I was pulled out of my reverie when a phone rang in the other room. It was my phone: I’d been an anxious wreck while waiting for that ring tone too many times in the past not to recognize it. I was out of the bathroom and picking it up in just as much time as it took for me to stop time, which is to say: none at all. The number on the phone’s faceplate was Linda’s. I let time resume. The first ring hadn’t even finished before I had flipped it open and answered.
Behind me, Dad, who had been turning from his bag on the bed toward the table with the phone, let out a startled exclamation. Fumiko laughed, but I thought I detected a hint of shakiness to it — if there was one thing I knew, it was what people sounded like when they were covering up how unnerved they were. “Yeah, that takes some getting used to,” Fumiko told Dad. I ignored them.
“Linda?” I asked.
“Speaking,” she answered.
I breathed out. If she was calling instead of texting, then Lewellan must not be wherever she was. On the one hand, that made things easier. On the other: now I had to worry about what he was up to and where he was. Whatever. If he got in my way I’d just have to deal with him sooner rather than later. “Good. How is Emma holding up?” I asked without further preamble.
A moment passed before Linda answered. It was enough to shake my newfound confidence as every scenario for something going wrong ran through my head. She might have died. She might have gone comatose, and was in the process of either becoming a living ghoul or dying. Or maybe Lewellan had decided she was a lost cause and used her blood to bring back his buddy Mr. Salvatore. Not that I thought Linda would have let Lewellan get away with that — but the thing about irrational fears is that they aren’t known for being rational.
“She’s still stable,” Linda finally answered.
I felt my heart speed back up and I resumed breathing. I wasn’t sure how much I trusted Linda not to be holding back pertinent details, but I would take what I could get — and if she was lying to me I’d deal with it later. “Good,” I said. “Alright, now I need to know some things. First of all: is it safe to talk? Lewellan and Adrian aren’t around to overhear?” Presumably that was the case. My assumption was that she wouldn’t have called if it hadn’t been safe to — especially since she had texted Emma’s condition to John, earlier. Still, there was no sense in not taking precautions — and if Lewellan was around and she lied about it, well… that would go in the ‘deal with it later,’ queue. Or perhaps the ‘deal with it later, violently,’ queue.
“It’s safe enough,” Linda said. “Lewellan left with Hans a few hours ago, after I told him there was nothing left to do for Emma but wait.”
A few hours ago? I didn’t like the sound of that. A lot of shit could go wrong in a couple hours. Deal with it later. “Okay,” I said. “Then I need to know…”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Linda said flatly. “I am not going to answer any more of your questions before you answer some of mine, Ms. Abigail. I only gave you that first one as a courtesy, from one person who cares about Emma’s well-being to another who claims to. So, tell me: what exactly makes you think I will be willing to answer anything you had to ask, given that I told you I would end you if you let further harm befall my Emma.”
My eyes narrowed. Linda was raised by fae, I reminded myself. There was a possessiveness in her tone that went far beyond a mentor for a former apprentice. I wonder if she feels that way about all of ‘her’ witches. “Because I didn’t do her further harm,” I answered just as coldly, “and I know how to undo what harm has been done.”
“So your text implied,” Linda said. “How?”
This time I hesitated. If Lewellan was listening in, then spelling out my intentions would give him a big advantage in stopping us. All he would have to do would be to wait outside the gate, and we would be forced to confront him. If he brought along all the vampire scions John had talked about, then I didn’t know if that would be something we could overcome.
But if it came to that, we’d just have to get through them. And it would be one more thing to avenge in my ‘deal with people later’ list.
“Megan,” I said.
“The changeling?” Linda asked in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“Megan and Emma used to date,” I said to establish why I knew Megan would help. Of course, I knew Megan would help just because she was a good person, but I’d had too many people decide my judgement wasn’t good enough to trust, today. Or last night. Whatever. “And she is fae. You grew up with fae, so you know better than anyone what they’re capable of. So, you tell me: If I bring Megan to Emma’s side, will she be able to draw in all of the aura your coven is pushing out into the world and then directly channel it into Emma, forcing the tainted life force out in the process? Wouldn’t that be a better plan than just hoping Emma’s soul is in good enough shape to draw in the essence your coven is making available fast enough to force out the curse on its own?”
This, I felt, was a moment of truth. So far everything I’d been planning had been based on my own reasoning. I’d been confident it would work — it had to work — but Linda was the one who actually knew about magic. If she agreed, I would be vindicated. If she didn’t, then I’d just be making a mad gamble and praying.
“That could work,” Linda exclaimed in surprise. “Abigail, why didn’t you propose this to the Director?”
“I did,” I said darkly. “He didn’t listen. He decided arbitrarily that Megan was the enemy and that she and I had to be detained far, far away from Emma. That’s why I ditched him and his goon to begin with. He’s playing some kind of game. Center politics, I figure. But he’s playing it with my Emma’s life, so fuck him.”
I heard Linda take a deep breath on the other end of the line. When she had calmed down, she spoke again. “What do you need?” She asked. “I have to stay here with Emma and my coven, but if I can help, I will.”
“Megan was abducted,” I said. “Katherine managed to grab her last night — and we have reason to believe she was taken to faerie land. So I need you to tell me where Archarel’s gate is and how to open it, so we can go there and get her back.”
“And I think that’s been enough of that,” a male voice suddenly interjected from the background on Linda’s end. Linda made a frustrated protest, but it was cut off shortly and the man’s voice grew clearer — he had taken the phone. “Hello. Ms. Abigail, I presume? It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Who is this?” I demanded.
“Ah. Sorry about that. Thomas Cullison, at your service. Or rather, disservice. I’m sorry, but when Lewellan gets back I really don’t want to have to tell him that I let Linda give you aid.”
I grit my teeth. “Mr. Cullison, you may wish to reconsider interrupting my conversation,” I ground out. Mentally, I added him to the ‘deal with violently’ list.”
“No,” Cullison countered. “I’m quite sure. The Director has a nasty little spell that lets him know when he’s being lied to, and I really don’t want to wind up in the same boat you are for defying him.” He chuckled. “That said, I’m impressed. Both that you really managed to piss him off, and that you’ve come up with a solution to this problem that actually sounds feasible.”
“Thank you,” I said bitterly. I’ll remember your kind words when I’m dismembering you, asshole. If anything happens to Emma because you don’t let me help her…
“You’re welcome,” Cullison interrupted my viciously dire thought. “And please, allow me to also say that going after the gate would be an utter failure ranging on suicidal. Given the mess going on in this city with fae running amok and Directors being crispified, one of the first things Lewellan did was station a scion there. And Mr. Fiore is rather militant, I’m afraid. He grew up getting ready for the next great war and didn’t stop when he died. Plus, on top of that, you have to realize that Archarel would have at least as many guards on his side as we have on our side — and, of course, if you stepped through it would only be a matter of time before you were cinders, anyway.”
That made me hesitate. Why was he telling me this instead of letting me blunder into it? Was he just trying to intimidate me into giving up? “Thanks for the warning,” I said. I was pretty sure my distrust was audible. “But why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re right,” Cullison quietly answered. “Something is off, here. A city that was basically a Director’s vacation home for decades suddenly needs a vampire sentinel? A Director and four scions being sent directly to the site, rather than the Center appointing the position to a single family? I could perhaps see that as an emergency measure appropriate to the intelligence we received that Archarel is in the process of securing a new changeling. But then there’s you: another young vampire that none of us scions were told about until you somehow managed to slip Director Lewellan’s control — and did so in such a way that he felt the need to draft our assistance in hunting you down. That doesn’t make sense to me, Ms. Abigail. And I have no pressing desire to see you disappear once more into the obscurity of Lewellan’s custody until I’ve found out why exactly you’re so important that the Director kept your existence secret from us — especially since, from what I’ve overheard, you have a better handle on the scope of the faerie threat to this city and the players involved than any of the rest of us. Does that reasoning suffice?”
“That depends,” I replied. “If your curiosity is ever sated, where will that leave us?”
Cullison chuckled. His laugh reminded me of Melvin’s: light and carefree, but without the underlying edge of malice barely restrained by amusement. “About where we are now, I’d say. I’ll be frank, Ms. Abigail. I’m the one with the short fangs: the youngest Scion in this city. That’s why they left me behind to ‘man the fort.’ I have no invested interest in pursuing Lewellan’s favor in hopes of being granted this city’s sentinelhood, because that will not happen. My own sire told me that my inclusion in this mission was to network, not pursue my own aggrandizement. So my actions will be dictated by my decisions, not the Director’s demands. And from what I have overheard you are genuinely acting on behalf of the best interests of that poor woman upstairs — and Lewellan is not. Do I need any more reason than that not to hinder you? Should any decent person need more reason than that?”
I felt a little stunned by that response. “Alright,” I said even though I didn’t know if I trusted it. “Thank you.” I swallowed. “Watch over Emma for me, and I’ll tell you all about my side of the story when I show up with Megan. Maybe between the two of us we can figure out what exactly Lewellan is doing.” And when I showed up with Megan, if Thomas Cullison turned out to be lying to me now and chose to get in my way… well, then he’d end up right back on my ‘deal with violently’ list. Twice.
“So, even knowing that the gate is unassailable and faerie land is death to our sort, you are determined to proceed?” Cullison asked.
That rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I was overcompensating for Lewellan’s asshattery, but I was in no mood to put up with people who didn’t know me questioning my competence. “Yes,” I growled. “But not just to proceed,” I added without thinking. I was too angry for that — and I wasn’t even talking to Cullison, anyway. I was talking to myself, and Fumiko and Dad and Lewellan and Melvin and anyone else who might think I wasn’t serious, or might think the odds were too damn much. “I will succeed, Cullison. Because in the past week I have survived being murdered, being burned alive, and being surrounded by psychotic faeries twice. Without help from your damned Center, I’ve learned how to feed my curse without hurting my friends or any other innocents. I hunted down a faerie without the assistance of a coven of witches, even though he was keeping himself invisible. Frankly, if you’re telling me that all it will take to save the people I care about is for me to do something impossible again, then guess what? I’ll fucking do it. And anyone or anything that tries to stop me is going to end up like the first fucker to test me, Cullison. And just in case you don’t know what that means: he ended up as a fucking pile of charcoal in my boyfriend’s basement.”
“Hey now!” Cullison protested. “I’m on your side. At least, insofar as I can be without getting the Director just as pissed with me. But you know what? Never mind. We’ve been talking too long, anyway, and I haven’t been hearing anything like travel noise on your end. You need to get moving.”
“Oh yeah?” I snapped back, still angry — maybe even angrier now that he was trying to tell me what to do. “And why should I do what you say, when I’ve already told off Lewellan?”
Cullison snorted. “Because I want to know what’s going on here. And that means I’m going to have to talk to you again — which will only happen if you don’t get caught, first. Now: I may be here, and Mr. Fiore is at the gate — but that leaves one Director, two Scions, five ghouls and who knows how many mortal agents hunting for you. And do you realize how much shit with your blood on it was lying around over here? Lewellan was a warlock in life, Ms. Abigail. They all have charms to track you, and those would have gone live as soon as your aura woke up this evening. If you haven’t been on the run and they haven’t already descended on you, that can only mean they’re still converging on wherever you are — so the sooner you book it, the fewer of them will have consolidated to apprehend you.”
My hand dropped to my side. “Fuck,” I said before spinning around. Dad and Fumiko were both watching me, both tense. Belatedly I realized again that they’d only been privy to one half of my conversation. “We need to go,” I ordered. “Lewellan’s goons have spells that can track me now that I’m awake, and they’re on their way — if they aren’t already here.”
Fumiko and Dad immediately started moving toward the door. I followed suit. At the same time, my enhanced ears had no problem hearing Cullison continue to talk through the lowered phone. “Ah,” he said, “it looks like I need to go, too. The Director is almost back. I’ll call you when it’s safe — for me — and we can have that talk about his motives, Ms. Abigail. Until then: good luck escaping everyone he’s throwing at you and eluding them through the night. Because if you really mean to do anything else for your friends, then that’s just the first impossible thing you’ll have to pull off.”