"Jeremy! My boy!" Samuel Larkin fell to his knees and cradled his son's bloodied form in his arms. "You're alive!"
"Barely," Janette snarled. "What is it with you men? Can you simply not stop?"
Samuel's son stirred and looked up at her, his blue eyes wide with pain and puzzlement. "Why?" Jeremy asked, his voice weak. "Why did you do this to me?"
"What?" Samuel asked. "What did Jean do?"
"Tried to kill me." Jeremy shifted. He raised his right hand. It was red with his blood. "She did something to Elizabeth. Mesmerized her…something. She sent her after me with a knife…."
Samuel Larkin's face grew red with righteous anger. "Jean? You did this to him? You tried to kill my boy? Why? Dear God in Heaven, why?"
Janette's upper lip curled with indecision. "He is not dead, is he?" was her only reply.
"Jean, why? I thought…I thought we meant something to each other. How could you…."
She could not abide the accusation in his eyes. "LaCroix ordered it. LaCroix is my master. I cannot disobey him," she explained. Then she added softly, "But I can, within that obedience, sometimes do as I desire. The blade went in clean. No?"
Jeremy nodded. "How would you know…."
"Nothing vital was damaged. There was a great deal of blood and it appeared the wound was fatal." She walked to the side of the father and son and looked down, meeting Samuel's puzzled stare. "I could not let your son die. I gave him every chance there was. I instructed the girl and told her to be precise, and…I left him with Nichola." Janette hugged her arms about her slender frame. "I knew Nichola would not kill him. Not even to survive." Janette drew a quick breath. "I meant it when I said it was my worst fear that we would find Nichola's ashes beside your living son."
"Is he like you, this Nichola, some vile unnatural creature? And Lucien LaCroix as well?" Samuel demanded.
"Nicholas is nothing like her!" Jeremy's fierce reply belied his weakened state. "He is an honorable man, Father. You must believe me…."
Janette smiled sadly. "Yes. And Nichola's high and lofty ideals will bring about his destruction one day. Now come, both of you. We must find him. When we do, I am certain we will find LaCroix. They are drawn to one another like the moth to the flame."
Samuel Larkin rose to his feet and then helped his wounded son to stand. Jeremy wobbled and nearly fell down. "I'm sorry," he said as he clung to his father's arm. "I can't…."
"Move away, Samuel," Janette commanded.
"No!" He stepped in front of his son. "You will not touch him."
"Then he will die!" she snarled. Then, softening her tone, she added, "I could have killed him before. I did not. Samuel, trust me. No matter what I am, I mean you and yours no harm."
"What will you do?" he asked.
Janette smiled wickedly. "It will be my pleasure to show young Master Larkin exactly who is the weaker of the sexes." She moved forward and, before Jeremy could protest, swept him from his feet into her arms. At his astonished look Janette laughed, and then before his father could stop her, rose into the air and disappeared into the night.
"Hurry to your home, Samuel," she called from out of the darkness. "We will meet you there."
"Nicholas Knighton. Do not tell me that you too are one of the vampiri?" Lafayette asked.
Nicholas nodded. "Much to my regret, Gilbert. Much to my regret."
He had borne Michel du Motier's son through the skies to a small thatched cottage at the edge of the town – one that most likely belonged to a caretaker. Before he had gone to the city in search of the boy Nicholas had made certain careful preparations within the abandoned structure. Everything was in place.
Now they had only to wait for LaCroix to find them.
"Then it was you," Lafayette declared. "The man I remember. The one who spoke to me while I was in my cradle. The man who saved my mother, and then brought her the news of my father's death."
"Yes. The first was a joy, the latter my sad duty – and the last thing I could do for my friend."
"LaCroix said he was there when my father died. Is that true?"
Nicholas hesitated. Then he nodded again. "Yes."
Lafayette felt suddenly weak in the knees. He reached out and steadied himself by gripping the edge of a table where a single lamp burned, spilling a bit of the contents of the large pewter pitcher that rested beside it. Then he sat heavily in a chair and rested his head in his hands. "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed. "LaCroix said my father's death was long and lingering. That he used a bayonet to pin him to the grass and his pain was great."
"The last is true," Nicholas said. "Michel's wound was grave. But he did not linger. And LaCroix did not kill him." His jaw grew tight. "I did."
Lafayette's head came up. His brown eyes were wide with grief and disbelief. "What? No!"
"Yes. It is true. Your father could not live, Gilbert. But while life remained he was in danger. LaCroix threatened to bring him over – just to cause me pain. I could not allow that. I could not allow Michel to become what I am. A creature of the night. One of the damned!"
"How? How did you kill him?" he demanded.
"Quickly. With a single shot. And then I kept watch so LaCroix could not feast." Nicholas shuddered. "There were many who fell that day. I knew in time he would be sated. Before the light dawned I buried Michel in a shallow grave and, though it burned my hands, marked the spot with a cross."
Lafayette did not want to understand, but the truth was – he did. Even though the child within him warred with the man, he understood Nicholas' actions. In battle he had done the same thing. But this was his father – the father he had never had a chance to know. The father taken from him by one man's evil –
And this man's hand.
Lafayette opened his hand and looked at the crucifix and then held it out before him.
"No!" Nicholas shouted, averting his eyes. "Put that away! I only want to help you!"
"You are evil," Lafayette said rising and advancing toward him. "You are the same as LaCroix."
"No, I am not the same! Gilbert, I loved your father. And your mother. And you as their only son. If you do this, I cannot protect you!"
"Perhaps I do not want – or need your protection," he said wearily. "Perhaps this," Lafayette thrust the crucifix forward, "is the only protection I need."
"It will not work against LaCroix. I have seen him hold such a relic in his hand and watched it burn through his flesh! He will destroy you!"
"It stopped him before," Lafayette countered.
Nicholas' voice was thick with pain. "If it did, it is only because he allowed it."
"And why would be do that?" Lafayette all but shouted. "Why permit me to escape?"
"So you would lead him to me!" Nicholas lowered his hand, then raised it again when he saw the dreaded cross was still there. "Don't you see? This is not about you or your father, Gilbert. It is about me. It has always been about me and LaCroix's need to possess me body and soul!"
Lafayette hesitated, weighing the other man's words. Then he lowered the crucifix and closed it once again in his hand. "Then you are truly damned, mon ami," he whispered.
"Gilbert, you cannot know how hard it – " Nicholas paused. He held his hand up. "Do you feel it?" That drawing sensation, as if all of the air in the room had suddenly been taken in and was being held in anticipation. "LaCroix is here!" he announced. "Gilbert, get behind me!"
"What?" Lafayette spun in a circle, looking. "I see nothing…."
As he spoke without warning the cottage's oiled parchment windows blew in. The heavy wooden door was torn from its hinges and Lucien LaCroix, ablaze with righteous anger and infernal indignation, blew in. "Nicholas," he raged, his tone envenomed. "You will give the boy to me!"
"No." Nicholas stood between them. "You will not have him. No more than you could have his father. You will lose this battle, LaCroix, as you did the last."
"I never lose, Nicholas. You always come back to me, therefore, I always win." LaCroix's smile was acid. "Battles such as these are merely skirmishes in a greater war which you cannot win."
Nicholas nodded. "Then so be it. But you will not have him. He is not yours to possess. Gilbert belongs to history."
"History," LaCroix snorted. "What has he? A short span of eighty years at most? I can give him ten thousand!"
"I know. But you shall not. Leave, LaCroix. Go now before I am forced to take action."
LaCroix's baleful laughter echoed through the small cottage, curdling the blood in Lafayette's veins. "Take action?" He spread his hands wide and taunted him. "Go ahead then! Do your worst, Nicholas!"
"Gilbert," Nicholas said softly.
"Shield your eyes."
Almost before he had time to obey Nicholas snatched the pitcher from the table and threw its contents on the other man, soaking his garments. Then he caught the lamp from the table and threw it at the evil creature's feet where it crashed and burned, igniting both the floor and LaCroix. Soon smoke, and the scent of frying flesh, filled the room, tinged with the pungent odor of whale oil.
From his position behind Nicholas Lafayette watched in disbelief as the burning creature that was LaCroix rose in a cloak of flame to crash through the thatched roof and disappear into the dawning light. Sunlight streamed in through the opening in the ceiling and a stray beam caught Nicholas unawares, forcing him to retreat to the opposite side of the room.
Within seconds a growing wall of flame separated them.
"Run, Gilbert! Save yourself!" Nicholas called even as he cowered, shielding himself from the advancing fire. "Soon the entire structure will be ablaze!"
Lafayette glanced at the thatched roof. The flames had taken it as well. Another minute or two and it would collapse in on them. "You cannot survive it, can you? The fire?"
"Do not worry about me. Save yourself! This young country needs you!"
He shook his head. "It would not need me if I was the kind of a man who could allow a good man like you perish without at least attempting to save him."
And with that Lafayette drew a deep breath and plunged into the flames.
Along the path back to Chester Samuel Larkin encountered Jeremy's friends Henry and Isak. They explained that they had been tracking his son and were much relieved when he explained that an old acquaintance of his had taken Jeremy to the house and promised to put him to bed and make him stay there.
If only Jean's actions had brought him some relief.
As they headed together back toward the town, speaking in hushed tones of all the odd and unusual things that had occurred in the last few days, a sudden bright white hot light exploded in the distance drawing their attention. The trio stopped and watched in growing horror as the light intensified and a sudden wind arose, hot as a mid-summer day, to strike them.
"Fire!" Isak shouted.
Samuel Larkin nodded. "From the look of things it is at the edge of town. Jacob Miller's old place perhaps?"
"It has a thatched roof," Henry agreed. "From how fast the fire is growing, I would say that is a good guess. There must be fuel to feed it." He turned to the black man who walked with them. "Isak, run to the town. Summon help."
"What will you do, Henry?" Isak asked.
Henry pursed his lips and turned his face into the growing light. "Whatever we can. Samuel?"
"I'm with you!"
They both were puffing by the time they arrived at the Miller property. Samuel stopped at the edge of it to catch his breath as Henry plunged ahead. As he watched two figures emerged from the conflagration to greet him. The first one, singed, his boyish face blackened, he did not recognize.
The second was Robert's general – Lafayette.
"Your help, please!" the stranger pleaded as he lowered the young Frenchman who had been leaning heavily on him to the ground.
Henry dropped to his knees in the grass beside them. "Is he badly burned?"
"No," Nicholas answered. "But he has taken in a great deal of smoke."
Henry was already opening Lafayette's singed shirt and feeling for his heartbeat. "And you, Nicholas. How are you?"
Samuel Larkin watched the stranger turn and look back toward the Miller's cottage which was now completely consumed in flame.
"Free at last."
Janette rose to her feet at the sound of the door of the Larkin home opening. She was in one of the upstairs bedrooms sitting beside Samuel's son. Jeremy was breathing evenly now. Deep asleep. And at peace.
Due to her suggestion.
She found in his weakened state that he was no longer able to resist her. And even though she could not completely remove the events of the past few days from his memory, she was able to plant the impression that all of the things he had witnessed were nothing more a dream, and the product of his fevered mind.
Crossing the room quickly she headed into the hall and descended the steps just as Samuel Larkin entered the house. He was followed by a young man with a worried face and round glasses who spoke to someone behind him, instructing them to hurry into the house before the light of day dawned. Janette cast her gaze out one of the simple home's windows as she descended the stair. No more than a half hour remained until the dawn. If she did not fly, soon she would be trapped here until the night came again. As Janette's slippered feet touched the floor the last of the party entered.
It was a bedraggled Nicholas, bearing the silent form of Michel du Motier's son in his arms.
"Put General Lafayette in my room," Samuel Larkin instructed as he closed the door behind them.
"It is not safe for him to be here," Henry said, rolling up his sleeves. "Not for the general, or for you, sir."
Samuel nodded. "God has provided so far." Then he turned and deliberately looked at her. "The Almighty will not fail us now."
Janette said nothing. She waited while Nicholas did as he had been instructed and bore the boy up to the second floor. When he returned she crossed to him and took his hands and looked into his eyes. What she found there surprised her.
Nicholas was at peace.
"What has happened?" she asked.
He smiled. "I am free, Janette. Free at last."
"Free?" She stared at him. His boyish face was smeared with soot. His blond hair singed. Nicholas had been near fire – the one thing their kind could not survive. "Nichola, what have you done?" she asked.
"Destroyed him. Destroyed that evil."
"LaCroix?" She shook her head. "You cannot…."
"But I have! I set him afire, Janette. I watched him burn!" Nicholas words were spoken with cruel relish. "LaCroix is no more!"
She caught his face in her hands. Janette knew how much he wanted to believe what he said. And for now, she would let him believe it.
It was pure joy to see him happy.
Janette kissed his smoky lips and said, "Then it is just you and I, mon ami. No?"
Nicholas grinned. "Oui." He broke free of her grasp and turned with energy toward the stair just as the portly man with the round glasses descended it. "Henry! How is he?" he asked.
"The general? Awake. Already trying to get out of bed, though every time he moves he is wracked with coughing." Henry finished rolling down his sleeve. "It will take some time for his lungs to heal."
"May I see him?" Nicholas asked, his tone that of a concerned friend. Janette knew better. Nichola's concern was for himself – and for her.
It was time to begin mopping up.
She watched Nichola disappear up the stair. He went to erase their presence in Chester from the young Frenchman's mind, to make him believe – as Jeremy Larkin would – that it had been nothing more than a dream born of fatigue and wounds. Janette reached out with her vampiric senses toward Henry, wondering if the same needed to be done with him. As she did a sharp knock sounded at the door. She saw Samuel Larkin frown. He walked to a cabinet at the front of the house and opened a drawer. Then he pulled out a small flintlock pistol. With a wary glance at her, Samuel went to answer the knock.
The door opened to reveal two dazed and weary humans – the girl, Elizabeth Coates, and a man Janette did not know . He had sandy hair and was dressed in frontiersman's clothes.
"Elizabeth! And you, sir. I remember you. You were in the crowd at Robert's funeral."
The man nodded. "Daniel Boggs. And yes, sir, I was there."
"Come in. Come in," Samuel exclaimed.
"Is Jeremy here?" were the first words out of Elizabeth's mouth.
As Samuel assured her that he was, and was sure to live, Janette watched the girl's eyes stray to her. She smiled and inclined her head. She had planted an order in the girl's head that once she had accomplished her mission – wounding Jeremy – she would forget what she had done and any memory of who and what they were.
"Do I know you?" Elizabeth asked, her face troubled.
Janette shook her head. "I am an old acquaintance of Samuel's. No, you do not know me."
Elizabeth nodded absently as Daniel Boggs began to explain how, suddenly, the British soldiers who held him had collapsed to the ground like puppets cut free of the string. He had been on his way out of the hall when he had heard someone shouting. Following the sound he had found Elizabeth Coates in the jail, and then freed her using the keys off of the guard who had also fallen into a strange sort of stupor. Then they had come to the Larkin's home in search of answers.
Janette watched the sergeant bolt up the stair in pursuit of his wounded commander. Elizabeth followed more slowly, heading for the sick bed of her love. As Nicholas descended, he passed her on the stair. He nodded his head in greeting and then headed for the door. Once there, he called her.
"In a moment, Nichola. There is something I must do." She turned to look at Samuel Larkin who had moved to take a place before the hearth. "Someone I must tell 'goodbye'."
"The sun is almost risen," he answered. "Do not be long." And with that, Nicholas stepped out of the house and bolted for the shadows that cloaked a nearby alleyway.