I’ve been hurt worse in my life. Like, if there was a way to accurately quantify pain then being burned alive by the sun would have trumped having bits of my arm cut out. Despite that, this felt worse. Maybe because I was choosing to do it, rather than just having to deal with it because it was being forced on me? But how does that make sense? My arm started regenerating immediately, of course. That didn’t actually numb the pain, exactly. It felt more like the pain was shrinking as the wound closed over and filled out. But where my arm was cut it still hurt until the skin closed over it entirely.
At least, that’s what it felt like. I didn’t watch. I knew if I looked, I’d start throwing up. I really didn’t want to deal with that again, so I kept my eyes shut and looked away. You’re not having your arm cut up for ghoul steaks, I tried to tell myself. As long as I was all healed by the time I looked, maybe I could even convince myself that my life hadn’t really gotten that fucked up.
At least, maybe I could if I could ignore the gutteral growl and loud chewing noises coming from the general direction of John. My stomach heaved, but before anything could come up Justin took another chunk out of my arm. The renewed pain served as enough of a shock to my system to keep my gorge in check. I still felt faint: not from any physical malady, since I could feel the new injury regenerating, too, but just from the psychological toll of knowing what was really happening no matter how much I wanted to pretend otherwise.
I was never going to do this again, I decided. When I’d been alive I’d always been too freaked out by the idea of knives slicing through flesh to include cutting in my plethora of unhealthy stress management techniques. Passing out from lack of air, scalding myself with hot water, bashing my head against a wall, grinding my fingers in a desk drawer — sure, I could deal with that. At the time it even seemed to help. This? No. Not again. Never. Never.
In the distance, Benjamin and Derrick seemed to have just realized what was happening. I heard them shouting, anyway. I couldn’t quite make out the words because I was too busy trying not to throw up again. Also, to keep a grip on myself as my reserve of aura drained into repairing my damaged arm faster than Justin could take cuts out of it, I thought just before he took out a third chunk. I really wished Benjamin would get over here with whoever had been hurt in the wrecked SUV. I could use a nice drink to take my mind off things. Or a stand-in to donate some more flesh to John — though that was probably too selfish of me to even think. After all, John was no one to Benjamin. Why would he let himself get cut up for a ghoul he didn’t even know? For that matter, how long had I even known John? A few days? Why was I letting this happen?
I figured that question was coming from my vampire side getting too close to the surface, so I shoved it away. That didn’t stop me from reexamining my current situation, though. I mean… I’d always sort of expected that I’d end up being cut up by a knife-wielding sociopath and eaten by a cannibal, but I’d also sort of figured that they’d be the same person. For that matter: I’d also been enslaved by a sadist — although Melvin hadn’t been able to keep his hooks in me — kidnapped by my boss, shot in the head and stabbed to death by a murderous stalker. Also, bitten by a werewolf and a vampire. If I had a checklist of things that I’d freaked out about while I was alive, just about the only thing that would be left on it would be being abducted by a cabbie and forced to face down a chupacabracorn.
There wasn’t much I could do about the chupacabracorn, really — one of their powers is that no one realizes what they are until it’s too late — but I swore then and there that I would never ever get in a taxicab. Or visit Canada. I might have to go into another world to rescue Megan, but that did not mean I would have to go into chupacabracorn territory to do it.
“Abby? Abby!” I was dragged out of my thoughts — my wonderful, escapist thoughts that precluded the rest of reality — by Benjamin shaking me. I blinked a few times and realized I’d been crying. I didn’t know when that had started. I didn’t hear chewing, though, and my arm felt fine.
“Hi,” I said weakly. “Think I can have another drink?”
Benjamin blew out a breath and pulled me away from Justin, who let my arm fall. Derrick was holding a battered looking woman up on her feet; Ben led me the three steps over to them.
The woman looked terrified. She was dressed in a plain blouse and pencil skirt — she wasn’t a solock, then. Just their driver? That didn’t actually make me feel much better about her.
I tried to put her at ease by smiling, anyway, but it probably didn’t work since my fangs had already popped back out. “Don’t worry,” I said on autopilot. “I know how fucked up and wrong this looks, but if I was actually a bad person I would’ve just killed you and tossed your corpse to John instead of handling the squicky part of his diet myself. So I really hope you don’t mind that the alternative is to treat you like a sippie-cup. I wouldn’t, honest, but I’ve already been shot up enough to go dormant once tonight, and I’m still being hunted and I can’t really afford to let myself go too long without drinking or I’ll end up not having enough in me to heal the next time I get shot, and then I really will probably start killing people.”
Benjamin rolled his eyes and gave me a gentle shove toward my victim-to-be. “Sorry,” I mumbled again — and then I gave into my darker half and grabbed her. Derrick kept her on her feet, so I really was just latching on to her enough to pull myself up and sink my fangs into her shoulder. Her blouse was going to be ruined. I’d have to apologize for that, too. Later.
While I drank Benjamin went into fast-time and blurred away. I took that to mean he didn’t think I was so far gone that he’d have to make sure I didn’t kill her. I barely noticed, though, because I was already being overwhelmed by the woman’s emotional state. She wasn’t a witch. She was just a regular human, and my curse ripped out enough of her aura in one go to make me shove myself away from her and reel from the overwhelming rush of another person’s identity being sucked into mine.
“Miss Abigail?” Derrick asked in alarm.
I stumbled a half step away. “She’s human,” I said. “I’m used to more potent donors. Don’t let me touch her again. It would be bad.” I didn’t even know her name, but I knew way too much else about her. I had a craving for pistachios that I totally blamed on her. I also really wanted a pet cat. Because owning my very own furry little predator couldn’t possibly end badly? And I wanted to learn magic, but I knew I didn’t have the mental discipline for it. Also, I suddenly found myself really confused about Emma because I was totally straight. And I thought it was a shame that I knew all these hot undead people, and none of them were actually into goth. And…
I rubbed my eyes and did my best to sort out which thoughts, emotions, and preferences were mine and which were hers. I was getting better at that. I corralled the essence that wasn’t me and pushed it into the node that represented my vampiric curse. The curse drew that essence in toward itself, adding it to the layers that separated it from the rest of my soul. Which also kept it from getting jumbled back in with my own thoughts and desires and instincts.
I let out a small sigh of relief and straightened. “Okay,” I said — maybe to Derrick, and maybe to the woman. “Sorry about that. It was a little overwhelming at first.”
That observation made me bite my lip. It had been overwhelming, but I’d managed to get it under control. Mr. Salvatore hadn’t been able to do that when he’d fed on me — he’d been overwhelmed by my paranoia and he’d stayed that way, even after I’d broken away from my infatuation with him. Did that make my control over my own aura another one of those ‘faerie’ things? Maybe that explained how I’d been able to resist Lewellan’s geas so well. He’d implied that it should’ve sundered whatever part of my aura kept my mind and body connected, but I’d been able to foist it off on my reserves instead… because I had fae-like control of my own aura?
I shook my head. I had other things to worry about — more urgent things.
The woman I’d just fed from was looking at me with wide eyes. She had fully healed already, but unlike the talkative Luke she didn’t say a thing. Worried that her being human had left her more damaged than my other donors, I checked the portion of my aura that corresponded to her mind — which I now recognized as a leyline that had been bloated and forced open wider by the transfer of essence between us. She was in shock. Also confused. Not because of what had happened, but because I had taken a significant chunk of her natural aura…
…and she thought I was cute. I blushed and backed away. She had to be getting that from me, since I was pretty sure I was straight — except I was also pretty sure that I just felt that way because I was still subsuming that part of her. I mean: I had a girlfriend. And I thought Emma was incredibly attractive.
Maybe that was it? I’d absorbed the part of her aura that corresponded to her native sexuality, and it was currently being subsumed and transformed into mine. But Emma and I were somewhat alike in appearance: Emma was just a bit taller and curvier than me, but we were both blond, with blue eyes and short hair and fair skin. If I found that attractive, and it was getting overlaid on my victim, then I guess it sort of made sense that she’d feel that way about me?
I turned away, because watching her stare at me and feeling what was going on in her head made me feel a little dirty. God, why did I have to have such explicit fantasies about strangers all the time? This poor woman was going to have one hell of an identity crisis regarding her preferred orientation in a while, if she was getting as turned on as I could tell she was becoming — by thinking about the sort of things I would probably have been thinking in her place.
My cheeks felt like they were on fire from blushing, so I distracted myself by looking for Benjamin. He had zipped off while I’d been feeding, but he hadn’t gone far: I saw him escorting another of Lewellan’s men — this one the warlock that had been in the back of the SUV when John had been shot — back to us. The man looked dazed and had a cut on his head, but apparently he’d had it together enough to try making a break for it. I scowled at him.
“Think you’ll need any more?” Benjamin asked cheerfully. He shoved his prisoner forward a step.
I shook my head. “No,” I replied. Honestly, the woman I’d fed from hadn’t provided enough to really fortify my aura, but I was getting seriously squicked about having so many different people’s emotions run through my head, even if I had figured out how to lock them down, for the most part, by pushing them toward the node of my curse. But more importantly: I was full. Of blood. And wasn’t that just the squickiest thing of all? “We should get out of here, though,” I added. “Before any more of Lewellan’s goons show up.”
Benjamin shook his head, chuckling. “Indeed. But I suspect we have a little bit of time to prepare for them.” He gestured at Adrian’s corpse, and that of the man Derrick had shot — the man who’d shot John. “You’ve already taken out two of his ghouls, chased off another back at the hotel, and captured three of his people. I suspect he’ll be scrapping the ‘spread out and catch her quickly’ plan. If I were him, I’d be gathering up as large a group as possible to throw at you next — especially since, now that you’re awake, he can track you reliably with magic. And the smaller groups clearly aren’t working.”
I scowled, but then nodded. “Okay, that’s actually good,” I said. “I think I have a warded place available where I’ll be able to hide out without them being able to track me. So if they back off for a minute, maybe I won’t lead them to it anyway.” It would suck if they tracked me down to John’s friend just because they were keeping on my trail while I was getting there.
Ben frowned, but nodded anyway. “Alright,” he said. “I can have one of my boys ride with Derrick and Justin. Then you and I can talk while we’re on our way to… wherever.”
I started to agree, but Derrick stepped forward, coming between Benjamin and I. “I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Abigail is going to be riding with us.” He turned to face me. “These vehicles were warded. So is our van. If your concern is that you can be tracked, we should get you inside that circle while we’re in transit.”
I blinked a couple times. “That would be… great,” I said, surprised. I should’ve thought that solocks would have warded transportation! I was suddenly even more glad that Benjamin, Derrick and Justin had continued to follow me.
Benjamin smiled wryly. “I stand corrected, then. I’ll ride along with you, in that case, and we can have Lewellan’s thralls — your thralls, at the moment — ride with my people.”
I shook my head at that idea. “No,” I said. “They need to stay here and handle this mess. After we’re long gone, they need to contact Lewellan and arrange for Adrian and this guy” — I gestured at the other corpse — “to be picked up. I don’t want either of them being sent to the coroner’s office and then waking up feeling peckish.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” John said from behind me. I spun around to look at him: he seemed to be himself, though far more haggard then he usually let himself look. “Most coroners know to keep an eye out for things like that. In a city of this size, which has had a resident vampire for years? It’s almost assured. But even if it isn’t, Lewellan will know where to look when these guys don’t report back.”
I let my relief fade. Something more like a scowl settled into its place. “Maybe,” I said. “But I don’t care. I mean, I get that they’re coming after me and it’s a little bit stupid for me to go out of my way to make sure they’re safe. But doing that is, I’m guessing, what got Benjamin to decide to back me up instead of trying take me in again. I’m not the monster Lewellan is making me out to be, and I’m not going to risk people’s lives — even the lives of the people who are coming after me.” I looked at the wrecked SUV by the side of the road and felt a brief surge of recrimination. “Not if I can help it, anyway,” I corrected myself.
Luke, who had joined us, nodded. “I agree with Miss Abigail,” he said. “Right now Director Lewellan is leveraging a lot more support than he would normally be able to by selling her as the sort of fiend who goes around making random homeless people into ghouls. The local supernatural community is scared. A lot of them didn’t even know about Director Salvatore’s disappearance, and now there’s the potential for random attacks by feral ghouls? Ever since that poor soul reanimated, Director Lewellan has been on an all-out tear to have you brought in, and his sons have been fiercely determined about it, too. Making sure that they get respectful treatment while they’re dormant might make them reconsider the possibility of that homeless man’s conversion being some sort of accident.”
I felt myself freeze. “Daniel reanimated?” I asked quietly. I’m so sorry, I thought. I didn’t realize what I was doing. This is my fault.
Luke simply nodded.
At least Daniel wasn’t permanently dead — but I took absolutely no comfort from the thought. There was nothing I could do about it, one way or the other, even though I had no idea if being a ghoul would actually be better. “What about Emma?” I asked.
“Sleeping, last I heard,” Luke said. “But then, she has a small coven freeing their auras around her to provide grist for her soul.”
I nodded, but I didn’t take much comfort from that, either. Sleeping. How far was that from comatose, really? I started walking toward Derrick and Justin’s van. “We have to go,” I said to the men behind me. “Now. I don’t know how much time we actually have, but Emma can’t afford for us to waste it.”