Valerie’s fangs withdrew silently, but her long, contented exhalation was easily audible. The man she’d just fed from had been… thirst quenching. He’d had a deeper aura than most warlocks she’d had the pleasure of sampling, which made her just slightly jealous of the quality of followers Abigail had somehow acquired. And the man was obviously one of Abigail’s followers — Valerie could think of no other reason for him to casually shoot Patrick in the back of the head like that.
Unfortunately, that very depth of aura made it more difficult for Valerie to get a read on her newest donor. He hadn’t been enthralled — she knew that from the sheer amount of essence he’d had available for her to drain — which meant he had been a willing ally of Abigail’s. Valerie sifted through the man’s emotions. Decades of preferring donors whose auras were weaker than her first blood’s had made her better than most at compartmentalizing another’s emotions from her own. The fact that this man was probably stronger made it even easier still: she couldn’t feel anywhere near as much of his emotional state as she was used to, and had very little idea as to what his more deep-seated psychological construction might be.
She certainly didn’t see it coming when he abruptly lifted his pistol and shot her three times in the chest.
The shots knocked Valerie back. He’s not enthralled?! She stumbled in surprise and landed on her butt. What insight into the man’s aura she had abruptly collapsed as her energies rushed into mending the damage. Fortunately, the bullets hadn’t shattered her spine or anything structurally vital, and the healing wasn’t progressing so fast that she couldn’t use some of her other powers before she was depleted.
Valerie accelerated, and the world seemed to crawl in response. The man who’d shot her three times already had been healed by her own sympathetic magic, but wasn’t rising to his feet. Instead, he seemed to be throwing himself flat — presenting a smaller target — while raising his gun. The gun was moving very fast for an object being held by a mortal while Valerie was accelerated. He must have one hell of a quick draw. Then again, he did shoot Patrick before I could respond, and I can accelerate.
Valerie tracked the motion of the man’s gun for a subjective second and then threw herself to the side, rising to her feet as she did. Amazingly, the man tried to track her still — he wasn’t anywhere near fast enough to follow her, but the fact that he’d seen her move, seen where she’d moved to, and hadn’t paused before trying to adjust spoke to very good eyes and equally good reflexes.
Not good enough, though. Valerie darted in at him from the side and stopped accelerating so she wouldn’t get tripped up on his aura — not that he had much of one left, but still.
At that close of range, the man didn’t have the time or the space to readjust his aim before Valerie caught his wrist and pinned it against the ground. He tried to shove her off of himself with his free hand, so she pinned that one too. He may be fast for a mortal, but he’s nowhere near my weight class for muscle, Valerie observed. It was a thought that might have made her chuckle, under other circumstances, since she probably weighed less than half of what he did.
Unfortunately for him, Valerie didn’t laugh. Her bullet wounds had closed and she was hungry, so she went in for a second bite. This time, since he’d already been drained thoroughly once, the flow of energy was much more anemic. It also meant that Valerie’s curse was digging deeper into him for sustenance, so this time she got the heady shock of emotions she had expected from her first bite.
And oh yes: what a rush.
Valerie’s victim twitched and writhed beneath her, trying to throw her off but ultimately failing. He might have had the strength to lift her bodily, but with her holding his arms out and him on his back, he didn’t have the leverage. Valerie knew this, so she didn’t pay much attention to his struggles. Instead, she concentrated on the emotions.
The easiest way to tell a donor’s emotions apart from her own, she had learned, was to pay attention to how she felt while she was feeding. Trying to sort them out after the fact could be arduous, especially if her native emotional state had started to be affected by the consumed one. Fortunately, in this case, her hunger sated swiftly and she was able to properly focus on the swell of emotional information.
As always, fears came first. Valerie had never found out why, though she’d heard theories enough. She disliked this part, though she realized the value of knowing what fears drove a person and the hopes and dreams and prides and loves and joys that came after were their own sort of bliss. Her victim — when did I start thinking of him like that? His emotions were already coloring her thoughts, weren’t they? — was definitely afraid, in this moment. And not entirely of her, in fact. More of it was of — no, for — for someone else. And of failure; and failure realized — whatever failure he was afraid of recently, he feels it has been realized now. Fear for Abigail, then? That he failed her — by not taking out a ghoul and a vampire on his own? He has unreasonably high expectations of himself — and fear that she would face consequences for his failure? But those were all surface fears.
The sense of failure, however, tied into something deeper. It was rare, in Valerie’s experience, for any person’s surface fears to not link back somehow to something ingrained in their psyche. In this case, they tied into something in his past. Failures again, and helplessness and violence. Towards him? Yes, but that hadn’t been what he was afraid of. Towards someone else. An authority figure. Someone equally helpless.
Valerie was experienced enough to make guesses and see which ones resonated with an emotional response. Childhood abuse? Yes. Familial? Yes again, and more: it was tied into his fear of failure somehow. Fear of being like the abuser. Yes, that had resonated strongly — strongly enough that Valerie knew there were parallels between her victim and the person who had instilled those fears. An authority figure, and he sees himself as having the same responsibilities as those the other neglected — no, actively acted against. His father? The emotional reaction was intense. Yes.
In her mind’s eye Valerie imagined what it might have been. A terrifying father: a man of violence, who turned that violence on the people who depended on him. A mother who was to afraid of him to stand up for herself or her son. A little boy who thought it was his job to stand between them — and never mind that a child would be helpless in the face of an adult. A little boy who had failed to stand between them — and who had grown up determined to be nothing like the man who’d failed to raise him, who’d destroyed his childhood and in the process turned him into someone who would stand up to impossible forces, whatever the costs, and curse himself when he failed to overcome them.
Valerie’s victim had been driven by familial obligation. He still was, but there was only a sense of loss when she thought of Mother and hatred and disgust and sickly, creeping fear when she thought Father. But when she thought of Family the reaction was determination and dedication and, stronger than ever, the always looming fear of failure. And that was the fear that tied into his surface emotions — fear that he had failed his family. Was he Abigail’s father, then? Perhaps. Lewellyn had said her family was supposedly in town, and may provide some leverage if they could be dug out.
Valerie had fed past his fears, to the point that she was tasting his drive and determination, flickers of joy and confidence and pride. Daughter, she thought, and those flickers amplified tenfold, coalescing into a constant pride in self and other — and a whirlwind of new fears.
Some were recent and too ephemeral for Valerie to draw a resonance from. Others were obvious: his daughter was in danger, and he knew it, and those fears tied back directly to his fear of failing his family. Some were older, and deep-seated: a faint fear that he would turn out to be like his father had, now faded and disproven with time. A far, far stronger fear that his daughter would end up in a situation like his mother had: the helpless victim of someone else.
But overshadowing all of it? The same determination that had stood against his earliest fears and been beaten into the shape of self-recrimination and failure — now reforged and strengthened with years of success and pride to reinforce it. The sort of determination that would drive a man to take on supernatural monsters single-handed and not stop fighting even when they’d pinned him to the ground and were sucking his life and will away.
The shouts pulled Valerie out of the depths of her victim’s emotions. He wasn’t struggling anymore. Valerie blinked and pushed herself away from him. Her fangs had retracted: she was sated enough, and had only continued to drink because of getting lost in her vict… the other man’s emotions. He’s not my victim. He shot me. All’s fair.
Evan — her most recent mentor’s other apprentice — was the one who’d shouted at her. He was tugging her arm as though trying to pull her away from the man on the ground. Valerie blinked a time or two more to clear the haziness that had settled in her head. Delving into another person’s emotions could be like that: the overlap with her own could be disorienting when she tried to pull back while keeping track of whose were whose instead of just letting the stronger ones be what she and her donor both felt.
Valerie let Evan pull her back so he would calm down. Then her own fears clicked to the fore, and her vision snapped to the man laying unconscious on the ground. “Did I…” she started to ask.
“No,” Evan hastily reassured her. He shook his head emphatically. “He was still fighting even though you’d bitten him, when I got here. I hit him with a slumber charm so he wouldn’t try to shoot us if I managed to pull you off of him.” Evan snapped his fingers. “He was out like that. You took a lot of aura off of him.”
Valerie shivered and shook her head. “Not really,” she said. Maybe he’d built up the kind of reserves he had by being a warlock — that was possible. But there was another explanation that made more sense to Valerie. Especially since he’d managed to resist being enthralled when she’d started taking his aura to begin with. He’s been fed on before. A lot. He might have been able to resist being enthralled by the first bite by merit of how deep his aura was. He might have had the potency to not be overwhelmed by his aura being subsumed into hers. Maybe.
But after the second bite? When his aura had already been depleted and her curse had been free to wreak havoc on the very center of his being? No. The only way for a mortal to build up a resistance to being enthralled when their aura was weaker than the curse of the vampire feeding on them was by being fed on regularly in the past. It had probably started when he was a child. Children, with their sense of wonder and imagination and unformed beliefs, were easy prey to the nastier fae. And add the situation in which I think he grew up in… constant fear for himself and his mother, constant fear of his father, no one to turn to for support, nowhere to go for a moment’s sanctuary?
Valerie shivered and hoped that whatever parasitic fae had exploited Abigail’s father in his childhood had been left behind — or at least gone looking for more fertile prey — when he’d escaped his father.
“I think that’s Abigail’s father,” Valerie told Evan. “Do you remember what his name was supposed to be?”
Evan shrugged, then crouched next to the unconscious man and checked his pockets. A moment later Evan had secured his wallet. “William,” he said. “Yeah, that sounds familiar, too. I think you’re right.”
Valerie nodded and scrubbed a hand through her hair. “Okay,” she said. “Remind me to come up with a suitable chastisement for Tom, will you? Something that says ‘when you text me that Ben isn’t heading for the ambush after all, please mention that not all of his companions are turning around with him.’ Preferably in an embarrassing way that I can catch on film and hold over his head for the next few decades.”
Evan snorted. He fished in his jacket pocket and withdrew the tracking medallion that Director Lewellyn had given them. He followed it to the back bumper of William’s car, then whistled softly. “Still, it’s better this way than it could have been, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Valerie agreed fervently. “I was pissed when I thought they’d actually stuck that on some random guy’s bumper. I thought I was going to have to save some innocent bystander from Patrick being an overzealous dick — and then bam! Headshot.”
“It took us all by surprise,” another voice said.
Valerie turned toward the man who was approaching her. Travis had the narrow, short build of someone who’d spent far too much of his life malnourished — but he’d filled in over it with muscle in the six years he’d been one of Valerie’s donors. His sub-machine gun hung at his side and his hands were empty.
“Not Patrick’s guys,” Valerie countered, and Travis winced.
“No,” Travis agreed with a scowl. “Not Patrick’s guys. But then again, they hadn’t been fed misinformation about whether or not there was going to be a fight. In fact, from how quickly they started pulling triggers I suspect they were under orders not to worry too much about bystanders or friendly fire. Still, we managed to take them out fast enough after that.”
Valerie nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “No harm no foul, I guess.” Back when she’d still been expecting Benjamin to be the one running decoy, she’d given her people very particular orders. Once Patrick’s warlocks dumped their magic into protective wards, Evan and his master were supposed to hit them with slumber spells. In their depleted states they would have dropped immediately — and then the rest of her donors would have been in an excellent position to subdue Patrick’s trigger pullers.
“So now what?” Evan asked from beside William’s car.
Valerie shrugged. “I suppose now that Patrick and his people are down, there’s no reason to stick around here.” When Tom Cullison had started texting her that something was off about Lewellan’s mystery vampiress and the hunt for her, Valerie had privately agreed. She hadn’t said as much, but she had realized she could play it safe while she decided what to do about it: she’d ‘hunted’ until Tom’s second round of texts convinced her to interfere more actively, after the ghoul Daniel had accused Lewellan of murder.
Then Valerie had contacted Patrick, who had been leading the only other remaining hunting party she knew of, and offered to join forces. From Lewellan’s perspective she would be actively assisting in his endeavors. At the same time, she’d be keeping Lewellan’s remaining ghoul — as well as a few of his donors and warlocks — away from the house with Thomas, Abigail’s unconscious donor, and everyone else.
In Valerie’s opinion, there was no better way to take out enemies in a fight than to just make sure they never made it to the battlefield to begin with.
“Alright,” Valerie called out loudly enough for all of her people to hear. “Here’s how we’re handling this. You’re on guard duty: I want everyone here secured and relocated to the north-side bolt hole.” Valerie was a big fan of playing it safe, and as such she’d made sure that no matter where her people might end up in the city, they’d have a place to quickly fall back to and regroup. True, she’d set up those contingencies on the premise that they were facing a faerie invasion, but they’d work just as well for this: she hadn’t shared the locations — or existence — of her bolt holes with anyone who wasn’t loyal to her.
It was just too easy for people to be enthralled and spill secrets, so most of her emergency plans remained confined to her own people.
“Make sure the warlocks are behind wards,” Valerie reminded them. “And keep a close eye on them while Evan and Master Lawrence are setting those up. And lock up Patrick somewhere that he can’t get out of if we don’t get a chance to feed him tomorrow night, alright?”
Valerie could hear some of her people chuckle — they didn’t really need to be told this sort of thing. She could also hear the orders they barked to their captives. Confident that her directives were underway, Valerie turned to Travis.
“Travis,” she said. “You don’t have to do this, but how do you feel about going for a road trip?” She nodded toward William’s car.
Travis smirked. “I’ve been thinking I deserve a vacation, actually,” he said. Evan overheard and went to work unfastening the charmed medallion from the back bumper.
“Thank you,” Valerie said. “But remember: if Tom was wrong and Lewellan isn’t coming back to the house to kill Abigail’s donor, then he’ll be coming after you.”
“I know,” Travis said more seriously. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
“You’ll lie your ass off,” Valerie directed him sternly. “If Lewellan or any of his people catch up to you before this is over, then as far as you’re concerned you were subdued by Abigail. She enthralled you and gave you the bespelled medallion to carry as a decoy. Got it?”
Travis snickered. One of the benefits to being fed on by a vampire whose curse was significantly more potent than your own aura? The majority of Valerie’s donors were either resistant or immune to being enthralled after their first six months. It wasn’t something she — or they — advertised. “Sure thing,” he said.
Travis started toward William’s car. A couple of Valerie’s other donors jogged over to collect William — they lifted William and carried him, limp, toward where their vehicles were hidden off the main road. Evan finished detaching the medallion from the back bumper and detoured to pass it to Travis. Then Evan approached Valerie while she watched the rest of her people work.
“Are you sure you want Lawrence and I both to head to the bolt hole?” Evan asked. “I could help you, you know.”
Valerie nodded. “Yes,” she said in answer to both Evan’s question and his statement. “You could help me, but I want you there. Lawrence has a very deep aura, but he’s not that spry and if any of Patrick’s — Lewellan’s — people decide to try something, you’ll be handier in a fight.” She turned so she could meet Evan’s gaze. “Besides,” she said firmly, “If Tom is right and Lewellan intends to kill Abigail’s donor, then everything I told Patrick when we were setting up this ‘ambush’ is doubly true over there. Lewellan is a Director, Evan. I don’t want anyone anywhere near that house unless they can handle being killed.”