The back of Derrick’s van was crowded. Justin was in the front, driving. I’d given him directions to Kallaher’s Funerary Services — to the extent that I had directions, anyway, which was pretty much just telling him it was across the river on Maple Street. I wasn’t sure if that was the best place for us to go or not, but it was where Dad and Fumiko should be heading, and I couldn’t call them to arrange to meet somewhere else: my phone had finally bit the dust when I’d been dragged down the street by that SUV I’d trashed.
Riding shotgun was Benjamin’s donor, Adam — the one with the gun. That left Derrick, Benjamin, John and I piled into the back — which didn’t seem like enough people to be very crowded, except that the back of their van had been gutted and refurnished like some sort of combination of an ambulance and an armory.
The two rows of seats went along the sides of the van and provided space for three seated people — or one laying down — each. They could’ve fit a fourth, but at the head of each row, next to the partition separating us from the van’s cab, there were two lockers. Those appeared to primarily hold medical supplies. Under the seats were bins with ammo and other dangerous-looking things, like a box labeled ‘danger, explosives,’ and another labeled ‘wards.’
John sat across from me, but wouldn’t meet my eyes. I couldn’t blame him: I was doing my best to ignore my blood-covered — but perfectly healthy — arm, and the fact that he had recently eaten a decent chunk of it. I mean, what do you say to someone who’s done that? ‘So, just idle curiosity here, but do I taste like chicken?’ Or maybe: ‘I hope I tasted awful, because we are never doing that again. Deal?’
No. I was just going to do my absolute best to pretend that the closest I’d ever gotten to being involved with cannibalism was ordering the number three combo with extra bacon, thank you very much.
Next to John, by the back doors of the van, sat Derrick. He was turned to face the back, too, and cradled his shotgun like he expected to have to pop open the doors and start shooting at any moment.
Across from Derrick was Benjamin. He had insisted on taking the seat next to mine, and although that did leave one empty one between us it wasn’t terribly noticeable since we were basically sitting on a short bench. Ben had taken my arm and secured a handful of sanitary wipes from one of the medical supply boxes. He took care of cleaning the dried blood off of me without asking me if I wanted him to. That was fine, though, because I wanted someone to and I was still trying to ignore the reason that my arm needed wiped down, so it couldn’t be me.
Once Benjamin was done he discarded the used wipes into an empty yellow bin that had a biohazard symbol printed on it. I swallowed and looked at my arm for the first time since letting Justin have his way with it. It looked normal. Not at all like it had been missing chunks not too long ago. I still felt a phantom pain, though. How weird is that? Phantom pain for flesh that wasn’t there — except that it had grown back.
Benjamin cleared his throat to catch my attention. “So,” he said, “I texted Cullison like you had suggested. The conversation was… interesting.”
I snorted. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Benjamin agreed. “He had a fair number of points concerning Director Lewellan’s odd behavior in regard to you. He also had no idea that your first blood was more potent than the average mortal. I didn’t educate him on that matter. I’m not sure he would’ve believed me if I’d tried.”
I sighed and nodded. “Story of my life. No one ever believes me. Just call me Cassandra.” I took a deep breath and tried to marshal my thoughts. Now that Benjamin was pretty explicitly on my side, that had to give me more options for rescuing Megan and getting Emma healed, right? I needed to know what those were. “So,” I said instead, “you realize that when I blew you that kiss it was totally blood-starved Abby talking, right?”
My cheeks flushed. How is that important, Abigail? God, I was an idiot.
Benjamin gave me a sidelong look for a moment before nodding. “Of course. I’ll think nothing of it.”
“Good,” I replied. “Okay. Moving on then. I’m going to rescue my friend Megan from Archarel, and I’m going to see Emma’s aura restored before she becomes a ghoul. And I’m going to mend Hans’ aura, too. Are you with me for all that?”
Benjamin nodded. “I think I have to be, at this point. You’d be smarter to just run — but then again, the whole reason I’m helping you is that Lewellan has been so blatantly lying to us. If you were the sort of person who only thought about herself and could just run from the Director, we wouldn’t be here.”
Across from him, Derrick snorted. “Anyone who meets our Abigail and thinks Lewellan isn’t full of shit is flat out insane,” he said. “She let Justin feed her alive to a ghoul, rather than letting him go dormant. The idea that she would leave someone to die and transition in an alley somewhere is total bullshit.”
“Yes,” Benjamin agreed. “Quite. Unfortunately, we can’t introduce her to everyone that Director Lewellan is sending after her — too many of them will be perfectly willing to shoot first and ask questions never. Or just ask them of Lewellan, and accept his answers blindly.”
Derrick growled softly. “Dumbasses,” he muttered under his breath. I refrained from pointing out that he and Justin had both been of the shoot first camp — I was too busy holding back the urge to puke thanks to the reminder that John had just fed on my undead flesh.
“Thank you,” John said to me. Quietly: I didn’t think Derrick would have heard it, although Benjamin probably could.
I swallowed and shook my head. “Don’t mention it,” I told him. “Seriously. Don’t. I’m still kinda squicked about it. If we can pretend neither of us had to go through that, I’ll be happy.”
John didn’t look up at me, but he did nod in acquiescence.
Benjamin started to say something else, but before he could his phone rang. The sudden trill made me jump in his seat, but no one commented. Ben pulled his phone out and unlocked it. “It’s Mr. Cullison,” he said, and then accepted the call in speakerphone mode with a swipe of his finger.
“Mr. Dolcet?” Thomas Cullison asked.
“Yes,” Ben answered. “Along with our mutual enigma and her companions.”
Thomas chuckled. “Wonderful,” he said. “Miss Abigail, perhaps we can continue our earlier conversation? I’m not sure how long I have, but the Director just found out about Adrian’s failed ambush. He’s on his way to recover the bodies personally, so he’s out of the house and I would dearly like to know why he’s so adamant about hunting you down. Especially since, given that you made arrangements for two of Lewellan’s ghouls to not be carted off to a morgue, I am inclined to take Mr. Dolcet’s word when he describes you as not at all the merciless sort.”
“Um,” I said. “Thanks?”
“But of course,” Thomas said. “Now, given that you seem to be a decent person, would you care to explain how that poor bastard in the basement came to be a ghoul?”
I bit my lip and looked at Benjamin. I couldn’t explain what had happened to Daniel without going into the fact that I could push auras. But, then again, Benjamin already knew, Derrick could probably figure it out since I’d pulled his, and it was probably well past time for me to come clean about the source of my first blood to John. Except I’d only told Ben because my aura and emotions had been all messed up, and I still didn’t really know how far I could trust Thomas. My faerie abilities seemed to be my only real ace in the hole right now, and I was probably going to need that whenever the next supernatural squad of hit-beings caught up with me.
“First,” I said, “I need to know some things.”
“Quid pro quo?” Thomas asked. “I’m game, though I’ll expect answers commensurate with the value of the questions you ask of me.”
I snorted. “Alright. So, first off: Is Daniel okay?”
“Daniel?” Thomas asked.
“The ghoul,” I snapped.
“Ah. He’s feral,” Thomas said. “As would be expected of one newly arisen. Unfortunately, there wasn’t sufficient flesh available to sate him. In fact, one of Lewellan’s sons — Henry — had gone in to feed on him just before he reanimated. Now Daniel is sealed in the basement, and Henry has had his neck snapped. Between running into you at your hotel, all the rain and water in the city, and then whatever happened in the basement he didn’t have the essence to keep his hunger at bay and Director Lewellan was forced to execute him.”
Benjamin snorted. “Well,” he said to me. “It seems three of Lewellan’s sons have been taken out in the course of trying to capture you.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Go team me. You’d think at this rate he’d get the idea that he should just leave us alone.”
“Ahem,” Thomas interrupted. “To conclude: Daniel is as well as can be expected, but without dead flesh he will go dormant come sunrise. Lewellan plans to give him ‘mercy’ at that point. Probably a beheading, followed by incineration.”
I froze. “Son of a…” I muttered. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” I scowled. “Alright. It’s added to the list of deadlines I have to beat, then. What about Hans and Emma? How are they?”
“There hasn’t been much change with Emma,” Thomas reported. “Mrs. Fleischer’s witches have begun to sit with her in shifts so that some of them can be resting while the others are freeing up essence for her soul to siphon in. Hans, on the other hand… Well, I can’t answer as to him. I haven’t seen — or rather heard — him since he and the Director set out to track down Daniel.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and bit down on my lip. That doesn’t sound good. Did he try to break Lewellan’s geas? Is he lying in an alley somewhere, now? Or did Lewellan give him some orders while they were out, when Thomas wouldn’t have been around to hear? Is Hans coming after me somehow?
“Hans will be alright,” John said. The worry in his voice undermined the confidence I could take from his words.
“Now then,” Thomas interrupted again. “I think that should suffice for my part. I think I’ve earned my answer, Miss Abigail.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “There’s one more thing I want to know. And you shouldn’t mind answering it first, because the answer is probably the one you’re looking for. I want to know why Lewellan has been dead set on controlling me or destroying me ever since we met.” Since before we met, actually, since he was already setting me up to fail in ways he would get to ‘rescue’ me from by not calling me and helping me cope in my first few days.
“I don’t know,” Thomas said bluntly. “Although you’re right: I imagine I want to know that nearly as much as you do.”
“Right,” I said. I doubted it, but whatever. “Except here’s the thing: you don’t have a lot of information about me. But then again, neither did the Directors. So, if I fill you in on what they had to go with, do you think you could figure out what has Lewellan so freaked? I mean, for god’s sake: I died New Year’s night. I’m only a few days old. And I’ve only had tangential communication with the Center in the form of reports filed by other people. So, what do you say: if I fill you in on the content of those reports, do you think you can figure out why Lewellan is after me?”
I could tell that I’d piqued Thomas’ curiosity when he answered. “I can try,” he said.
“Alright,” I said. “There were two reports made that I’m aware of. The first was the morning after I died and came back. Director Salvatore had killed me, but I’d bit him in the struggle and that turned out to be enough. Hans filed that report, and he explained how I had been murdered and how I had come back. He also let them know that they didn’t have to worry that I was going to go on a killing spree because I had already fed on him and he was going to voluntarily continue as my donor.”
I heard Thomas’ breath catch on the other side of the line. “Your first blood was a were?” he asked. “That is significant. Have you heard of the Council of Twelve?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Twelve vampires whose first blood came from werewolves,” I recited from what John had told me. “They are to Directors what Directors are to regular vampires.”
Thomas scoffed. “Yes. And that means that the Council of Twelve is effectively independent of the Center, as none of the Directors are capable of policing them. I can certainly see the potential for some tension arising from that. After all, it is rather unlikely that the Center would want to see the Council grow to thirteen vampires who operate under no charter except their own. And what was the second report?”
I swallowed. “That was when I was attacked by the fae at Salvatore’s house. Hans filed that one, too.”
“I see,” Thomas said. He didn’t, not really, since I hadn’t told him about Megan. But he did see as much as the Center could have when they’d decided to send Lewellan to deal with me, and that might be enough to let him figure out why Lewellan was setting everyone up against me. Not that it would help me to know, really, unless it gave me a way to undermine him somehow. “I doubt that is the issue, then. No, I think that the Center’s actions — if Lewellan is truly acting on behalf of the Center as a whole, and not just a faction within it — must hinge on the political tensions between the Center and the Council of Twelve. I’ll see what I can find out from my maker on those matters. Goodbye, Abigail. I’ll be in touch.”
I swallowed, but when I tried to say goodbye I felt suddenly nauseous. Thomas didn’t wait on me, but hung up. Meanwhile, I wobbled in my seat. Benjamin and John both moved to catch me. “Abby?” Ben asked, concerned.
“No,” I told him. “It’s nothing.” That was a lie, but even though I recognized what it had been, I was too busy trying to understand it myself to try to explain it to anyone else. And I didn’t want people to worry about me, anyway. “I’m fine,” I said. But I wasn’t. Not entirely.
I’d agreed to explain to Thomas what had happened to Daniel in exchange for answers to my questions. I hadn’t, though. And that meant breaking a promise. Or a deal, or an agreement — whatever.
I shivered. Melvin had warned me about debts and bargains and making promises: they were the basis of a geas, as far as the fae were concerned. And a tiny part of my soul was derived from Megan’s. I closed my eyes and focused on my aura. This time, however, I didn’t just conceptualize the essences that it consisted of. I found the node that represented my vampire curse and studied it. I looked at that part of my soul, in so far as I could through the cyst of Derrick’s and Fumiko’s and Luke’s and that unnamed woman’s auras.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, exactly, but I still knew it when I saw it. The node of my curse drew the essence I’d fed on in toward itself. The essences I recognized as Fumiko’s and Luke’s and Lewellan’s donor’s were all tethered to the shadowy structure of my curse by whatever force drew them in.
But Derrick’s essence — the thin shred of it that remained among the others — wasn’t. It was drawn, instead, to that fragment of Megan’s soul that resided inside of my own, forming the framework that the vampiric curse was shaped by. The curse still pulled Derrick’s essence apart and consumed it as it came too close to that portion of my soul, but what was actually pulling his essence into the contact with my curse was the fae portion of my soul — which made sense since it had been through the fae portion that I had harvested it.
And when I’d ended my conversation with Thomas without answering his question about Daniel — when I’d broken my implicit word — a sliver of Derrick’s essence had been twisted and broken, dissipating into nothingness, too.