I’d thought Mr. Salvatore had been making up a story to explain himself to the Directors when he’d accused me of being in league with the fae and arranging for him to lock himself away for a year. Now, suddenly, I wasn’t sure. After all, according to John: the fae wouldn’t face down a vampire just for a taste of some ‘mere mortal.’ But they’d faced down Mr. Salvatore.
What if Mr. Salvatore hadn’t just been making shit up to cover his ass? I knew I wasn’t part of some faerie conspiracy. But I couldn’t deny that Mr. Salvatore had been effectively out of commission for a year, and the fae had gone after him when he’d come back.
John’s words echoed in my brain: it’s probably because we’re already at war again.
I tried to keep the panic from my face. I failed.
John straightened. “Hey,” he said soothingly. “It’s going to be alright. Yes, you’re pretty intimidating. That’s a good thing. And no one’s going to throw you into the thick of things. With any luck the Director will just tell you to keep an eye on the city while the Center is waiting for you to adjust.”
I laughed. It was the nervous, hyper laugh that meant I was about to crack. I gave up on asking important questions and let my conversational autopilot take over. I just tried to focus on holding it together. If I was lucky the Director would just ask me to keep an eye on the city? Fuck me. I didn’t even know how to protect Megan from the fae – how was I supposed to be responsible for the whole damn city? “You don’t understand,” I said. “We’re at war already. Mr. Salvatore got bushwhacked by a small army of fae last night that had shown up to eat me. That means they’re up to something big. You said so.”
John held his hand up. “Whoa, slow down. What?”
I let the story spill out of me, not really trying to control what I said. I left out the parts about my conversations with the fae, and Melvin, and how I’d tried to recruit them… but told him how they’d ganked Mr. Salvatore after Mr. Salvatore had dropped Hans and been chasing me.
John was silent for a moment afterward. That wasn’t reassuring. But after that moment, he nodded sharply to himself. “They must have been drawn by your fear, and not realized who and what Mr. Salvatore was. They wouldn’t have had any reason to expect running into him on a random street corner – their attack doesn’t make sense, otherwise.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it. It didn’t make sense and John was wrong but I wasn’t exactly able to offer any other explanations. Unfortunately, Autopilot Abby wasn’t ready to let the subject drop. “Okay.” I said. “Maybe. But how does putting me in charge of the city not count as throwing me into the thick of things? And what makes you so sure they aren’t kicking the war back into swing? You said yourself: The Center stations vampires where they’re needed. So what is it about this particular city that got us saddled with Mr. Salvatore? I mean, that would seem to indicate that there’s something here that necessitates the deployment of a ‘nuclear deterrent,’ right?”
“Er,” John said. “Well… yes and no,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “How much do you know about the last big faerie war?”
“Not a lot,” I admitted grudgingly. “Hans said he fought in it,” I added. “That’s how he met Mr. Salvatore. I guess Hans served under him, because he said Mr. Salvatore was a general back then.”
Was that really all I knew? That was all I could remember about it from the night Hans had first revealed he was a werewolf.
“Alright,” John said. “That’s a start.” He paused, considering his words. “One of the last major battlegrounds in that war was in this city. At the time, there wasn’t a vampire in residence here. In fact, by that point the defenses in place were pretty thin. Most of the mortal practitioners and more mobile supernaturals had been drafted into the fighting elsewhere.”
John looked at me to see if I was following. I nodded impatiently for him to continue.
“Well, that made sound enough strategic sense,” John continued. “Archarel – that’s the king in the fairyland equivalent of here – hadn’t gotten involved in the previous war and hadn’t done anything to indicate he was going to make a move in this one, either. But the upshot was that this city’s protection was mostly in the hands of mortal dabblers who weren’t strong enough to contribute elsewhere – and the local werewolf pack, since their alpha was too territorial to leave ‘his’ land.”
I nodded again, but now a sick feeling had joined the anxiety roiling about in my gut. I really didn’t think it was a coincidence that Hans was a werewolf and a wolf pack had been in charge of the city. I didn’t think Archarel was going to keep sitting things out, and I had a nasty suspicion that John’s narrative was going to turn bad, because Hans didn’t have a pack. He’d even told Emma he was a loner.
“Hans is a loner,” I pointed out. I really hoped I was jumping to conclusions, and John’s story wasn’t about him.
John dashed my hopes.
“He wasn’t always,” John said. “And frankly, speaking as his friend, he shouldn’t be now.” John’s lip curled in something like a smile that felt like a frown. “At the time I’m speaking of, Hans was the youngest, newest member of the pack. The cub of the family, if you will. And that’s why, when it hit the fan, he was the one sent for help. He was the least experienced, the most expendable, and the least able to resist a direct order from the alpha.” John snorted. “None of the others could have gone. Their instincts – territoriality, pack loyalty – were too deeply ingrained; too developed. They knew what they were in for, and they wouldn’t have been able to make themselves abandon their city – or each other – to face it alone. But they knew they couldn’t stop what was coming, so Hans was forced to be the messenger.”
I swallowed. “What happened?”
“Archarel had a changeling,” John said. “The reason these wars and skirmishes are so spread out in time isn’t because the fae need to recover their numbers. They’ll come back almost as fast as you can kill them – unless the one doing the killing is a vampire. But at the same time, the fae don’t belong in this world. Mortal disbelief is enough to banish them, or keep them confined to lurking in the shadows.”
“A changeling changes that,” John explained. “When you have a fae that is essentially native to this world, whose existence is irrefutably believed in by their family, coworkers, childhood friends – well, that faerie can’t just be disbelieved. And their power serves as an anchor. A quisling that knows about the fae makes it harder – impossible, really – for mere disbelief to banish other nearby fae.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said. John snorted again.
“It isn’t,” he said. “But fortunately, the quisling side of the equation wasn’t as loyal as Archarel thought. He’d been using her as a spy. She’d posed as a dabbler and been infiltrating the local supernatural network for years. In the process, she’d grown attached to people. When she discovered Archarel’s intentions, she broke her cover and warned the werewolves.”
Okay, that didn’t sound so bad, then. “So it wasn’t an ambush,” I said.
“No,” John confirmed. “But it was still a slaughter. Archarel’s troops were functionally immortal. They came back as fast as they were slain, and Archarel had known he’d have to deal with the wolf pack eventually. He hadn’t expected them to respond so soon, but he’d still armed as many of his minions with silver as he could.”
“Terrance – that would be the pack alpha – did his best,” John continued. “Hell, he did more than anyone could have expected. It was Spartans facing down the Persians all over again, except this time the Persians were literally innumerable, the Spartans numbered only twenty-three – and they had no idea whether or not reinforcements would come, let alone when. But by God: Terrance kept Archarel’s fae pinned down; bottlenecked with the changeling.”
“It wasn’t enough, though,” John said. “Hans did find help – Dad and his forces, myself among them. But by the time we got there, Terrance and his pack mates had been overrun. A few had bought more time with a fighting retreat, and the dabblers had been doing their best – but Archarel had broken through and his forces were dispersing through the city.”
“Long story short,” John said, “we only won because the quisling led us to the changeling. Dad killed her, and the rest of us went to work on the others. It was an ugly fight, but we got it done.”
John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Without his changeling, Archarel was effectively out of the war – he couldn’t mount enough of an offense to overwhelm a competent circle of wizards. Dad left one of his covens and a few ghosts here to support the local dabblers, and we got back to the war. Hans came with us. I don’t know if it was desire for revenge on someone, or if the city had too many painful memories of his pack mates, or if he was just too much the beta to cope with being on his own. Maybe all three. After the war, he didn’t come back. Dad released me from his service; Hans and I spent about a decade roaming the continental United States and raising hell before parting ways. Meanwhile, dad stepped into the power vacuum here to keep those fae who had gone to ground after the changeling died from screwing with the mortals too overtly.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know exactly what to say to that. “So… your dad, er, Mr. Salvatore, just took over because the werewolves were gone?”
John nodded. “Not took over so much as volunteered to keep the peace. He was a general back during the war – he would have been a Director once peace was won. The Directors go where they’re needed, so dad decided to stay here and keep an eye on things until Hans came back. For him it was sort of like… a cross between house sitting and an extended vacation.”
“Except Hans didn’t come back on his own,” I said, “and even though he’s here now he didn’t bring a pack along with.”
“No,” John admitted, “Although he could still make one if he wanted. But that’s kind of the point: even though Hans is here, he doesn’t have a pack, so this place still needs a strong enough figurehead to keep the fae from acting up – which should be a nice, safe way for you to adjust to your new life.”
I scowled. “I fail to see how living opposite an immortal warmonger would be nice and safe,” I said bluntly.
John chuckled. “Archarel’s changeling died. Permanently. Archarel might be an immortal warmonger, but he has no more power in this world than any other fae. The changeling was the threat, and that was only because she was of his blood. Fae rulers are intrinsically bound to their land. Some of that power extends to their family line, and some of that manifests wherever they happen to be, even if that land isn’t really theirs. The changeling was like a walking embassy, giving Archarel’s vassals immunity to some of the regular rules while she was present. And since one of the things she was immune to was mortal disbelief that was one of the powers she extended to other fae near her. But without her Archarel can’t provide the same protection to his minions, and he knows it. He can’t do any sort of large scale offensive because the mortal inhabitants of this city would cripple it without even trying.
“Well, what’s to stop him from getting another changeling?” I asked obstinately.
“Nothing,” John allowed, “but the fae are immortal, and that has impacted their evolution. I’ve never heard of a fae family growing by more than a single child in a century, if that – and it was because the changeling was Archarel’s daughter that her presence affected the land around her; made the rules of magic around her mirror those in Archarel’s kingdom. If Archarel ‘got a changeling’ that wasn’t of his family, it wouldn’t do much good to him because its powers wouldn’t extend to his followers – they would extend to the vassals of the changeling’s family, instead. So it will be decades yet before Archarel sires another child – and on top of that: if Archarel goes the changeling route again it will be another decade or two before his changeling has grown up enough to be firmly anchored in this world.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah,” John said back. “So I hope you can understand why I’m less concerned about fae at the moment than I am about you saying you were worried about Emma. Given our encounter and the warning I gave you this morning, there’s only one reason that leapt to my mind when I heard you wanted to talk to me, and you said you were worried about her.”
John shrugged. “I know you said this worry wasn’t related to my warning – so I’m guessing you haven’t caught her preparing to slit her wrists over dad’s corpse. And that has me curious as to what’s wrong and how you think I can help. So let’s put the history lessons aside. Why don’t you tell me what happened since this afternoon to change your mind about talking with me?”