I slapped my hands against Archarel’s chest and tried to push myself away, but to no avail. I managed to drive myself backward an inch, maybe two, along the blade running through me, but my head didn’t move in Lord Archarel’s unflinching grip. He chuckled and pulled the sword free of my stomach. Any relief I might have felt from my aura being consumed in healing the wound was overwhelmed by still more of Archarel’s life force flooding into me, forced into me. He was pushing his aura on me, a violation just as real as the spike of Lewellan’s geas but far more subtle: an invasion of my soul that had capitalized on the Trojan horse offering of his blood to find a path I could not push back against.
I was full. I was sated. My fangs had withdrawn entirely, but that didn’t stop Archarel from grinding my teeth through the torn fabric of his doublet, sawing his own flesh with them to keep the blood spilling into my mouth, over my lips, down my chin and throat — inside and out. And all the while, he pushed even more life force through the link than I was swallowing with his blood.
I sobbed. I couldn’t think: the pressure in my soul translated into a pressure in my head, a migraine that stood its own in comparison to the agony of Lewellan’s geas ripping at the core of my soul. I tried to struggle, but after drawing his sword free Archarel cast it aside — then wrapped that arm around my waist, cinching me close against himself. I felt like a mortal bound in steel bands: no matter how I kicked or thrashed I couldn’t break free. I couldn’t even make Archarel’s implacable arms shift.
When Megan had tried to explain what it was like for her to push or pull an aura, Fumiko had ended up comparing it to reservoirs and aqueducts and the flow of water. If that comparison held, then Emma was a glass of water. Hans was a puddle after heavy rain. Melvin and Pipsqueak and Sebastian were ponds.
Archarel was an ocean.
He was an ocean, and he was drowning me through a funnel shoved down my throat. I felt like a balloon being filled at a faucet turned on full blast — a faucet that drained from the ocean that Archarel was. Only my soul had less give than a balloon. Less stretch. It was crisscrossed with thick scars from all the places it had been torn and mended in the past few days — perhaps over all my life. I hadn’t had the awareness to tell before I’d died and started paying attention. In those places it had no give. Instead, it threatened to rip open like they were overstressed seams stitched through the fabric of my being. And that was the source of the agonizing pressure. The sense that my very self was ripping apart at the seams.
Part of me gave way. I screamed and kicked. There was no relief: Archarel poured still more of his limitless aura into me, forcing our connection wider to keep the pressure growing.
I was distantly aware of Megan screaming for Archarel to stop. Threatening him when he didn’t. Did she even know what was happening to me? Had she heard his explanations? He had been talking to me, but he hadn’t been talking quietly. Another seam split. This time there was relief, in a twisted way: for the moment, Archarel was focusing on Megan.
“Now now,” I heard him say. “This is a duel, accepted by both parties and recognized by the weave. You can’t do a thing, Lady Megan: no faerie can interfere once the sides are set. Any who try will be torn apart by the force of centuries of our tradition. So don’t threaten your way into promises you can’t deliver. That will only hurt you worse, in the long run.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. During that brief exchange the wound in Archarel’s shoulder had healed. Suddenly nothing was replacing my aura as it vented into Lord Archarel’s domain, and just as suddenly the pressure in my aura was gone. I could think. The pain was missing, but my aura was still leaking — I lost more and more of my aura and the sun began to burn. I struggled to come up with some sort of plan, but the need to panic was overwhelming.
“I don’t care,” Megan shouted back. I could feel her distress through our bond. “I’ll do it, and damn the consequences — and if you make me take that step; if I do destroy myself, then you lose, Lord Archarel. Your plans for me are meaningless if I’m destroyed.”
Lord Archarel hesitated. I drove a spike through my replenished buffer and tore it open, reaching in to my vampiric curse and embracing it. I needed the hunger. I needed the ruthlessness. I needed that side of myself to come up with a plan, a way to defeat Archarel — or at least escape. I sucked up the pain of tearing into my own soul and felt my eyes narrow as my emotional lens shifted.
“You’re bluffing,” Archarel finally declared. “And even if you are not? It may take a few years for your tattered soul to pull itself back together, but it will be done in time. And I am a patient enough being to let that time pass.” Through our bond I felt Megan’s uncertainty in the face of Archarel’s confidence.
At the same time, my aura finally stopped draining out of me. Like a bucket with holes drilled into the side, it seemed my soul was still able to hold at least a shallow amount despite its damaged state. The sun still seared my face, though, and I suddenly felt the barest intent of murderous rage and a flare of pain as my hair whooshed alight: the sunlight kindling it into a crackling flame. Then my fangs slashed into Archarel’s flesh as they descended despite my best efforts to hold them back. The torrent of Archarel’s essence surged into me anew.
Archarel just laughed. His attention returned to me and he blew gently across my scalp, extinguishing the flames that crackled around his hand. “Now, where were we?” He asked casually. “Ah, yes.” A second later his focus was again on widening the connection between us. Once more he ground my teeth into his shoulder, keeping the wound from closing when my fangs drew back. My emotions whipped violently as the essence churned within me: some of it dissipating back into Archarel’s realm for him to use again while even more was forced into my soul than was escaping.
I was choking on scraps of fabric and flesh that had torn free from Archarel’s shoulder, but the barely-physical faerie blood had no problem flowing up and over those barriers in blatant defiance of how a liquid should behave. The pressure redoubled, and this time I knew that whatever gave would split my soul in twain, leaving it unable to hold anything. I scrabbled and tore at my own soul, trying to form something like Lewellan’s spike out of my own aura so that I could widen one of the places that had already split before Archarel could force my entire being to burst, but I couldn’t manage to hold the spike together in the mad churning of life force within me.
At the same time, I reached out for the leylines that belonged to me. The brief moment of clear thinking had been enough for me to realize that I still had options: there were faeries that I could push to. Reid wasn’t actually mine yet, and Sebastian was dealing with conflicting claims between myself and Archarel, so they weren’t really options — especially since, if what Archarel said about being linked to everyone was true, Archarel would be able to draw energy from them. Pushing to them would be the same as dumping the energy into the world: I’d just be giving it back to Archarel at a remove of one.
And that left Melvin and Bonbon. Melvin was a dangerous option. I knew he loved me, but that hadn’t stopped him from trying to enslave me once. And although he was bound to Megan now, he was the one who had told me that anyone with sufficient energy to sacrifice could break a geas. If I pushed power to him, he might use it to rescind his oath to Megan — especially since it also bound him to me. He might even use some of it to break his promise not to try to enslave me anymore.
Bonbon, on the other hand, was loyal to Fumiko… and that was about all I knew about her. Pushing to her might give Fumiko a powerful ally who was bound to protect her. Or it could put Fumiko in more danger than I was even capable of imagining in my current state.
It was a choice between the evil I sort of knew and whatever my imagination could come up with. And that wasn’t a choice at all. I fumbled through the renewed surging of energies in my aura, trying to grasp my connection to Melvin.
And then, abruptly, a new pain pierced my chest. I felt my aura begin to drain — not just venting into Archarel’s realm, but being drawn in and consumed by my curse. I felt a wave of dizziness as parts of my aura went in both directions — into my curse and out of my soul — simultaneously. Archarel sputtered out a strangled, inarticulate word, and then his hands fell away from me. I jerked away, lurching backward. When I stepped, the pain in my chest sliced upward, as though it was determined to stay in place despite my own movement. I saw the blade of Archarel’s sword emerge from my chest as I stumbled. My clumsiness ripped me off of the blade and through Archarel’s arms. They tore and dissipated into a cloud of faerie blood: a fading glamour that was almost instantly joined by the rest of him.
In his place — or rather, just a step behind him — stood Fumiko. She held his discarded sword until it too vanished, a bare second after the faerie lord did himself. I looked up at her in stunned disbelief. She looked back at me and shrugged. “I’m not a faerie,” she said. “So fuck his rules.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but scrambled to grab my parasol and put it up between myself and the sun instead. I didn’t know what I could have said, anyway. When I looked back at Fumiko I blurted: “You stabbed me!” That was the best my reeling mind had come up with.
Fumiko snorted. “You’ll get over it,” she said. Then she turned toward Megan. “We’re leaving, Megan. Come on.”
To our side, Megan pulled herself free from the ring of faeries. Melvin had been holding her back. I made a note to have words with him about that, though I wasn’t sure if I would rip him a new one for keeping her from helping or thank him for keeping her from being torn apart by interfering. Fuck it, I thought. I had driven a conduit through the buffer that was supposed to restrain my vampire side, so even though my soul could hold a small amount of aura, I felt more inclined to kick his ass. Or show my gratitude by making out.
Dammit, me, that’s not helping.
Maybe I could show my gratitude with a kiss, and my displeasure with a bite? That seemed fair, but I didn’t actually feel all that hungry, now that I thought about it. I probably was, though: another side effect of having opened myself up to my vampire side without having burned through my aura naturally was that I wasn’t feeling the emptiness in my soul as hunger right now. Just emptiness. Apathy.
I struggled to sit up. And then Archarel struck Fumiko from out of no where.
I heard a distinct crack as the force of the blow lifted Fumiko off her feet. I managed to blink once before she struck the ground at least six feet away with a crunch that would have been audible to even mortal ears. She bounced like a rag doll that had been dashed to the floor.
I gawked. I heard Bonbon scream in what almost sounded like pain at the same time as Megan arrested her forward movement. Megan cried out Fumiko’s name and threw herself at Fumiko’s side, instead.
Over both of their cries, Archarel’s loud, clear voice could still be heard: “Well, that was rude.”
I looked up at him. He had appeared literally from out of no where. His presence clicked in my thoughts: he had said that this was his seat of power. He was a faerie. This was where he reappeared when he died. We couldn’t kill him. Not and have him gone long enough for us to escape. Especially not with Fumiko hurt. I could hear her heart, but her breathing was only a weak wheezing. She wasn’t moving at all.
I wasn’t afraid, though. Instead I struggled with my apathy, trying to sort the most important of my meager supply of emotional investment and reinforce them.
Save Emma, was still there. Save Fumiko and save Megan joined it as the only things I could make myself care about.
I rose to my feet and started toward Fumiko’s side. She was hurt: unmoving. I had to get to her, bite her; let my sympathetic magic heal her.
Archarel stepped once to the side, blocking my path.
“Tut tut,” he chided me. “We aren’t done yet.”
But, just as when I’d been determined to save Emma, someone was in my way — and Fumiko was hurt. I didn’t have time to waste with being delayed.
I could freeze time and go around him. The part of me that would have rebelled at the thought — that would have been over invested in the memory of what had happened the last time I had frozen time — was somewhere in the emptiness. But what would that accomplish? It would deplete my aura further. By the time I reached Fumiko, I might be prepared to simply drain her to death before my sympathetic magic could heal her. And the dress I wore was a glamour. Another being’s aura. I would be trapped by it before I could even take a step. Hell: Archarel had claimed this entire world was a glamour. Even without the dress, freezing time wouldn’t be a viable option as long as I had to move.
And if glamour were somehow less restrictive than auras — if it behaved more like something physical than something spiritual? I would still have to unfreeze time to get close enough to bite Fumiko. There was nothing to stop Archarel from dragging me off of her physically: his strength was exponentially superior to my own. And I couldn’t freeze time again after biting her. I would be depleting my aura even as I fed, and that would make me all the more likely to kill Fumiko instead of healing her.
“Get out of my way,” I said.
Archarel grinned at me. Malice glinted in his eye. He wasn’t going to let me past. Behind him, Megan ran her hands over Fumiko’s prone form, but didn’t try to move her. Bonbon had joined them. I didn’t know what Megan thought she could do, or Bonbon for that matter. I could heal Fumiko. They were just faeries.
And just like that I realized what I had been overlooking in the turmoil of my aura. A course of action. A way to do what mattered: to save Fumiko.
“You hurt my friend,” I said while I turned the idea over in my head, trying to take it in, checking it for flaws.
Archarel smirked and nodded. “And I’ll kill her for her impudence, once I’m done with you,” he said.
I shook my head: a tiny denial. Maybe the idea wasn’t a good one, but I didn’t care. Apathy was good for that: I wasn’t terribly worried about what would happen if I had reasoned wrong. “Goodbye, Archarel,” I said. I let my fangs descend. I wasn’t holding them back any more. I wasn’t going to be holding anything back. “I am so done with you.”
Archarel opened his mouth to reply, but I didn’t care. I lunged. I grabbed him and sank my teeth into his other shoulder. I was going to destroy him. The torrent of his life force erupted into me through his blood. The rush of life was just as overwhelming as before. The pressure surged against my soul once more.
And Archarel just wrapped his arms around me, trapping me in place once more, and laughed.