“But he was here, I swear it!” Janette turned in a tight circle, surveying the cave’s dark interior where she had last seen Nichola and the handsome young man from Chester. She glanced at LaCroix. Her master was watching her, his patrician face without expression. “I came to you as soon as I could,” she protested.
LaCroix knew, of course, that she had known that Nichola would spirit Jeremy Larkin away before they arrived. It was an old game the three of them played. One with hard and fast rules – and an all too familiar script.
Lucien LaCroix he had his fingers bent. They cupped his chin. And one rested on his upper lip which was lifted in a perpetual sneer. “How inconvenient of Nicholas not to have awaited our arrival.” LaCroix’s ice blue eyes pinned her. “What did you tell him, my dear? That you would delay me just long enough to afford him the opportunity of escape?”
She shuddered under his scrutiny. “I told him nothing. Nichola would have known. How could he not?”
LaCroix nodded. “How could he not?”
Her master walked to the center of the cave and looked up at the opening in the rough stone ceiling. Theirs had been a dangerous journey, running from shadow to shadow, avoiding the bright white light of day, arriving here just as dusk descended. A single shaft of feeble sunlight fell through the opening, defiant, as if the day refused to give way to the night – the blessed night that welcomed their existence.
“They cannot have gone far,” LaCroix remarked, still staring at the opening. He made a clucking noise and shook his head. “Poor Nicholas, forced to flee before the cloak of night descended. I fear for him. Travel in daylight hours is not gentle to our kind.”
Janette knew he was right. The fact that he was not here meant that Nichola had put himself in danger to save Jeremy Larkin, exposing himself to the hottest and brightest part of the day. She closed her eyes and shuddered seeing him – running through the daylight, burning, in pain, the stinking smoke of imminent destruction rising from his skin. If the God she had once worshipped was all He claimed to be, Janette hoped He had helped her remorse-driven love to a safe haven and a place where he could heal and rest.
“Nichola survives,” she declared, moving away from him, toward a table that held some books and a glass. “I would know if he did not.”
“Yes, I am sure you would.”
Janette pivoted sharply. LaCroix’s tone implied she had committed some trespass. “What? What do you mean by that?”
“What do I mean?” LaCroix’s ice-blue eyes, feral as the wolf’s, narrowed as his gaze settled on her. “I mean there is a connection between you two – partners, lovers, siblings – of which I have no part.”
“And you are jealous?” Her attempt to keep the triumph from her tone failed. “You mean there is something Nichola and I have, that you have not?”
“I made you both. You are mine,” he answered. “But more than that you are each others.” A wolfish smile echoed the sentiment of his cold cruel eyes. “And that is why, my dear, at this moment I do not trust you.”
“I came to you. I told you the truth!” Janette held her head high. “The Larkin boy was here. What Nichola has done with him, I do not know.”
“Oh, that I believe.” LaCroix continued to stare at her for a moment and then he turned his eyes heavenward again, as if sensing the direction of her earlier thoughts. Then, lifting his hands, her master stepped forward – into the shaft of dying sunlight – and embraced their greatest enemy.
Even as tiny tendrils of smoke began to trail from his wide-spread fingers, rising to pass as dark ghosts over the surface of his pure white hair, Janette gasped, “LaCroix! What are you doing? Have you gone mad?”
He answered with a sneer. “I am proving a point, my dear. You and your precious ‘Nichola’ are as babes compared to me. I have walked this world for seventeen hundred years. What would destroy you, is to me a minor inconvenience.” He snarled as he stepped back, out of the light. “There is no thought, no hope, no dream in your head that I do not know. No scheme I cannot predict. No plot that will not fail. Neither your or Nicholas can escape me – ever!”
Janette retreated into the shadows, horrified by the thought of even that dusky light touching her flesh as it did his. LaCroix was right. It was hopeless. Nichola could never escape the master who had made him. He would never be human again, or find redemption for his anguished soul.
Nichola could not win.
But the fact that he continued to try was made her love him so.
Janette remained silent, watching the smoke disperse, following its trail up and out the hole in the ceiling and wishing she could find some similar path of escape. Finally, she asked, her voice lifeless as the eternal form she inhabited.
“What will you do, LaCroix? With Nichola? With the Larkin boy and the others?”
LaCroix’s baleful laugh echoed through the rocky cavern as he thrust his arms out wide and rose effortlessly into the air.
“Anything I desire!”
Jeremy had seen marvels before, but to add another to the list did nothing to diminish its wonder – or its impossibility. Nicholas insisted they run. That they leave the darkened cave behind and escape as soon as possible. By needs, that meant he must expose himself to the midday sun. Jeremy protested, knowing it could destroy him, but his companion would not listen. Then he realized the point was moot. They were in a cavern. With no way out.
Or so he thought.
Nicholas could fly!
The man who claimed to be over five hundred years old wrapped his arms about Jeremy’s waist and, pushing off the cavern floor, bore them both to the surface where they landed in the safety of the deep, cool shadows of the trees. On the surface they faced one another. As a commander in the field Jeremy knew that, when presented with a new reality, you accepted it and moved on. He did this now. With a nod, the two of them began to run. They chose their path wisely, careful to seek out shadowy pockets and shaded glens, but even so there were miles of daylight in between. All too quickly it took its toll. Nicholas Knighton was a mass of scarlet blisters and blood by the time they reached the safety of the river cave they occupied now. In the last ten minutes Jeremy had watched his companion’s raw skin heal until it was once again pale and perfect – as if it had never known a blemish.
Still, even though he appeared healed, Nicholas was not. He was weak. His hands trembled and he stumbled when he moved. At last, weary beyond expressing, he crossed to the back wall of the cave and planted his hands on the cold stone, breathing hard.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Jeremy asked as he approached him.
The other man shook his head. “No, my friend. At least…nothing I am willing to ask of you.”
Jeremy frowned as he inspected him. It almost seemed the other man had shrunk – as if he was withering away. “But you are ill. You appear to have recovered – your skin is whole – but something else is wrong.”
Nicholas smiled – a pale shadow of the smile which had at first befuddled Jeremy so. “I am hungry,” he said simply. “I have not…fed for some time.”
“Fed?” Jeremy frowned. “You mean – ?”
“Yes. I need blood.”
He drew a steadying breath. This was not only unnatural, it was unreal. “And you are too weak to seek it for yourself?”
Nicholas nodded. “Aye.”
Jeremy pursed his lips and considered the risk he was taking. Then he asked, quietly, “Why do you not attack me? Can you choose not to? If you are the Devil’s agent as you say, would not your own survival outweigh any bond of friendship or – ”
Nicholas laughed, and then convulsed with a cough. He drew a deep breath and his words came out in a sigh. “Many years ago, Jeremy, I made a choice. I vowed I would not feed on humans unless I had to. And then it would only be the vagrant, the indigent, those whose deaths would cause little or no pain to the living.” He paused and shifted so his back was braced against the wall. Then he closed his eyes. “I can see them – the mothers, the daughters and sons, those who follow in our wake and find a lifeless corpse, drained of its life blood, nothing left but the shell of the one they knew and loved.” Nicholas opened his eyes. “Even the vagrant, the indigent have those who love them. The choice I made was sheer arrogance – sheer hypocrisy!”
“But without blood you die. Is this not so?”
“No.” Nicholas voice was soft. “But I will cease to exist. I will be destroyed.” He opened his eyes and his gaze went to the cave opening. “Maybe that would be for the best.”
Jeremy was silent for a moment. Then he asked, “Why did you choose this then? The life of a vampire. If you hate it so? You were a man once, such as I am – were you not?”
Nicholas’ smile returned. “I was a young man, a soldier and Crusader. I pledged my life for the cross and the cause of Christ. The cross which now I cannot look upon without pain.”
The smile faded, replaced with a haunted look. “A woman. And the promise of eternal life – here and now.”
“Jeanette?” Jeremy asked.
Nicholas nodded. “Yes. Janette. She wanted me. I wanted her. As well as all she offered.”
“Wealth. Ease. Power.”
“And the choice was your own? She did not – ”
A severe chill shivered through Nicholas’ frame and he slid down the wall to sit on the floor. “Janette did nothing. No one is to be blamed for my eternal damnation.” Tears formed in his eyes and spilled over onto his pallid cheeks. “No one but me!”
Jeremy knelt beside him and placed a hand on Nicholas’ shoulder. “Nicholas, the God I was taught to love is a God of forgiveness. I can tell you repent of the choice you made. And I can see the life you live now is one of penance. Surely, even you can be forgiven.”
Nicholas’ tearful eyes sought his. “How can you – someone whose life I have put in danger – offer me such hope?”
Jeremy gripped his hand. It was cold as ice with no sense of blood or heartbeat pulsing through it. He swallowed hard, still trying to come to terms with something that flew in the face of everything he knew. Still, there was one thing he did know was true….
Nicholas Knighton was as good a man as he had ever met, and he was in pain.
“I doubted you. I thought you evil for what you did to Henry and Isak. I suspected you of being an accomplice to this man LaCroix, of acting with the British…. I was wrong. No matter what choices you have made in the past, Nicholas Knighton – or whoever you are – you are a man whom God would love. You stand for what is right. You were willing to sacrifice yourself to save me.” Jeremy paused and added with a smile, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.”
Nicholas returned his grip weakly. “I can only hope that my actions may prove to whatever power holds my fate that I am worthy – someday – of redemption. Eternal life in the here and now is a cursed gift, and one I would gladly return to be a mortal once again like you.”
Jeremy continued to hold his hand as a spasm wracked his lean frame and he curled into a ball. “What can I do for you? Here and now,” he asked.
Nicholas shuddered and then shifted to meet his eyes. Jeremy started and drew back. The other man’s eyes were no longer blue, but had turned a hideous vile green.
“Leave me!” he growled, his voice thickening, growing deeper even as his lips drew back to reveal pearl-white teeth sharp as spikes. “Jeremy, go! Before I forget myself and turn on you!”
Jeremy shook his head. “I will go, but only if you tell me what I can do to save you. Can you feed on something other than …humans?”
“I have lived many a day on cow’s blood.” Nicholas’ lips curled back in a self-deprecating smile even as he shuddered again. “A poor bouquet, but a starving man can not complain.”
“Then I will get it for you. Will any animal do?”
“Now – even seeing me like this - you would do that?”
Jeremy rose to his feet. He nodded. “You have proven yourself true as any man I know. And against this evil named ‘LaCroix’, that I do not know and cannot comprehend, you are an indispensable ally. Even if you were not, I would not let you die.”
Nicholas laughed weakly. “I am dead already….”
“Even so. Rest, Nicholas Knighton. I will return as soon as I can.”
As he turned to leave, Nicholas’ hand shot out, feebly catching the fabric of his breeches. “Be careful, my friend. LaCroix not only seeks me – but you. The killing of the Rebel leaders is true. And if you are not careful, he may take you and do worse. He may turn you into what I am.”
The shudder this time was his. Jeremy swallowed hard and nodded. He had never feared death. It was part and parcel of the path he had chosen. But eternal life as a dead creature who walked the night – and worse, eternal damnation?
That he feared.
“Rest,” Jeremy said again. “I will return as soon as I can.”
“Take it, Elizabeth. I insist.”
She looked up at the handsome Frenchman who spoke to her. Lafayette was serious. Elizabeth’s eyes went to the golden chain and the image of the body of Christ it held, suspended on the cross. She shook her head. “No. It is not me they want, but you. You must keep it.”
“I cannot rest, knowing you are in danger,” he insisted, pressing it into her hand and closing her fingers within his own. “I will not take no for an answer.”
Elizabeth nodded, though she frowned as she did. The metal of the crucifix was blazing hot in her palm, not cold as she would have expected. “Thank you for the gift, but I still say you should have it. You are the one in danger. Deadly danger. It is you and Jeremy this man LaCroix is after. That is why she gave you a gift as well.”
The tall dark-haired man frowned at her as he released her hand. “A gift? And who is this ‘she’ you speak of?”
“Janette,” she answered softly. Elizabeth didn’t know how she knew that was her name, but she did. She lifted a hand and touched the linen cloth that bound his neck. “This was to protect you. So she would be able to watch over you.” Elizabeth blinked and closed her eyes, suddenly dizzy. “Know this. She does not want you to come to harm, but he is very strong….”
Lafayette caught her arm and steadied her as she stumbled forward. When she looked up at him, he said, “Elizabeth you are not making sense – ”
“Yes, she is. Perfect sense,” a sultry voice intruded from close by.
Elizabeth watched as the tall Frenchman pivoted toward it. Then she turned and followed his surprised stare with her own. Janette Du Charme was emerging from the shadowy trees, her petite form wrapped in scarlet silk and bathed in the rising moonlight. Lifting her skirts primly, the dark-haired beauty made her way to their side. Once she was close to Lafayette, she gazed up at him with open hunger. He started to back away, but one touch from Janette stopped him. She ran a finger along his jaw and then touched the wound on his neck. Then she kissed his lips with a quick, nipping gesture and let out a sigh.
“You are so like your father…” she breathed.
It took him a moment but, from somewhere deep within, Lafayette found the willpower to ask, “You knew him?”
“Oui,” she answered. “I think, perhaps, I loved him – at least for while.” Janette’s smile was that of a little girl infatuated with love itself. “He was tall and straight, and so polite and well-mannered. And though I could have killed him for it, devoted to the woman who hung on his arm.” Janette shrugged her nearly bare shoulders. “Fidelity in a man is frustrating, but fascinating never-the-less.”
“I remember you,” Lafayette said haltingly. “You came to our home, in Auvergne.”
“You were a mewling babe then, with little promise of what was to come.” She laid her hand on his exposed chest and stared into his eyes. "What do you remember?”
“He meant to kill my mother. The white-haired man….”
“LaCroix meant to kill you all.” Janette snorted. “If not for Nichola, he would have. Too bad. LaCroix warned him there would be a price exacted one day.”
“A price?” Elizabeth asked, addressing the dark woman for the first time since her emergence from the trees.
Janette turned to her. “Ah! My eyes and ears. So you have a mouth as well. Yes, a ‘price’. A life for a life. Nichola saved this one’s mother, Julie, but condemned his father by the act. And now LaCroix has come to claim his dividend – the son!”
“He came to Chester to kill the Marquis?”
“No.” Janette was still staring at Lafayette, licking her lips in anticipation. “LaCroix came to Chester in search of Nichola. This one is a little something extra – dessert!”
“And what of Jeremy? What is he?” Elizabeth demanded. “Are we nothing more to you than food for the table?”
Janette’s bright eyes flashed. “Oui!”
“You are horrid. Evil!”
“Who are you to say what I am? You have no more right to damn us for what we do than a chicken has to condemn the one who feeds it – and then demands its head!” Janette scowled at her. “Be silent, or I will silence you!”
Janette’s anger pulsed through her, as if she were a wayward child who had wounded a beloved parent. Elizabeth felt torn. The crucifix the Marquis had given her blazed in her closed palm, but the evil of Janette pulsed through her veins, calling more strongly. “Why are you here? Now?” she asked the wicked creature. “Why come here now if not to save him?”
Janette pouted. She glanced at the Marquis and then, crossing her arms over her breast, declared, “I thought I told you to be quiet.”
“You did,” Elizabeth said stubbornly.
Janette folder her arms. “It has nothing to do with this one – ”
“And everything to do with Nicholas Knighton?”
Elizabeth was in love. She knew the signs. She had sensed the dark woman’s deep attachment to the handsome elegantly dressed man with the tousled blond hair. It was evident when she spoke of him.
Janette made a dismissive gestured with her gloved hand. Lafayette, who had remained silent for some time, spoke into the silence, saying, “You were there, in the room. You sided with Nicholas, and dared LaCroix’s wrath to save my mother.”
Janette’s pout turned to a frown. “She was a bit of meat on the hoof,” she said as she pivoted. “And I did not give you permission to speak either! It must be something in the water or the soil around here….”
Lafayette seemed to shake himself, to rally a bit. “That was not what my mother was to Nicholas,” he insisted.
Janette sagged suddenly with a weariness born of centuries of love and loss. “No. Not to Nichola. He loved Julie – stupid boy that he was.”
“And now you mean to help him to save her son,” a new voice spoke from close behind them.
Elizabeth knew it. She pivoted at the sound. “Jeremy!”
It was him. Her love. Whole. Alive. “Elizabeth,” Jeremy said as he smiled that smile she knew so well and loved so deeply, and opened his arms wide.
Elizabeth shoved the crucifix the general had given her into the pocket at her waist and ran recklessly to his side. Even as she did, she heard Janette du Charme turn to the Marquis and remark dispassionately.
“If I wasn’t already dead, I think I would kill myself….”
Elizabeth was wan; her skin pale and peaked. The general looked even worse. His wide brown eyes were vacant, though there was a fire deep within them that stirred, as if he struggled valiantly against whatever control the pale woman who walked with them exerted. Janette du Charme was ravishing as always, and deadly as any predator that prowled the woods around Chester. Once he had admitted Nicholas Knighton’s existence as a vampire, it had not taken Jeremy long to put the pieces together. Nicholas, Janette and LaCroix –
All three were the walking dead.
He led the others back to where he had left Nicholas. Janette took the pair of coneys he had caught in her fingers, her petite upturned nose wrinkling in disgust as though the freshly killed rabbits were offal instead, and carried them into the cave where her starving companion waited. Jeremy had nodded his gratitude to her and, in spite of her smirk and quick dismissal of him, had seen in her eyes a reflection of the same emotion. No matter what they were, Janette and Nicholas shared a bond of love that was almost as deep as the hatred they shared for the monster – and their master – Lucien LaCroix.
He stood now beside Elizabeth, considering what course to pursue next. General Lafayette was with them but he seldom spoke without first being spoken to.
“Where is sergeant Boggs?” Jeremy asked him for the second time.
“Boggs? Oh, oui, Daniel. Scouting ahead. He should return soon.” He fell silent again. Then a frown marred his vacant face and the fire in his eyes brightened. “I pray he is all right.”
“As I do Henry and Isak. Elizabeth tells me they set out in pursuit of Nicholas and have not been seen since.”
Lafayette’s frown deepened. He drew several breaths and seemed to shake himself awake. “Now that I think of it, Daniel should have returned some time ago.” He glanced at the sky. “It has been too long. If anything has happened to him –”
A rustling in the trees nearby cut the general’s sentence short. Jeremy nodded. He heard it too. The sound of the wind moving through the trees, but something more as well. Something familiar –
The tramp of several dozen booted feet.
Before he could find the voice to cry out, the emerald leaves parted, admitting a crimson tide. The boots were black. The breeches white. The scarlet coats glistening with silver and gold. As Jeremy watched a squad of British regulars took positions in a close ring about them and raised their bayoneted muskets.
At their head was Lucien LaCroix.
“Well, well, what have we here?” the white-haired man asked, his voice dripping with evil amusement. “The pride of the Rebellion, isn’t it? Captain Yankee Doodle. And the adventurous Frenchman. The ‘Fa Yette’ - the boy who would be a general.”
Jeremy stepped in front of Lafayette. He could not believe this was happening. He cared not one whit what they did to him, but the general? If the British army got hold of Lafayette, they would make of his capture and death a spectacle that would break the spirit – the very soul of the Rebellion.
It would be a blow from which the Cause would never recover.
“Sir, do what you will with me, but let the general go!” He knew the plea was useless, but felt it his duty to try.
“Jeremy, no!” Lafayette declared from behind him.
He did not look at him. “I deny nothing. And I will come willingly.”
“Ah, such loyalty!” LaCroix snarled, his words dripping disdain. “Such deep and abiding devotion.” The ancient vampire drew close to him and added with an arrogant sneer, “Shall I show you, my lad, just how much such ‘loyalty’ is worth when dealing with one of my kind?” LaCroix raised a hand and snapped his fingers. “Daniel! Come here.”
Jeremy glanced at his commander and saw him blanch. Lafayette took a step back, physically repulsed. Jeremy turned back to see, knowing what he would find – but not believing it. A solid form separated from the Redcoat line. The man, dressed in frontiersman’s clothes, with sandy hair and a weary face lined with cares, was trembling. Tears streaked his face. But Sergeant Daniel Boggs, Lafayette’s aide, friend and confident, did as Lucien LaCroix ordered.
LaCroix’s upper lip curled with delight. “You had to wonder how I found you here, in the middle of nowhere.” Jeremy’s eyes went to Daniel’s throat as he spoke. LaCroix did not miss the gesture. “The sergeant is a little ‘tough’ for my taste,” he said, adding with menace as his eyes returned to Lafayette. “Now, this one….”
At that his general bristled. “Jeremy, step aside. I will not allow another to fight my battle.”
He shook his head and remained where he was. “No, sir. I will not. You are more important than a dozen of me.”
He could have kicked himself. It was Elizabeth. He had all but forgotten her. Jeremy turned to meet her gaze, knowing it would be filled with fear for him. Not really having the time to deal with it or his own reaction. “Elizabeth, I am sorry, but I can’t….”
Jeremy stopped. Elizabeth’s eyes did not hold fear.
They held nothing.
Jeremy heard Lafayette’s quick intact of breath. He saw her hand move, but didn’t realize until it was too late what she was doing. Even as the knife blade slid between his ribs and he fell to his knees, he realized his mistake. He had underestimated the vampire’s power. Of all the people who walked the earth, he thought he knew his love –
But he was wrong.
Elizabeth Coates mechanically handed the bloodied knife Janette had given her earlier to LaCroix. He stared at it and then raised it to his mouth and licked it clean. She felt nothing. No guilt. No pain. No joy.
Janette knelt at Jeremy’s side and placed her hand in his blood. “Leave it!” La Croix snarled. “I presume you did as you were told?”
She nodded as she rose to her feet. Her face was a portrait of torn loyalties. “Nicholas has not fed. He is dying!”
“Breeding will out, my dear. After all,” he indicated Jeremy’s prone form with a sweep of his hand, “I have set a sumptuous table for him which he cannot refuse. Nicholas will smell the human’s blood and he will come. Now gather up your charges and let us go.”
“Did I do all right, Mistress?” Elizabeth asked as the woman walked past her.
Janette impatiently turned toward her. “Oui. Yes! Now follow LaCroix.”
Elizabeth hesitated as the other woman took the Marquis by the hand. “No,” he protested weakly even as he did as he was ordered. “Jeremy….”
“Is already dead.” Janette laughed. “As are we! As you are soon to be.”
“Bring the boy, Janette.”
“Do you mean to turn him over to them?” the dark-haired beauty asked with a nod of her head toward the silent British soldiers.
LaCroix approached them. He took his hand and reached out, and taking Lafayette’s chin between his fingers, turned his face so the moonlight revealed every feature. “So like his father. I think a similar death would be appropriate….
“But not before I have had some fun.”