I waited for John to come to the door, but opened it before he could knock. I blame anxiety. John’s brows arched.
“Going for the all-knowing, super-aware vibe, huh?” he asked. “May I come in?”
“Yes. No. Wait,” I said. I tried to get a grip on my nerves. “I thought you didn’t need permission to enter a house. You didn’t ask anyone this afternoon.” Was he more dead now than he had been earlier? I got more dangerous when I got more dead. That wasn’t a reassuring thought: I couldn’t hear a heartbeat from John.
John chuckled. “I’m a ghoul, not a vampire. Different restrictions apply. I don’t need an invitation unless I want to be polite. Which I do.”
“Oh.” Right: Hans had told me John was a ghoul, not a vampire, too. I should’ve remembered that. “I’m new to this,” I babbled. “I don’t know anything about ghouls or… lots of stuff,” I made myself blurt out. “I need to, though. That’s why I asked Hans to call you. Until another vampire shows up, I don’t know who else might be able to answer my questions.”
I realized I was trying to justify my imposing on him because I was scared, and I made myself stop. It was harder than it sounds – I wanted to babble a little more, to apologize for everything; then slam the door in his face and run away.
Shit. John was still standing outside while I blocked his way, wasn’t he? I belatedly stepped aside. “Uh, please come in,” I said. I tried to think of good hostess-y things to add. I couldn’t. If I asked if he wanted something to eat or drink, would he answer in terms of Hans or Emma? Shit, shit, shit! “I don’t know what to say,” I said. “I don’t know what ghouls eat or drink or how to be a good hostess. But thank you for coming. I really appreciate it.” I realized I was just a sentence away from babbling again and reined myself in.
“Quite alright,” John said. “I ate earlier, so no need to worry on that count. Why don’t we go sit downstairs where it’s more comfortable and you can wrack my brain.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks again.” I turned and led the way to the basement. John followed.
“It’s really my pleasure,” John said. “I’m glad you’re giving me an opportunity to make up for that first impression. Is everything alright with that girl – Emma? Or is this about something else?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, no. I mean… I’m worried about Emma, but she’s okay.” I stepped into the basement parlor. The lights were still on from earlier. I went and sat on the far end of the couch. John sprawled on the other end.
“Alright,” John said. “So: what’s up?”
I hesitated. John was offering answers – assuming I didn’t freak out and screw up this conversation. Which I inevitably would do. I wasn’t willing to freeze time until I calmed down – not if it meant burning through all of my energy so soon after feeding.
I was going to have to start with the big issues, then. Try and get as much information as I could before everything – or at least I – went to pieces. So even though it took a lot more out of me than just babbling and hoping my autopilot got to the big stuff, I grit my teeth and went for the most important question I had.
“How do I protect people from the fae?”
John blinked at me. Then one corner of his mouth turned up in a disapproving smile. “That eager to do your part, eh? Unfortunately for you, the last war is still freshly ended. I don’t think you’ll be getting into the thick of it with the fae any time soon.”
“What?” I shook my head. “I don’t want to be in a war! I – Look, I just found out about werewolves and vampires and faeries and magic, like… two days ago. I knew about this shit for two days, and it got me killed!” Actually, it had gotten me killed in one.
“I have friends,” I said. “They need to know about me, about what I am, so they can take precautions in case I lose it like Mr. Salvatore did. And it can’t be safe for me to keep draining the life from Hans and Emma. So I’m going to have to tell people about this crazy shit. Crazy shit that got me killed! And I can kind of trust Hans to help me keep myself in check and to protect my friends – but he explained to me how humanity’s disbelief in the fae keeps people safe. I can’t take that away from people! It’s bad enough that they’ll be in danger just because I’m me. It’ll be even worse if I’m making them vulnerable to the whole supernatural world, too! I need to know what Mr. Salvatore did to keep his donors safe. I…”
I was babbling, barely breathing, and getting myself wound up, too. I clamped my mouth shut as though I could stem the tide of panic just by blocking the rising flow of words.
“Oh,” John said in understanding. “I see. Well, in that case the answer is simple. You’re a vampire. You don’t have to do a damn thing. Dad never did.” He didn’t say it like he was bitter or sarcastic or anything: Just like it was a fact.
“What.” I said. I was pretty sure, right then, that if he was fucking with me I would have to kick him in the nuts again.
“Dad never had to take any special precautions to protect his people,” John said. “You won’t either. I mean: you’re a vampire. If you want your friends to be safe then you just let it be known that anyone who messes with them messes with you, and that’ll be that.” He laughed. “Shoot… they’ll probably be safer once you come out to them, because then if anyone jumps out at them they can threaten to sic you on them.”
“What?” I said again – but this time I was remembering how Melvin had tricked me into a duel, had me terrified… and then had surrendered as soon as I brought up him having to fight Mr. Salvatore.
“Well, it’s kind of like this,” John said. “There are tiers of power in the world, and generally speaking someone on a higher tier doesn’t have to worry about anyone on a lower tier – unless there’s a bunch working in a group. So, the witches, warlocks and what have you? They’re infantry grunts. They’re brave, they’re badass, they’re numerous and they take the brunt of it when shit’s going down. Ghosts, the ones that are together enough to do anything – they’re observation posts. If they aren’t tethered to a location, they’re like recon drones. Otherwise, they’re more like radar arrays keeping an eye out for incoming trouble.”
John shrugged. Then he gestured to himself. “Ghouls, zombies, lesser undead like us? We’re the equivalent of those black ops teams you send in to get the impossible missions done. Elite infantry, if you will. And then there’s the werewolves and other lycanthropes.”
“Those guys…” John shook his head bemusedly. “I guess you could say they’re like tanks. Or, more like tank brigades since they tend to run in packs. They are brutally tough and not even remotely subtle.”
I nodded to show I was following along. “What about the other stuff on our side?” I tried to remember some of the things Hans had mentioned when he’d let slip that fantasy and reality were the same damn thing. “Uh… changelings and mummies and demigods?” I swallowed, remembering the point of this conversation. “What about vampires.”
John grinned. “Well, that’s where you start getting into some special cases. Changelings are usually – not always, but usually – on their side. A changeling is a fae who was left in the place of a human infant. The human isn’t going to be much more than a particularly strong witch or warlock. I like to call them quislings, to differentiate from their fae counterparts. A quisling isn’t a really big deal, but a changeling can be a real bitch to deal with.” He frowned in reflective thought, then shook his head.
“Anyway,” John continued, “a mummy and other undead like that are more of the same: heavy hitters, ultra-elite infantry types. And if you make friends with a demigod, then congratulations: you’ve got the metaphorical equivalent of an aircraft carrier flotilla backing you up.”
John had spread his hands wider and wider as he put supernaturals into terms of bigger military hardware. Now he leaned back in his seat and folded his hands in his lap. “Which brings us to vampires,” he said.
I swallowed nervously. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know where I fell on John’s scale of power – but I needed to.
John studied my face. I watched him read the nervous anxiety and outright fear written on it. Then he sighed and shook his head again.
“You… vampires… You’re the nuclear deterrent. If shit gets too hot somewhere, then the Center scrambles a Director to the area and things calm down fast. If there’s a place we can’t afford to lose, one of the families stations a scion there to hold it. Vampires are the reason the fae retreated from Earth. The only reason we still have to deal with skirmishes and the occasional war is that there aren’t enough of you to keep everything locked down. Hell: the only reason we haven’t been able to force a complete surrender is that we can’t use you guys offensively. The land in fae is intrinsically bound to and controlled by its ruler. Any fae noble that is hostile to us keeps his kingdom in perpetual daylight.
John shrugged. The gesture conveyed that he was disappointed the Directors couldn’t just raze the kingdoms of faerie land to bare earth. Disappointed, but also resigned that it was what it was and there was no point dwelling on it. “Anyway, if you want to protect your friends then you should tell them what you are as soon as possible. If they know about magic then they’ll have a shot at spotting it if someone is trying to use it against them. And if they know about you, then they have a threat to level against whatever fae is doing it.” He snorted scornfully. “There isn’t a fae smart enough to get into this world that wouldn’t piss himself rather than tangle with someone who has a vampire on call. Vampires are the only ones who can kill them for good.”
I nodded slowly, but I couldn’t just take John at his word on that. It didn’t mesh with the things I’d seen: Yeah, Melvin hadn’t wanted to fight Mr. Salvatore. But when I turned it into a point of honor he’d sucked it up and thrown himself into an impossible fight just for the sake of keeping his promise. And okay, maybe that was an extenuating circumstance – maybe fae couldn’t break their oaths or something. But what about Mr. Eyelids and the other trolls and goblins? They hadn’t had a problem jumping Mr. Salvatore in one big, brutal melee fest.
“What about if there’s a bunch of fae, though?” I asked.
John scoffed. Then he smiled, but it was a tight, pained smile. “Well, if there are a bunch of them and they pick a fight with you then a lot more people are going to be in danger than just your friends.” He shook his head once more. “But if they’re voluntarily tackling vampires, then you aren’t dealing with your typical faerie raiders.”
My blood – Emma’s blood – ran cold. My autopilot froze my face to keep my expression from changing, but fresh spikes of fear ran through me with each of John’s words as he continued.
“No fae – not even an army of them – is going to risk its immortal life going up against a vampire just for a taste of some mortal. And if the vampire is the target, then the fae aren’t going to give warning by going after mortals first.”
I swallowed and hoped I wasn’t trembling. In my mind’s eye I saw just that – an army of fae surging past me to get at Mr. Salvatore. I’d thought they’d been motivated by my offer to surrender myself to the victor. But that had been last night. Back when I had still been ‘some mortal.’
“If it comes down to fae picking a fight with vampires, then it’s going to be because they have something big going on,” John said. “But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I doubt you’ll have to face something like that alone.” He chuckled. “Frankly, if it comes down to the fae behaving like that, then it will probably be because we’re already at war again.”