hands gripped her frail shoulders and radiated out in waves that threatened to consume her humanity. Blanking her mind, she ceased her struggles and concentrated on that light.
There were other pressures. He was assaulting her flesh, but he was attempting to violate her mind as well, her memories. He was seeking something, and the sudden knowledge that denial of that information would be the same as a victory gave her the focus to draw herself slowly toward the flame of her own being. He might have her blood -- she knew that it was her blood he stole -- but he would not have her soul. He would not drag her into the nightmare that was his own existence, and he would not find the answers he sought within her.
As her strength ebbed and the light grew to fill her mind, she felt a sudden influx of energy. He would not have her. Flesh was the cage that held her to the world, but within the light that grew and pulsed before her she felt the hands of her savior reaching out to draw her in.
He shifted her in his arms, drawing her up and out of her chair and laying her back so that she faced the ceiling. His dark eyes filled her sight, threatening for a moment to blot out the light from within, then receding to a blur of shadow at the fringes of her consciousness. The world was receding, but something was important about his actions. He held a wrist above her now, and he reached over almost casually with his free hand to slice at that wrist with a fingernail too long to be real, and to real to be pure. Her mouth was open, and she was staring into the dark pits where his eyes should have been, but she did not see him.
His intent was clear, and as he raised the cut above her, blood draining from the wound and dripping in a steady stream down his forearm, she drew on the awesome strength of the light that called to her so strongly. She released herself from the world, wrenching free of flesh and soaring free.
From above and far away she saw her body convulse in the dark one's arms. She saw the crimson flow of blood from the cut of his arm as it dribbled meaninglessly off over the lips of the shell that had housed her, but she felt no emotion at the sight. No disgust. No violation. No victory.
Her body was lost to her, but it was lost to him as well. She sensed that his words had not been metaphorical. There had been was an ageless quality in the glint of his eyes and a detached loneliness in the tones of his voice that hinted at knowledge beyond the scope of human years. There was hunger there as well, and not all of that hunger was directed at her blood, though that was a large part of it.
As she drifted away she sensed that he, too, was fighting his way through bondage. He sought answers, but the essence of his being forced other issues to the forefront of his mind and robbed him of time and concentration. He fed because he had to, but there was more that he'd wanted from Mother Agnes of the Convent of Our Lady of Bitter Tears. He would get nothing.
Other voices called out to her now, musical and inviting, and the light had grown so bright that all else disappeared from her thoughts. She was slipping within that glow, and her essence co-mingled with the energy of the light. It was a true communion, a joining, and the voices became her own, or she became the voices. The chambers and the stone walls of the convent dropped away until there was nothing.
The dark figure felt the life slip from his aging victim's body, and he cursed. It was not a directed at God, or at himself, but at eternity in general. Montrovant felt the rivulet of blood making its way down his flesh and cursed himself for not cramming the cut between the old one's lips before she could escape him. She was gone, and the blood that splattered and dribbled over her wrinkled, silent face was nothing but strength and sustenance wasted.
The wound healed quickly, and with a contemptuous toss he flung the husk that had been Mother Agnes across the room. Her bones shattered on impact with the stone of the wall, and her blood-drained flesh made a wet, smacking noise as it spread out and slipped slowly down the wall. He hadn't meant to throw her so violently, but she'd been his best hope and now he would have to move on and try again.
Montrovant strode to the window, wiping his sleeve across his lips to clear away the last of the Mother Superior's blood. He'd shared enough of her thoughts before she escaped him to know that his time in the convent was at an end. That meant that he, or Le Duc, would have to find an answer, any answer, and this very night.
The supply train would arrive in the morning, or the next. It didn't matter. They would arrive soon, and that was enough. Montrovant knew that he and Le Duc could take precautions that would set them off the trail. They could make it look as if bandits had raided the convent for food and shelter, perhaps even for a taste of the virtue of the good sisters, but eventually there would be discoveries, information that didn't fit the motives or patterns of mountain bandits.
They would notice the wounds on the women's necks. They would notice the broken, blood-drained carcass of the Mother Superior and wonder what kind of man could perpetuate such violence with such disregard to their Lord. They would put the facts together, and they would know what to look for. He and Le Duc had to be gone before the dawn, and they had to find a place that none would think to look for them, or it might be the last night of their existence.
He stared out into the darkness. He had vague ideas where the Brotherhood might have gone, where Kli Kodesh might have sent them, but it seemed a step beyond him to draw even with his prey. They always seemed a few miles ahead; or else they slipped away as he followed a false lead into one form of trouble or another. Montrovant had not bee patient in life, and the virtue had not forced itself upon him as he aged. Now this. Another delay.
He had kept them purposely as far from the cities as possible. The clans were beginning to grow in strength, and any hint of interference from outside forces drew unwanted attention. Montrovant had no patience for games of politics that involved the power of others. He had his own concerns.
He was tempted to go for Le Duc that instant and leave the convent behind. They'd been lazy, staying too long and enjoying the solitude and the attention of the sisters, who'd come to view them as visiting Angels or Gods in human flesh. Only the Mother Superior had eluded Montrovant's control. It had been many years since he'd encountered such complete, unwavering faith in another. His faith was strong, but it was in darker Gods and his own instincts. Those instincts were telling him that it was time to change tactics.
He reached out with his mind and felt the subtle touch that was Le Duc. It had been several years now since he'd embraced the Frenchman, and though he missed having a living, breathing servant to care for his needs during the daylight hours, it was good to have a companion. Since beginning his quest, he'd been voluntarily cut off from Claudius and the rest of his clan. There had been communications, of course, reports back and forth, but he'd not seen any of the others since he'd left for Jerusalem decades in the past. It seemed a lifetime, and even for one who'd had several, it was a lonely burden.
Jeanne was feeding. For just an instant Montrovant maintained the link, savoring the beauty of the sensation - the joining. He knew Jeanne would pull free before the sister was gone completely, leaving her weak and trembling on her bed to wake with visions she'd never truly escape. Le Duc was more dramatic with the humans than Montrovant. Briefly, the elder Kindred wondered if her was becoming too jaded. There had been a time when he'd enjoyed the hunt and the kill as much as Le Duc did now, but that was fading. His obsession was costing him his sanity.
He swept his arm across the table where the rancid meal still sat, untouched. The plates and garbage crashed to the floor and splashed against the stone. Moving swiftly, he began to systematically ransack the room. He removed a few valuables, a silver crucifix and several pieces of jewelry that spoke of an earlier time in Agnes' life. They were dainty, the sort of trinkets that a doting father might bestow upon his daughter.
Brief memories stolen from her as her lifeblood drained into him flitted through Montrovant's mind. An Agnes none of the sisters would recognize, dressed up for a party - waiting on the steps of a keep for her father's return from war. He caught glimpses of her mother, brothers who'd watched over her. An old woman who'd read to her and taught her to be a lady. None of it mattered now. The father had lost a daughter, the old woman a pupil.
Now that daughter lay in a heap of ruined flesh, her life dedicated to pursuits that long-lost father would never have fully understood. Dedication is not a common human trait. Montrovant tucked the jewelry into a pouch on his belt and continued his destruction of the room. Somehow, he didn't want to leave anything of Agnes behind. She'd made her escape.
When the room was a shambles, he turned away, putting Mother Agnes and her life behind him. He strode purposefully into the hall and made his way toward the next level of the convent, where the sister's quarters lined two walls. The cells were small and severe, a single bunk for rest and a small table where each of the sisters could keep her personal effects. None was more elaborate than any other, and yet he knew from the experience of the past weeks that each had its own sensation. The flavor of the woman, her blood, her thoughts and her passions, seeped into the walls of cold stone.
Maria, small and pale, like a slender ghost with ringlets of blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. Her quarters had a delicate, frightened feel to them. Her thoughts were furtive, always seeking approval and fearing retribution. He'd spent one long evening just holding her, not feeding, not taking advantage, but pressing her trembling form tightly against his breast and letting the triphammer of her heartbeat flutter against him. She was possibly the most vulnerable human he'd ever encountered, and in her faith she sought an answer to that vulnerability, a protection that a cold, severe God would never grant her.
There were others, and Montrovant wished his time with them were not through. There was something new to be learned in each experience, and he'd built his strength considerably since he and Le Duc had first appeared before the sisters.
An image of Claudius popped unbidden into his mind. For perhaps the first time since his sire had closeted himself away in a convent near Rome, he was beginning to understand the motivation behind the action. The seclusion and the security were temptations hard to resist in a world where one of his kind had to be constantly on their guard.
The last time he'd visited Claudius, he'd left him standing on the ramparts of that monastery, staring off into the darkness. Montrovant had been in such a hurry to get away, to make a mark in the greater scheme of things and bring power and glory to their clan. It hardly seemed as if that clan still existed within the scope of his world. All he thought of was The Brotherhood, and the Grail. There had to be an end to it, and soon.
He turned a corner and Le Duc was there, pulling one of the doors closed behind himself softly. He turned, smiling, and Montrovant found himself caught up in that smile.
"We must leave," he said quickly, not wanting to waste time."
Jeanne only nodded in answer. They'd been on the road together for so long that most thoughts seemed shared. Montrovant turned away, and Le Duc followed as the tall, gaunt Kindred led the way toward the front of the building. There was only one entrance to the convent, and it was there that Montrovant was heading. They had not slept their days within those walls, and it would take a bit of time to gather their possessions for a long ride from the mountains where they'd kept them stashed.
"I'll go to the stables," Jeanne offered.
"I will be waiting," Montrovant answered. They moved through the huge wooden doors into the night, and Montrovant left them open wide. The remaining sisters would recover eventually, and if they were lucky their supply train would arrive in time to nurse them back to health and to soothe their loss. Montrovant doubted that any of them would ever fully release his image, and the thought amused him. It was good to have left a mark on the world, however fleeting.
"Sleep well," he called over his shoulder. "Sleep well my ladies, and farewell."
Then he leaped into the air in one fluid motion and shifted to a smaller blur of darkness, spreading his arms as they collapsed into thin, strong wings. The night wind bore him upward toward the open face of the moon, and his spirit soared. It was time to move on, and perhaps, with luck, their next stop would be the one.
With a high pitched screech he whirled off to the left
and up the face of the mountain, disappearing into the shadows.