Henry paid the driver without looking at the number of bills or the numbers on them. He was far past caring: it had been a brutally stormy day, he had gotten his ass handed to him in that fight, and then it had started drizzling again on his way back to the house. He just wanted to get out of the cab before his hunger took complete hold and he slaughtered the driver. He got out of the back and stumbled down the walk, ignoring the cabbie’s profuse thank yous for the generous tip. It was only money, after all.
At the door, Henry knocked twice to announce himself and then just let himself in. It wasn’t locked: vampires rarely locked their home physically. If anyone tried to come in without the owner’s permission, well: it would be an unfortunate thing for the mortal trespasser.
Lewellan was waiting for him in the house’s front room. The Director was seated at the small corner table. He had a laptop and his phone on the table next to him, and his feet up on the second chair. He nodded to Henry when Henry came in. He was flipping through some thin book — one of Abigail’s, Henry guessed from its garishly illustrated cover. There was a bag of them on the table, behind the laptop.
“She’s tough,” Henry said. That was the extent of the excuses he was willing to give, and he didn’t even know if he was talking about the vampire who had gone around flipping over cars and bashing people with concrete — or her entirely mortal friend, who had thrown him around like he was a child.
Lewellan looked over Henry’s injuries. Henry had done his best to clean up his face before flagging down the cab, but he had still pretty obviously been the recent recipient of a beating. Unlike vampires, ghouls didn’t have innate accelerated healing. They could heal over time, like a normal human — complete with the chance of a broken bone healing wrong, and other similar complications. If they wanted to tap into any of their more pronounced undead abilities, on the other hand, they had to feed. Without having eaten recently, Henry wasn’t much more than an extremely tough, extremely strong human who could see in the dark better than most and disliked sunlight. With a recent meal in him, however, he would be stronger, tougher; his senses would be sharper and he would be able to move so fast that time seemed to crawl — and his wounds would mend as instantly and perfectly as any vampire’s.
“Adrian said there is food to be had,” Henry said when Lewellan didn’t respond. He, like his brothers, intensely disliked the necessity of feeding — but as with vampires, it was a need. It came with the advantage of enhanced powers, but it wasn’t something that could be neglected in exchange for sacrificing those powers — and as with vampires, the hunger was something that constantly built. And built faster when those passive powers — strength and toughness — were taxed.
Or when it rained, since ghouls — for some inexplicable reason that could only be blamed on ‘magic’ — had more trouble with flowing water than they did sunlight.
“Downstairs,” Lewellan said with a frown. “I’m afraid it is not quite prepared,” he added. “The man in question must have had a lot of willpower, once, and that portion of his aura which suffuses his soul rather than being contained by it is still burning away. The witch, Mrs. Fleischer, concurs, however. It is only a matter of time before even that is gone and his life extinguishes.”
Henry nodded in acknowledgment. “I’ll wait,” he said — though that was a lie. Between his injuries and the rain — and the water flowing through storm gutters and sewers and pipes throughout the city that he’d had to cross repeatedly while hunting Abigail, and then again on his way home, he was too exhausted to keep fighting his hunger long and he knew it. Only the prospect of an available meal had sufficed to keep him from murdering the cabbie whom he had called for at the hotel.
This is shit weather for fighting, he thought angrily. But while that anger was directed at the weather, the weather was not the real source of it. Henry was angry because he knew his father. He knew Lewellan played at the game of vampire politics more than most at the Center realized — that Lewellan’s guise of neutrality was, in fact, a mask the Director employed in order to slip into place where he could determine policy as he saw fit simply because he seemed to be a trustworthy compromise from the point of view of the various factions.
Henry didn’t know if this was an instance where Lewellan had exercised that strategy, or if he actually had been assigned to this city because he had been available and the Center needed someone supposedly neutral to ride herd on the Scions of rival families. Frankly, Henry didn’t particularly care because he was beginning to suspect that either way, Lewellan was putting things in motion to force the Center’s hand in one way or another. Henry just didn’t know which way or why.
Unfortunately, being a ghoul meant that he wasn’t exactly included in the Center’s councils, and was rarely briefed on the politics behind whatever mess Lewellan and his circle was being dispatched to address. But too many oddities had cropped up from meeting Abigail for him to honestly believe that she was actually out of control. Especially since Henry hadn’t gone far when he’d fled the scene — and he’d crept back in hopes that Abigail would have moved on quickly. But no, she had stayed to help Mr. Docet, even though that meant staying in one place to do it. Which had prevented Henry from getting to his car and forced him to call a taxi. She couldn’t have known that, though — but there was no way she couldn’t have realized that sitting still to take care of her enemies would have given Ms. Grenz and Henry’s other siblings more time catch up to her. But Abigail had done it anyway, and that didn’t mesh with the description of her that was painted by the crimes she stood convicted of.
Lewellan nodded. “By all means,” he said. He made a magnanimous gesture toward the hallway. “And when you do head out again, take some slivers of flesh for your brothers. It seems that Abigail must have killed others and built her aura to levels that make her extremely dangerous. They may need the enhancement of a recent meal to deal with her.
Henry nodded curtly. He wasn’t even sure all of them, enhanced, would be able to take down Abigail. How old is she, anyway? Henry didn’t ask his question. He knew that in some regards a vampire’s power wasn’t a factor of age so much as available energy — a younger vampire could simply outlast an older one, if the younger was fed and the older wasn’t, by regenerating until the older vamp fell dormant. On the other hand, endurance wasn’t everything — and the amount of energy which a vampire’s aura could hold, as well as supernatural physical prowess like strength and speed, did increase with age. And it could start out naturally stronger based on the potency of a vampire’s first blood, and their own magical aptitude while they’d been alive. Abigail had been damn fast, though — and ridiculously strong. Strong enough and fast enough to imply that she had been around for a while, which made the fact that she was an unknown all the more worrisome. Had Mr. Salvatore been turning humans without reporting his Scions to the Center? If so, that might explain Abigail’s extreme strength and speed — and Lewellan’s determination to put her in the ground. Lewellan and Mr. Salvatore had been friends, after all, and it wouldn’t be the first time they’d cleaned up after each other.
Instead of voicing his suspicions, however, Henry turned and strode out of the room, down the hall and into the basement parlor. He was hungry to the point of giving in to it — and too aware of the numerous young women tending their fallen friend upstairs. It would be disastrous if he lost control and his undead half decided they would make for closer, fresher, meat.
In the basement, Henry found the promised meal — and, as Lewellan had said, it was not ‘prepared.’ The homeless man was laid out on the bar at the back of the room. His belongings were in a pile at the corner of the bar and the wall. His shirt had been cut open, and Henry could see the slow rise and fall of his chest. Henry walked over and inspected the man. He was older, but looked like he might’ve been a tough customer under other circumstances. Even unconscious, his features didn’t quite seem to relax. And there wasn’t a mark on him.
Henry scowled. Aura depletion, he mentally concurred. Shit. The absence of any sort of injuries further implied that sympathetic healing had been at work, giving Abigail’s claim that she hadn’t fed on him away as a lie. Now Henry was even more confused. He had met a compulsive liar before, but Aaron’s lies had been blatant and Aaron had never bothered to back them up with a facade of actions. Was Abigail so duplicitous that she would take care of Mr. Docet and his donors just to lend implied credence to her claim that she hadn’t murdered anyone else? Or was this a more calculated plan — not a compulsive deception, but a step deliberately taken to turn her enemies’ opinions in her favor?
Ultimately, it didn’t matter though. Not at the moment. Henry’s scowl deepened. He hated being the ‘chef.’ He turned and walked to the couch, then claimed one of the cushions from it before returning to the bar. “Sorry,” he muttered. “But it’s either you or someone who has a lot more of a life ahead of them. And it’s either like this, or I wait until the hunger takes over. I’d rather not start ripping chunks out of you indiscriminately until you die and they start actually doing something for me, mister.”
Henry took a deep breath and mumbled a brief prayer. Henry did not generally consider himself a very religious man. Most of the time, he didn’t think his activities were such that the good Lord would be bothered to take notice, and most of his concerns were too petty to merit divine attention, anyway. But meal times were different. Everyone needs forgiven, sometimes. “Lord, I thank you for this bounty I am about to receive, knowing full well the price of it. I ask that you forgive this man his sins in life — though he is near the end of it, it shall be cut shorter still by my hand and my need, leaving him without the time to atone for them himself. May you accept his soul and nourish his spirit among your host, oh Lord, as I accept his flesh to nourish my own. In Jesus’ name I beg. Amen.”
Then Henry placed the cushion over the comatose man’s face and pressed down. He squeezed his own eyes shut as he did, and mentally recited another prayer for forgiveness — even though he bore no illusions on the matter: he was going to hell, forgiven or not. At least this way it would be painless for the comatose man — not that Henry supposed physical pain really mattered when a body was so devoid of an aura as to be on the verge of death. There was no one in residence to feel it, as it were.
Henry kept his head bowed. He had gone from prayers to a slow, metronome counting. The man whose life he was going to end wasn’t struggling, so he didn’t have that to gauge the progress of his execution. But then, that was to be expected: the poor man’s soul lacked the aura to motivate his body to any action, even to survival. If Henry hadn’t taken steps to execute him, he would have died soon anyway: the body’s unconscious activities would have wound down as the bit of aura that motivated them slipped away from his remaining soul. He would have stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating; he would have passed on regardless. It just would have taken another hour or two or three — time in which Henry would most likely have been forced to do something dire.
“Forgive me,” Henry whispered — but this time, he did not ask it of the Lord. Instead, he asked it of the man who was soon to expire so that Henry — Henry, and others who may have been Henry’s victims — would live.
Of course, Henry expected no reply except damning silence. And so he let out a startled yelp when the man suddenly twitched on the counter.
Henry leapt back, taking the couch cushion with him. He stared at the man on the counter in shock. Is he recovering? How?! The homeless man spasmed again, then coughed — a deep, hacking sound followed by a hissing gurgle. He rolled off of the counter and caught himself against the floor.
“Lewellan!” Henry shouted while the man he had tried to kill slowly rose up on all fours. Henry started forward to render assistance — only to recoil when the man’s head snapped around to face him with a snarl.
A face with dead, hungering eyes and a snarl that revealed two rows of razor-pointed teeth.
“Feral!” Henry screamed — a warning for anyone who might hear it — even as the newly-risen ghoul leapt at him. Henry blocked the out-of-control ghoul’s grasping arms, but was knocked over in the process.
The homeless ghoul’s razor teeth snapped at him, and Henry snarled back — the instincts of his undead nature, which he had barely been holding back, rising up in response. With a roar, Henry threw the feral ghoul off of himself and pushed himself up to his feet.
The feral ghoul scrabbled across the floor, caught himself against the wall and then charged forward again. Henry’s fingers curled into claws and he braced himself to catch his opponent, but before they could collide Lewellan was in the basement.
Lewellan caught the newly-raised ghoul by surprise, slowing down just to snag him out of the air and then hurling him across the bar with enough force to splinter a shelf and send bottles crashing down.
“Henry, get back now,” Lewellan snapped.
It was a good order, the human part of Henry acknowledged — if there was anything worse than one feral ghoul in your basement it was two — but his undead half was too riled up and his human half too diminished to rein it in. He was already the next best thing to feral himself. He snarled despite having every intention of following his father’s command, and braced himself to kill someone.
Lewellan swore. He spun and cast a geas into Henry. The shock of it pushed back his undead half, giving his human side a chance to regain control. Henry took it. He scrambled back, fleeing the room before he could lose himself to his undead instincts again. With the geas in place reinforcing the order that he flee, turning to fight instead would destroy what little humanity he had left until he had the opportunity to feed again.
Meanwhile, Lewellan spun back to face Daniel, who had recovered and pulled himself over the bar, then leaped at Lewellan’s back.
Lewellan spun toward Daniel just in time to block the ghoul with his arm — barely holding him at bay, then heaving him back again. Only this time, Lewellan kept his attention on Daniel and pulled a heavy revolver from under his jacket.
The ghoul began to rise, twisting around so that he could rush Lewellan again, and Lewellan pulled the trigger. The round smashed Daniel into the ground. It didn’t kill him, though: he was already dead.
Lewellan backed away toward the door, firing into Daniel methodically, keeping him from rising while Lewellan put distance between them. Then, once Lewellan ascertained that Henry had gotten himself out of the room, the Director darted back, vampire fast, and slammed the door shut behind him.
Henry immediately braced himself against the door — and a good thing too, because the feral ghoul slammed into it mere seconds later. Lewellan turned and leaned into the door as well — but rather than bracing it, he had a single hand placed in its center. The door shuddered again as the ghoul slammed into it on the other side — and then once more as the Director channeled magic into it, fusing it into its frame.
Henry stumbled back to sit on the steps leading upstairs and try to calm himself, to get a grip before he could lose it to his undead half again. When he was breathing regularly once more, he looked up at his father in concern — using magic to physically alter the world required an enormous amount of power. Fortunately, Lewellan appeared fine. The witches, Henry realized. They had been dumping their auras into the general ambient magic within the house all day. Lewellan must have tapped into that in order to fuel his spell.
“What the hell just happened?” Henry asked.
Lewellan turned away from the door with a deep frown. “Apparently, the unfortunate young woman upstairs is not the only victim Abigail has cursed.”
Henry shivered. And I thought maybe she was being misunderstood somehow. But she just left that man out there to transition or die on his own? Why is it that the really twisted sickos are the ones that always seem so benign? His brothers were going to go berserk on her when they found out.
The door continued to shudder from the ghoul beating on it. Fortunately, however, Mr. Salvatore had considered the defensibility of his home, and all of the internal doors were at least as sturdy as the front doors of most other houses. With Lewellan’s magic reinforcing it, it would probably hold indefinitely.
“We should get some flesh,” Henry said. “It’ll take most of our emergency stock, but we can sate him.”
Lewellan looked down at his son with a surprised expression. Then he shook his head. “No. It would be far too dangerous — and did you note his age? That, on top of whatever drove him to abandon society to begin with, would make eternity a miserable existence. We will wait for daybreak. Then, when he has fallen dormant, we can tear down the door and bring him mercy.”
Henry swallowed. He didn’t like it, but he nodded. He had been around long enough to have met a senile ghoul, once. Lewellan had been brought to execute it as well, since its father had refused to step up and re-kill his son after old age had claimed him. It had been a tragic, messy and unfortunate business all around.
Lewellan frowned despite Henry’s acceptance of his dictate. “What of you,” the Director asked. “How are you holding up, Henry?”
Henry twitched. The geas Lewellan had put on him to make him flee had dissolved away when he fulfilled its conditions, but it had still taken some of his essence when it had been spiked into his soul. A necessary sacrifice, but on top of everything else? “Not good,” Henry admitted. “I was nearly berserk when that ghoul arose, and I already chewed through my jerky on the drive here.”
Human jerky was shit, but Henry and all of his siblings carried it in case of an emergency. It did little more than hold the pangs of their curse at bay, but sometimes that was enough to make the difference. Someone freshly dead was what he needed — no more than a week gone, if that.
Lewellan scowled, but then he heaved a sigh. “Sit tight,” he said. “I’ll contact your siblings and see how quickly one of them can get here to help, and have Adrian swing by the morgue. Once I have some numbers, if you think it will be longer than you can hold out we’ll discuss other options.” He strode past Henry, heading up the stairs.
Other options. Henry tried not to think about those. They were rarely savory — especially with his undead half scrabbling to give suggestions and worm its way back into control. The best case emergency option, if his human side got to decide it, was to take so much damage that he went dormant. He would go feral when he arose the next night, but it would give his family time to find a suitable meal at the morgue and dump it in a locked room with him.
But who wanted that? Certainly not Henry. He shifted on the bottom step, his desire to obey his father in sharp conflict with the urges that saw no reason to wait for a meal to be brought to him. After all, there were a lot of other options at hand. Most of them just had to be killed, first.