I’m not sure how long we hugged. I do know that Daniel quietly addressed the other two witches in the room.
“Anna? Jessica? I reckon we should give the two of them a moment,” he said.
The girl on the couch scrambled to her feet. “Yeah,” she hastily agreed. The three of them departed. I tried to ignore them after that, but in the hallway I heard the other girl whisper: “That’s her?” To which the first replied: “Yeah. I guess?”
Emma pulled away first. Even though I knew we had things we needed to do and we were working under a time limit, I hadn’t wanted to let her go. We didn’t talk. Emma took my hand and pulled me toward the hallway.
Thomas had already helped Anna and Jessica navigate the destroyed stairs, so I followed what I’d heard and scooped up Emma when we reached them. She gave a surprised yelp and wrapped her arms around my neck, which was the general plan. Then I jumped down past the gap in the steps. My landing wasn’t perfect, but I managed to just stumble a couple steps without face planting or dropping Emma, so I considered it a success.
On the ground floor, Daniel was already addressing Thomas, Benjamin and the others, with Linda’s witches listening in. I figured he was probably better at the whole talking to guys with guns thing than I would be, so I just put Emma down and let him. We left just minutes later.
When we left the house, Emma wasn’t the only one who accompanied us. Benjamin and Daniel had managed to convince Thomas to throw in with us, even though he seemed to be as nervous as, well, me. And less good at hiding it.
Terry and one of the other witches — Anna, the one who’d been on the couch — joined us, too. The third witch — Jessica — was apparently the newest to their sorority. She was the strongest in terms of sheer power, but also the youngest, the least trained, and the most afraid out of the three of them. If she’d come with us to face off with faeries she would have been a liability, so she was sent back to campus to try to get a hold of Linda. No one had heard from the head witch since she had left Emma in the care of Terry, Anna and Jessica.
I rode in the front of the van again, but this time Adam was the only other person sitting with me. Terry and Anna joined Emma in her car. Daniel did, too, after pointing out that it was ‘a tactical error to leave the support elements without close-in support.’ While I couldn’t say I found his paranoia comforting, I had to admit that it was more practical than mine. None of the girls seemed to mind having Daniel tag along with them, either: in fact, Anna relaxed a little when he joined them in the car. Maybe it helped that he looked like Rambo-grandpa. Or maybe he’d just made that much of an impression on Terry and Anna while helping them fortify the house against Lewellan.
In any case, since Emma knew where Katherine’s house was, she drove them while the rest of us followed in the van. I just focused on ignoring the course I’d set us on and keeping my nerves in check during the drive. Megan’s meditation breathing helped a little. Listening to the guys talk tactics and loadouts in the back didn’t, even with Derrick assuring Benjamin and Thomas that they had enough camouflaged tactical gear — including balaclavas and heavy grease paint — to make sure anyone with a sun sensitivity was fully covered. I wasn’t sure what sweets had to do with it — I must’ve misheard something — but apparently he was confident it would help. It wouldn’t protect us entirely from the sun, and our eyes would remain particularly vulnerable to burns, but covering up as much as possible would help.
When we stopped it was to pull up to the street outside a narrow, two-story building not far from Mr. Salvatore’s place. Katherine’s house lacked a yard and was packed in with others of similar architecture, but still: apparently being either a printing house assistant or an undead sippy cup paid well, because it was an actual house. I found myself feeling weirdly awkward about my poor burned down apartment and current state of semi-homelessness. I didn’t think I could stay with Hans — Salvatore’s house didn’t feel safe or welcoming, and trying to crash on his couch after he hooked up with Fumiko would just be weird — which made me extra self conscious of the fact that I hadn’t been looking for a place of my own after my old apartment had burned down.
Although, when would I have had the chance?
Emma had parked ahead of us and was already on her way to the front door when I got out of the van. Daniel actually reached the front door first, though. It was ajar, and with my enhanced night vision I could see that the door jamb had splintered around the latching mechanism. Fumiko had apparently forced her way in. And that’s why you need deadbolts in triplicate, my paranoia smugly noted, instead of a single point that can succumb to stress failure.
Daniel prodded the door open with the muzzle of his gun and then disappeared inside. Emma looked uneasy at the casual invasion of the building that had been her home, but waited at the door to give the rest of us formal invitations.
Inside, I heard Mr. Kallaher yelp in surprise when Daniel found him.
A tiny part of me enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude and smiled. I was still grinning when I got to the front door.
“Come on in,” Emma said.
I turned my smile on her and it became something nicer. “Thank you,” I said earnestly. I didn’t even care that part of my faerie-drawn aura twisted up and clustered around our shared leyline. I already owed Emma way too much for a little bit of faerie compulsion to make a difference one way or the other. I caught Emma’s hand as I stepped past her and gave it a squeeze. She was already starting to look tired: I knew her tainted aura was consuming itself, but now I really realized how quickly it was doing so. Emma squeezed my hand back.
The front room of Katherine’s house was a living room. It had an L-shaped couch in one corner, a TV, a few book cases, and an open archway — a doorway sans door — that led into a dining room. Past that was another open arch leading to the kitchen. Along the wall diagonal from the door was a staircase up to the second floor. I could hear Mr. Kallaher and Daniel up there, so I immediately went to join them.
The second floor appeared to be divided roughly in half at the landing. One half was closed off by a door — I guessed that led to Emma’s room. Across from the stairs was a large closet, and then across from the closed door was an open one leading to a bedroom that I assumed was Katherine’s. Daniel and Mr. Kallaher were in there.
I went into the room and instantly confirmed that it was Katherine’s. Just like when I’d gone into Mr. Salvatore’s room, my skin started to crawl. I might have been invited into the house, but this space was specifically Katherine’s and she did not like me — so it did not want me in it.
The room was decorated in muted earth tones: rugs, blackout curtains, comforter. The furnishings were nice, but sparse. She had a vanity, a queen bed, a desk and a single bookshelf. There was a fancy travel chest at the foot of the bed, and a closet next to the desk. At the back of the bedroom was a door to an en-suite bathroom.
One of the rugs had been pulled up and tossed onto the bed. In the open space on the floor a large, unbroken mat had been tacked down over the floorboards. The matting appeared to have originally been featureless, but someone — Katherine, I presumed — had drawn two wide circles, one inside the other, on it in some sort of permanent marker. The innermost circle was empty; the space between the two was crammed with words and hieroglyphs and pictographs running in a tight spiral. I could only read them — the ones I could read at all — because of my superhuman sight. When I did, I got the impression that they were mostly descriptive: invoking people and places native to Archarel’s kingdom. A lot of the symbols, I guessed, corresponded to names — the sketches were sketches of fae.
One of them leapt out at me. Mr. Eyelids, I thought. Thinking about him brought his leyline into focus in my mind’s eye — and even though he was in another world I found I could read his angry, frustrated impatience as clearly as though he were in the room with me. When I glanced away from the circle, however, the line thinned in my mental sight until I couldn’t read any more from it than I could from the leylines of anyone else who wasn’t in this world.
Well, that’s clearly the portal, then, I thought.
Mr. Kallaher interrupted my observations before I could make any more, though. “Miss Abigail,” he said, sidling around Daniel. “Your friend and her familiar have already passed through — about fifteen minutes ago. I’m so glad you could make it after all. Does this mean…” He hesitated, then pushed on. “Is your donor well?”
I fixed my gaze on Mr. Kallaher. I could hear Benjamin and the rest coming up the stairs; I could see Mr. Kallaher suddenly finding himself intimidated — it was only visible through his leyline, but it was still there. Mentally, I applauded his ability not to show it. The fact that all those guys — who I knew had guns — were looming behind me was enough to make me twitch inside, too. I stepped aside and turned halfway, so I could see everyone.
Then I grinned. I couldn’t help it. Ben, Thomas, John and the rest of the guys were wearing mottled grey jackets, ski masks, and textured gloves. Their exposed skin was completely painted over in dark greys and browns — gritty city colors, rather than the greens I always associated with camouflage. They had black mesh vests on over all that, covered with pockets that bulged with ammunition or grenades or knives or pouches of salt and iron disks with runic circles and who knew what other arcane paraphernalia. They all carried shotguns or assault rifles or sub-machine guns, too. Ben carried a black shoulder pack that I could only assume had been packed with ‘just in case’ explosives. He tossed it to Daniel, who caught it without a word.
I honestly couldn’t tell if they looked like a crack commando team, or terrorists.
It probably depends on if you’re on Archarel’s side, or mine, I decided.
“So, Mr. Kallaher,” I said. “You know how you thought that if I persisted in confronting Director Lewellan the infighting would cripple our ability to deal with the fae?” Mr. Kallaher didn’t reply, but that was fine. It was a rhetorical question. “Lewellan is dead, Mr. Kallaher. His ghouls are dormant. And the scions are on my side: now that Lewellan’s stupid manhunt is done, Mr. Cullison has joined me along with Mr. Dolcet, and it is my understanding that the last scion is on her way here to provide additional support to our rear guard while Mr. Fiore keeps the campus gate locked down. The unassociated witches and warlocks are actively preparing for the possibility of Archarel launching an assault, instead of worrying about whether or not they should be helping Director Lewellan hunt me. More importantly, Fumiko’s rescue mission is about to get a metric fuckton more firepower supporting it, which might mean Archarel’s little war gets squashed before it even starts.”
I smiled while Mr. Kallaher digested all of that. While he did, Emma and Terry entered the room. Emma shouldered past the guys and came over to me — she handed me a clean pair of jeans to replace my torn ones, and a jacket. She must have stopped in her room, first. I took them both. “So,” I said to Mr. Kallaher. “Why don’t you brief everyone on how we’re supposed to use this thing while I get dressed.” I smiled. “And then we can get going, alright?”
Mr. Kallaher sputtered. “Wait. All of you? You’re all going through the gate? To Archarel’s kingdom? Are you insane?!”
I scowled at him. “You didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea when Fumiko did it, or when it was going to be just me,” I pointed out.
“I…” Mr. Kallaher looked over the very grim, very dangerous looking crowd of armed men who were backing me up. “You wanted to risk your own lives. Fine. You weren’t supporting the Center’s activities against the fae. You were acting on your own, so I had no problem with that. But what you’re doing now… You’re taking two of the scions into faerie lands! When it comes down to absolute numbers, vampires are rare, Abigail, and the faerie lands are designed to kill them. If Mr. Cullison and Mr. Dolcet don’t come back, it won’t matter that Lewellan was playing some mad game. With two Directors dead, The Center will withdraw its support of the city rather than risk another one in the next few decades. They certainly won’t permit other scions to risk themselves here, and those scions that survive tonight will be called away by their families. It won’t matter if Archarel has a changeling or not, because he will be able to wear down those of us who remain in a battle of attrition that we cannot win because we won’t be able to inflict lasting damage — we cannot even employ the threat of it without vampires to back us up! Eventually Archarel will get past the wards on the campus gate and his people flood the city, and I will not help you to allow that.”
I felt a moment’s doubt in the face of Mr. Kallaher’s adamant protest. And then Terry broke the silence.
“It’s a moot point,” she said. Everyone’s attention turned to her. She was crouched in front of Thomas, studying the circles on the floor. “Using the portal would be easy: step into it in this world, step out of it in that world. But all of the connections directing into the faerie realm are based around relationships to Katherine,” Terry said. “She can use the portal. And it looks like she took someone else with her. But I don’t think any of us can use these. There’s still a… a breach between the worlds here, but we’d have to have our own links to the faerie realm, or we wouldn’t be able to wind up anywhere. We’d just step back out of the circle and still be here.”
My heart dropped. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Fumiko made it through!”
Terry looked up at me. “Fumiko is your friend? And he said she has a familiar?” Terry jerked her head toward Mr. Kallaher to indicate where she’d overheard that.
“Yes,” I said.
Terry shrugged helplessly. “Then her familiar probably stepped through, and then pulled her through after. A familiar wouldn’t need any special connections to direct their passage through a portal: the fae belong in that world. And the connection between a witch and her familiar is usually a strong one, depending on their oaths.”
I felt like my mind was racing. I’d completely discarded Mr. Kallaher’s protests in light of Terry’s revelations. “I have connections,” I said. “Megan and Fumiko are my best friends, and they’re over there. Melvin and Pipsqueak are bound to me, too. And there are a bunch of Archarel’s faeries who I have the starts of geases hooked into.”
Terry hesitated. “I don’t know if that will be enough,” she said. “But maybe?”
It would be. It has to be. Megan was my first blood, after all. You couldn’t get more of a connection to someone than carrying around a fragment of their soul.
“If you make it through,” Benjamin said, “I can follow. Daniel, too — we have connections to you, Abigail.”
I looked at him. I felt a wash of relief at his offer, but I shrugged it off. The truth was: they could probably all follow me. The leylines between us were probably wide open still from when I’d forced Lewellan’s essence through to them.
I shook my head anyway. “No. Stay here,” I said. It was probably stupid of me, but my mind was caught up on what I’d told Lewellan: that I’d done more to deal with the faerie threat than any of the other scions. I hadn’t done that on purpose, but Mr. Kallaher had made a point. If I got anyone killed, got their bodies lost in faerie land where they couldn’t be retrieved and revived, I’d be screwing over way more people than I could justify. Even for Megan and Fumiko.
I kicked off my shoes and started pulling my second pair of jeans over the tattered ones I was wearing. I was too neurotically shy to strip in front of everyone, and too impatiently anxious to bother going to another room to change. The layers might help, anyway.
“Everyone?” I addressed the room. “Mr. Kallaher is right,” I said. “I don’t belong to the Center, so I’m expendable as far as it’s concerned. You aren’t.” I pulled my shoes back on, then the jacket Emma had given me. “So I’m going to do what I have to do. I’ll go in and catch up to Fumiko. We’ll rescue Megan, and then we’ll run. And I need all of you to be ready for whatever comes out after us, because I can guarantee you that if we pull this off Archarel is going to be pissed.” I looked over them. They didn’t look happy.
Benjamin started to protest, but Daniel clapped a hand on his shoulder and stopped him. “You do what you have to do,” Daniel told me. “I reckon we can manage to do the same.” Benjamin shot him a glare, but Daniel just looked back implacably until Ben’s shoulders slumped in surrender. That was a handy trick. I’d have to ask Daniel to teach it to me, if I got back.
Ben turned toward me. “Be careful,” he admonished, and he handed me a ski hat he was carrying. I gave him a smile before I pulled it on and let it cover my face. Only my eyes and a bit of skin around them were left exposed. I didn’t ask for the face paint, though. I didn’t want to waste time mucking about with makeup.
“You know me,” I told Benjamin through the fabric. “I’m cautious to the point of paranoia.”
Ben did not appear mollified by that.
“Do you need anything?” he asked. It almost sounded like he was asking just to delay the inevitable. I peeked at his leyline: he was deeply worried about me, and a little ashamed that he hadn’t fought harder to go with me, even though he knew it was the right call. “Weapons, wards…” Ben trailed off when I shook my head.
“I wouldn’t really know what to do with any of it,” I said. “When I get back, though, I am damn well scheduling some time at a shooting range.” And finding a witch to mentor me. And… Well, I could figure out the rest later. I should probably put off revising any of my lists until I got back and saw just how much impact this jaunt was going to have on my freak out queue.
I turned toward the portal. My stomach started doing little flips. Maybe it won’t work, I thought. I wasn’t sure if it was a hopeful thought or not.
“Oh no you don’t,” Emma suddenly said. “I’m still coming, too.” I whipped around to look at her, but she just glared back at me as though daring me to protest. There were bags under her eyes, even though she’d been asleep for most of the day — and even though they hadn’t been there when we’d been reunited at Mr. Salvatore’s house. “Do you think I don’t have the connections to make it through? Katherine saved my life when I was despondent. I lived with her for a year. And Megan…” She trailed off.
Megan was your lover? Your girlfriend? Is your lover? Is your girlfriend? Is something more? I wanted desperately to shut up the doubts that tried to rise up inside me by telling Emma to finish her statement, to spell out the relationship she and Megan had, or that she wanted them to have. I didn’t, though. It didn’t matter what Emma’s answer would have been: if she didn’t have a strong enough connection to Megan, then she would be safe here. If she did, then she damn well deserved to be there.
Besides, I didn’t like how tired she looked. If Emma could make it through, then good: the sooner she was with Megan, the sooner Megan could start helping her.
I nodded. “Alright,” I said. “Then let’s go.”
I turned back to the circle. I stopped my heartbeat and my breathing to keep my urge to panic in check. Then I stepped into it. Nothing happened.
And then I stepped out of it — and into an agonizing, blinding light.