Teresa Bailey — ‘Terry’ to her friends, since Teresa was a name for old ladies and nuns, neither of which she was — leapt to her feet as soon as her brain finished registering what the crack! that had shaken the house actually was. An explosion. And a ‘crack’ instead of a ‘boom’ meant it had been a high-speed blast. At least, it did if she was remembering all those episodes of Myth Debunkers right.
Anna had dropped her book and was clutching the arm of the couch. Jessica had yelped and was holding two white-knuckled fistfuls of comforter. The vampire, Mr. Cullison, had already disappeared from the room, leaving the door open behind him.
“Oh my God,” Jessica exclaimed. “Was that an earthquake?”
“An earthquake? Here?” Terry blurted in unfiltered incredulity. “Do you really think Mr Cullison was lurking around here this whole time because he gets a hard-on for coeds?” she asked rhetorically. “He’s been guarding us in case the psycho that did this to Emma came back.” Terry started toward the door. “And it sounds like she just did.”
Jessica whimpered in response, but Anna lashed out and grabbed Terry’s elbow.
“Where are you going?” Anna demanded. She sounded scared. She was scared — Terry wasn’t a particularly powerful witch, but she was very good at interacting with radiant and lingering auras, and Anna was leaking fear. Terry was scared, too, but she kept her fear sealed off and contained. She’d have to address it eventually or it would fester and work its way out somehow, but in the moment locking it up was a tactical choice: it would make it harder for a fae or other witch to latch onto it.
“We need to help Mr. Cullison,” Terry answered.
Anna’s grip tightened on Terry’s elbow. “He’s a vampire!” She protested. “He’s a front liner. Let him be. We need to ward the hell out of this room and keep Emma safe!”
Terry’s hands curled into fists, but she couldn’t protest. On a certain level she knew Anna was right. Thomas Cullison would be a lot more capable than all three of them put together in a stand-up fight. But hiding behind wards grated against Terry’s grain. She was a front liner, by nature if not necessarily by ability.
Then a sudden crack-ack-crack snapped Terry’s attention away from Anna and back to the hall. Gunfire. Automatic. I think? Terry yanked her arm out of Anna’s grasp. “Wards don’t stop bullets,” she snapped, and darted out of the room. Whether she could really help or not, Terry wasn’t about to just sit and wait for someone with a gun to hunt her down. She had to know what was going on.
Anna yelled for her to stop, but Terry ignored the command. She dashed to the end of the hall. Neither Anna nor Jessica followed her.
“…far enough,” Terry heard a gravely male voice state from the ground floor hall. The voice was faint as it came up the stairwell. Terry guessed that its owner was somewhere at the farther end of the hall. “I know how fast you vampires can move,” the voice continued. “So if you take one more step I will light you up.” That’s bad, Terry thought. The downstairs hall was a long, straight line without cover. If Mr. Cullison was down there — and he had to be, since he wasn’t up here with her — then there was no way he could avoid getting shot, if the gunman chose to make good on his threat.
“Calmness,” Mr. Cullison implored. He sounded pretty calm, himself. Terry thought that was pretty impressive: she was pretty freaked the heck out, herself, even if she had it under wraps thanks to Mrs. Fleischer’s mental techniques. “I think we may be getting off on the wrong foot here. My name is Thomas. And you are..?”
Terry lowered herself to a crouch and leaned out over the stairwell. She could see Mr. Cullison down at the bottom of it, with his hands in the air. She could also see where a couple of steps had been torn up by bullets. She couldn’t see the gunman, however. He was too far down the hallway to be visible from her angle — but that meant he couldn’t see her either, right?
Terry swallowed and her mental grip on the urge to panic slipped a little. I really hope those were just warning shots. Terry didn’t know a lot about vampires, but she could hazard a guess that if Mr. Cullison got himself shot up dealing with this gunman, then she and her sorority sisters might not be safe even if the guy with the gun was dealt with. Don’t vampires need blood to heal injuries? Oh, God: please deescalate, Mr. Cullison.
“You can call me Daniel,” the other man said. “And I don’t know about this foot being wrong,” Daniel added. “It seems to me that you’re a person in a house that I happen to know is full of people who’ve tried to murder me. That makes for some pretty straightforward math in most cases. On the other hand, I will admit that I may not have all the pertinent facts — which is why you still have a functioning, bullet-free head. So if you’ve got some extra variables to throw into the equation, I reckon you’d better start talking. Fast.”
“I know this must be confusing,” Mr. Cullison said. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to die like you did. But we aren’t all like the vampire that attacked you. Abigail is unbalanced. She wasn’t meant to be turned, and…”
“You can stop now,” Daniel interrupted. His tone was curt and cold. He snorted. “If the lot of you were like Abigail, I imagine you and I wouldn’t be here right now. So, since you’re either one of her enemies, or you’ve been taken in by them, I think I’m done with your attempts at explaining things. You’re just going to answer some questions instead.”
“Of course,” Mr. Cullison said. “Ask away.” He sounded… something. Distracted?
Terry knew her mind was racing, anyway. It sounded like the gunman was on the rogue vampire’s — Abigail’s — side. But Mr. Cullison had said Daniel had died — did that mean he was the ghoul that had been trapped in the basement? Wasn’t he supposed to be feral? Or did that just mean insane, and not animalistic? Was that why he thought Abigail had enemies that were out to get her… or was he one of her thralls? Infatuated with her, like Emma had to have been? Does that kind of obsession carry on past death?! Terry shivered. Her throat felt dry. That was just creepy as hell. If Emma did survive, was she going to end up enslaved to Abigail, even if she survived as a ghoul?
“Right. Where’s the bearded bloodsucker?” Daniel asked. “And exactly what bullshit has he been spreading about Abigail?”
“Director Lewellan?” Mr. Cullison asked in clear confusion. “How do you know the Director? You were already unconscious when he found you!”
Daniel laughed, but without mirth. “I figured he would turn out to be the Director,” he said. “I wasn’t unconscious. I was very much aware of what happened. That guy killed me.” Daniel snorted. “So tell me where he is so I can return the favor, alright?”
Terry froze. What?
Mr. Cullison’s hands dropped to his side. “My God… Director Lewellan isn’t here right now. I’ve spoken with Abigail. I knew Lewellan was up to something, but I thought your death had been an honest mistake… Abigail confessed to turning you into a ghoul, for God’s sake!”
Daniel’s answer was dry and humorless. “Then she was mistaken. When the Director found me in that alley, I was alive and well. He explained to the other guy — Hans? — that he was going to use me to frame Abigail for my own murder. He ordered Hans not to talk about it except to back up his story, and then he bit me and drank until I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was waking up downstairs — with a pillow being pressed over my face and not an ounce of sanity in my skull. And Abigail didn’t have anything to do with any of that, but the bearded vampire showed up for both.”
“Shit,” Mr. Cullison said softly. “Linda Fleischer — the witch…”
“I know,” Daniel said. “Abigail told me about her last night, after saving me from a sadistic faerie. Linda Fleischer: runs a sorority somewhere? Real protective of Abigail’s girl, Emma.”
“Right,” Mr. Cullison said. “Well, Mrs. Fleischer said that Hans was under a geas. Lewellan could have used it to compel him into covering up his part in your death. Shit.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Almost at once he started dialing.
“And who are you calling?” the ghoul asked. His voice was calm and level, but he didn’t sound like he was about to stop Mr. Cullison.
“My sire,” Mr. Cullison said. “I was pretty certain something shady was going on, but this just went way out of my league. Whatever Lewellan’s agenda is, he’s clearly gone rogue if he’s killing innocents.” For a second Mr. Cullison froze. Then he swore and turned. He looked straight at Terry. “Terry, we need to move Emma. Get the rest of your coven ready to move. I have no idea if Emma is actually in that bed because of Abigail, or if it’s because Lewellan is setting her up like he did with Daniel. But we need to get her to somewhere that the Director can’t get to her, or she is not safe.”
Terry scrambled to her feet and then far enough down the stairs to see both Mr. Cullison and Daniel. Her head was spinning. Too much new information had hit it too fast, and now she didn’t know what she was supposed to believe anymore… except she did know one thing.
“We can’t,” Terry said. She was too afraid for any amount of mental technique to keep it under wraps, now. “Move Emma, I mean. Her aura is shredded. The only reason she’s asleep instead of comatose is because we’ve got her sealed in that room with as much essence as we could free up.” Terry didn’t have a lot of essence available in her own aura, but she was good with feeling the flow of energy throughout the world, which was why she’d been meditating on the love seat. It was her job to watch Emma for improvement.
“Even so,” Terry said, “I don’t know if she’ll recover. But if we take her out of there, she doesn’t even have a chance.”
Daniel — he looked like her crazy grandpa Bob, on her dad’s side… if Grandpa Bob had ever dressed up as an anti-government open carry militia gun nut for Halloween — shook his head. “Alright then,” he said. “Sounds like my marching orders just changed. Instead of hunting that bearded guy down, it looks like we need to entrench and secure this site. Our new objective is going to be to keep the Director away from Abigail’s girl.”
Mr. Cullison looked pale. Paler than normal, anyway. “We can’t…” he started to protest.
“We don’t have a choice,” Daniel bluntly interrupted. “Abigail cares about that girl, and I owe her my life even if that Director ended it prematurely. She isn’t being abandoned.”
“I… I know,” Mr. Cullison said. “But Lewellan is a Director. We don’t stand a chance if he comes after us directly.”
Daniel snorted. “You let me worry about that part,” he said. “For the immediate future, anyway. Lewellan isn’t here right now, and if he shows up… Well, I’ve fought a delaying action or two before. So instead of worrying about whether or not we can win on our own, why don’t you get on the horn and make sure we’ll have the reinforcements we’ll need to turn the tide if Lewellan comes back before Emma can be moved?”
“Alright,” Mr. Cullison said. “I can do that. And I’ll back you up if it comes to a fight.”
“You know how to handle a gun?” Daniel asked.
Mr. Cullison nodded. “Yes. All of us do — all of the Cullison family, I mean. If you live long enough you’re going to face violence eventually. Our matriarch insists on everyone knowing how to handle weaponry against that eventuality.”
Daniel nodded in approval and then looked at Terry. “How about you?”
Terry shook her head. “I’ve never even touched one,” she admitted shakily. “I don’t think Anna or Jessica have, either.”
Daniel nodded again. “Alright,” he said. “Well, I have a cabinet full of guns, explosives, and salt downstairs. I know what to do with two of the three. Do you reckon you can do anything with the third?”
Terry’s stomach felt like it wanted to do flips — or evacuate through her esophagus. Salt? Oh. Wards. “Yeah,” she said nervously. Then again, with more force. “Yeah. We can handle the spell work.” It’s what Mrs. Fleischer has been training us for. Supernatural defense against supernatural threats. “Leave that to us.”