In an instant, the creature’s fangs were scarcely a foot away from Jennings.
“Get down!” a familiar – and most welcome – voice said, and Jennings crouched abruptly.
The resounding blast of the blunderbuss shook the air, and the head of the creature exploded into sickly-green blood and torn flesh. The creature froze for a moment, its wings stiffening, then it slumped to the floor. Its skin began immediately to sizzle and smoke, and, after a very few seconds, to dissolve into ash. Soon nothing was left but bones and entrails, and then even these began to collapse in upon themselves, disintegrating until only charred stains and patches of yellow slime remained.
Isabelle cried out in disgust and alarm; she ran to Cedric, who held her rather mechanically, and stared at his dead “pet” with an expression of surprise and disappointment.
“That was not very kind of you, Cousin,” he complained, turning to Elizabeth.
She stood in the doorway, the smoking blunderbuss clutched in her hands. The rain had soaked her clear through, so that water dripped from her hair and the hem of her dress onto the floor. She was covered in mud. She held the blunderbuss with the ease and confidence of someone who was quite accustomed to the use of firearms, and Delacourt noted this with a rueful twist of his lips.
“I had forgotten your proficiency, Lizzie,” he said. “I should never have allowed you to learn it.”
Elizabeth frowned at him. “What are you talking about?” she asked, her voice angry and peremptory. She glanced at Jennings, who had risen and now stood beside her. “Are you all right, Christopher? I arrived as soon as I could.”
“Never better, my love,” Jennings responded. “You are here earlier than I expected.”
“I have been here several minutes,” she revealed. She glared at Cedric. “Listening to you explain all the ways that you have burdened and tormented my family!” Her eyes narrowed. “My mother!” She squared her shoulders and waved the blunderbuss in a menacing manner toward him. “And I believe, Cousin, having heard your tale, that your life has extended far enough!” She moved forward, stepping into the chalk circle as Cedric backed out of it.
He reached behind him to the little table where the dagger still sat; he gripped it in a steady hand and brought it between him and Elizabeth. The firelight glinted off its steel blade as he turned it to and fro. “On the contrary, dearest Lizzie,” he said affably. “It is your life that has gone on too long.” He grew suddenly serious, and his eyes became dark and cold. “It is your destiny, Cousin, to be given in sacrifice. There is really nothing you can do about it.” He advanced, crossing into the chalk circle.
Elizabeth, her eyes never leaving Delacourt’s, swung the blunderbuss with all her strength, delivering a shocking blow to the side of Cedric’s head and dropping him to his knees.
Miss Fetherston screamed and rushed Elizabeth, pushing her out of the circle and across the study. Elizabeth swung the blunderbuss again; it poked sharply into Isabelle’s gut, causing her to double over in pain. Elizabeth took this brief opportunity to hit her again, slamming the butt of the gun into the juncture between Isabelle’s shoulder and her neck. Isabelle cried out and fell to the ground, but, as Elizabeth turned her attention once more to Cedric, who struggled dizzily to regain his footing, Isabelle scurried to the fireplace and wrenched a poker from its stand.
“Get away from him!” she shouted, her face contorted with rage, and, raising the poker over her head, she charged Elizabeth a second time.
Jennings lunged forward, hoping to stop the swinging poker, but Miss Fetherston saw him coming and quickly brought the poker down on his outstretched arms. He stumbled backward, and Isabelle swung the poker at Elizabeth, who parried it with the blunderbuss.
The two women spun around, Isabelle trying repeatedly to move the poker past the blunderbuss and Elizabeth countering her efforts.
By now, Cedric had come to his feet. Blood trickled from the side of his head, and he stood hunched over, still too dazed for proper balance. He had managed to keep the dagger in his hand; as Isabelle and Elizabeth danced into the chalk circle, he summoned what equilibrium he could, and stabbed out at Elizabeth.
“No!” Jennings cried, leaping forward too late to stop Delacourt’s attack. The knife met flesh, sinking to its hilt into Isabelle’s heart.
Elizabeth fell back, horrified. “No!” she croaked. “Isabelle!”
Isabelle stared at Elizabeth in absolute confusion. Blood spread out across her bodice, and she slumped against Delacourt. “Jon?” she said weakly, gazing up at him. “What – what have you done?”
Delacourt pulled her to him, and gazed back at her with a look of resigned pity. “So sorry, my dear,” he said gently. “It was truly meant for Lizzie.” He lowered her to the floor, into the middle of the chalk circle, and lovingly brushed her hair away from her face. “No matter,” he went on with a slight shrug. “There’s thirteen.”
Isabelle’s eyes revealed all the disbelief and heartbreak that she no longer had the strength to vocalize; she coughed, blood spraying out from her lips onto her white cheeks, and her fingers clutched at the collar of Cedric’s shirt. She pulled him close to her as though she would speak, but her throat could only sputter and click. In a moment, she was dead.
Cedric sighed and stood up. “How vexing,” he announced. “Now the joining of the fortunes will be more … protracted.” He looked from Isabelle to the crumpled form of Charlotte Carlisle that lay in the entryway. “And I’ve lost Charlotte too,” he added in long-suffering tones. “Such a waste.”
“‘Lost’ her?” Elizabeth protested. “You’ve murdered her!”
Cedric blinked at her. “But I liked her!” he explained. “I had planned to keep her!” He frowned down at Isabelle, whose sightless eyes stared back at him. “Her … exuberance … has always been a welcome departure from Isabelle’s simpering affections.” He sighed again. “Well, it doesn’t really signify,” he said. “I shall simply turn to one of the other Misses Fetherston in my ‘grief’.” He laughed. “Would it not be amusing if one of Isabelle’s sisters married Ned and the other married Sir James? Or better yet, Cedric! … I have long thought that it was time for Sir James to die.”
Elizabeth scowled in bewilderment. “What are you talking about?” she said harshly. “Where is my father?”
Jennings put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Did you not see, my love?” he asked gently. “He was killed along with your stepmother. His is the other body in the hall.”
She glanced at him for a second before bringing her attention back to Cedric; shaking the blunderbuss to remind her cousin – and herself – that she would be more than capable of caving in his skull with it, she said, “There’s only Charlotte in the hall.”
Jennings whipped around and peered into the hall. Only Charlotte Carlisle now lay there; Sir James’ body was indeed gone. But he had seen the body himself – it did not seem possible that Sir James could still have been alive, but if he was, why would he make no sound upon waking? Why would he sneak away without involving himself in the happenings in the study?
Cedric saw Jennings’ thorough confusion and laughed again, a far more sinister sound now than before. “You are wondering, dear boy, where Sir James has gone,” he said. “Why, he was only playing dead, you know!” He grinned at Jennings and then at Elizabeth. “Well,” he went on. “That is to say, I was only playing dead. Sir James – the real Sir James – has been dead for eighteen years.” He tilted his head to one side. “Your father, who was gone so often into the country without you, dear Lizzie, was also Edmond Fitzhugh, and, most recently, Cedric Delacourt, whose business in London has kept him from home more often than not.”
Elizabeth, attempting to digest what Delacourt was saying, could do no more than stand frozen and dismayed, shaking her head and frantically blinking away sudden tears. “This cannot be,” she whispered at last, her heart pounding in her chest. “It cannot be.”
“It’s impossible,” Jennings murmured. He could barely comprehend what he was hearing. “All this while,” he said. “You’ve been keeping Lizzie close to you.”
“Oh, not by choice, I assure you,” Cedric said. He bent down and pulled Isabelle out of the circle, then began taking off his coat. “But I wanted Sir James’ fortune, so I took it. And because of his standing, any number of women were eager to be chosen, even if he was a dreadful curmudgeon.” He tossed his coat unceremoniously onto the floor outside the circle. “His was a most difficult role to play. He is – was – a very unpleasant sort of man, and, unfortunately, the spell does not work as well if I make too many changes to the original man’s character.” He untied his cravat. “I did my best to stay away from Lizzie, in fact,” he said, smiling warmly at her as though this information should comfort her. “I did not want to become too close to her, for quite often children can see through the magic. It helped that she was so young when I arrived.” He removed his shirt, and stood now bare to the waist; around him, the chalk runes had begun to glow with white light.
Elizabeth, goaded from her mental shock by the glowing circle, stepped back. Beside her, Jennings felt his chest tighten in a way that was at once familiar and suddenly far more severe – something even more dire than Cedric’s monster was about to make an appearance. His breathing became jagged, and he was obliged to steady himself by leaning against the wall, his hand tugging his collar away from his throat.
“You might well be concerned, Jennings,” Cedric said, observing him. “Isabelle was the final sacrifice.” He crouched down in the circle and ran his fingers through the puddle of Miss Fetherston’s blood. “My long wait is now at an end.” He lifted his hand and drew a symbol in blood across his chest. “I have at last paid my part of the bargain.” He positioned himself in the exact center of the circle and spread his arms out wide.
“Good God!” Elizabeth breathed, stepping further back as the runes became intensely bright, and the fire turned so wild that it threatened to break free of the fireplace and engulf the room.
“My blood will seal the bargain!” Cedric shouted over the roar of flames. He jabbed the tip of the dagger into the flesh above his heart, and, as his own blood welled up, he himself began to glow. His eyes lit up in exultation; he dropped the dagger, and it clattered onto the floor. “I will live forever!” he cried. “Generations will be mine to command!” His blood ran down his chest in a thick, red-black thread.
Behind Cedric, a figure appeared in the fireplace. It was not so huge as the winged creature had been, but it was somehow more frightening. It bore the shape and size of a man, but the skin was as glossy and red as painted leather, and the face was twisted into a fearsome grimace. The figure stood naked and hairless, its features as smooth as if it were molded out of living clay, and where its eyes should have been were instead dark caverns that swirled with the black aether of the abyss.
“His blood,” Jennings said, staggering forward. “Can’t touch the floor.” The demon figure saw him and lifted its hand, squeezing its fingers into a fist. Jennings was seized with a gripping pain in his chest that brought him swiftly to his knees.
Cedric watched him fall, and a sneer curled his lips. “You cannot stop me now!” he proclaimed. “I will have what is mine!” He laughed in delight as the light that surrounded him pulled him a few inches off the ground. “I will have it all,” he informed the Jennings. “And people like you will be helpless before me!”
“Or not,” Elizabeth replied. She grabbed the blunderbuss once more by its muzzle and swung it into Cedric Delacourt.
He flew backward, tumbling out of the circle and slamming against the fireplace mantel. “No!” he bellowed, but his anger turned instantly to triumph. “You’re too late, Cousin!” he said.
Elizabeth looked down to see that, even as she had pushed Cedric away, four drops of his blood had landed on the runes.
The fire exploded out of the fireplace and began to creep up the study walls. The figure stepped out of it just as the beast had done, but, unlike the beast, this demonic man stood in silence, turning neither one way nor the other, and favouring the Jennings with not even a single glance. It waited on the hearthstone, its eyes – if they could be called such – riveted on Delacourt.
Delacourt pushed himself away from the mantel and strode back into the circle. In a flash, his hand was around Elizabeth’s neck, and the pressure of his fingers caused her vision to go black. She feared she would faint, and her pulse beat so loudly in her ears that she could barely hear Cedric’s words. “Your husband’s gifts have proven a curse,” he said, his voice seeming to come from a long distance. “He is sensitive to my demon’s hand, and is rendered quite unable to move, or even to breathe. In a moment I will command my demon to kill him.” He smiled down at her. “But you have been such a bother to me, Lizzie, that I believe I will kill you myself.” He brought her face close to his, and she could feel his breath. “I will kill you both and take his fortune, and I will blame all this …” He waved his free hand expansively to indicate the entire house. “… on you. You, Lizzie, have poisoned the whole household, and murdered your father and stepmother, and your cousin, and you’ve run off with Isabelle’s Ned, never to be heard from again.” He clucked his tongue. “How dreadful of you, Lizzie! How … uncivil.” He came so close to her that their cheeks touched, and his words hissed in her ear. “And I, Christopher Jennings, was helpless to do anything! You poisoned me too, of course, and even though I managed to escape, there was no one for miles to come to my aid.” He chuckled. “Thank you, Cousin, for finally being useful to me.”
… come to my aid, his words echoed in her brain. Come to my aid. Come to my aid. The phrase triggered a memory – something important. Something important. Come to my aid. Come to …
Her mother’s letter! “If ever you find yourself in harm’s way, call upon me, … and I will render you what aid I can.”
She let the blunderbuss slip from her fingers and began fumbling frantically for the pocket of her cloak. Please let it be there! she prayed. Don’t let it have fallen out in the carriage. Cedric’s grip on her throat had tightened, and everything was swimming before her eyes. With some difficulty, she wriggled her fingers into her pocket and touched the drawstrings of her reticule. Thank God! But even as she tugged at the opening of the reticule, she felt her legs give way beneath her. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she went limp.
Cedric gazed at her for a few seconds, before releasing her and allowing her to drop to the floor. He raised one eyebrow in surprise at how easily she had been dispatched – after so much trouble! – and then turned to Jennings, who still knelt with his hand to his throat, the skin of his mouth and fingers a frightening shade of blue.
“You don’t look so well, old boy,” Cedric said amiably, bending over and clapping Jennings on the shoulder. He glanced at Elizabeth. “I suppose you’re not too happy about that,” he said. “But never worry! You’ll be with her soon enough!” He shoved Jennings roughly to the ground, and kicked him in the stomach. “You even arrived before her,” he said pityingly. “And you’re still too late. How maddening for you! Or perhaps comforting,” he added musingly. “You would never have been able to save her, you see. It was never really within your power to do so, despite your gift.”
Jennings, desperate for air, stared helplessly at Elizabeth. He had failed her, again. He was tempted to give up his struggle to breathe, and to let himself slip into death, but the thought that she might yet, somehow, be alive would not allow him to do so.
Yes, there! He saw her move. Ungh! He received a second, fiercer kick in the stomach from Delacourt. Involuntarily, he doubled up and shifted backward, but before Delacourt could turn back to Elizabeth, Jennings summoned every ounce of strength that he possessed, and hurled himself at Delacourt’s legs.
Cedric was thrown off balance and toppled over, landing with a loud thump at the feet of his own demon. The demon did not move, but looked on Cedric with apparent curiosity.
“What are you waiting for?” Cedric growled, glaring up at it. “Kill him!”
The demon’s head pivoted slightly to the side, and it watched Jennings for a few seconds before striding toward him and picking him up by the collar. Jennings, nearly insensible from lack of oxygen, and assailed by the notion that his heart was not beating as it properly should, hung like a ragdoll in the demon’s powerful grasp. His only hope was that his actions had bought Elizabeth enough time to get away.
Elizabeth, having feigned unconsciousness to escape Cedric’s throttling, took full advantage of her husband’s distraction; no one noticed as she wrangled her reticule out of her pocket and pulled open the drawstrings.
Mother, she thought. Please be able to hear me.
She drew the peridot ring out of the reticule.
“Mother,” she whispered. “I am very much in harm’s way.”
She slid the ring onto her finger.