Archarel’s laughter blasted my ears, but since my aura was full — literally — to bursting I had perfect control over my supernatural senses. So I ignored Archarel and focused on what mattered: Megan. How had I missed that? I hadn’t considered pushing aura to Megan because her aura had felt full and vibrant when she’d tried to push aura to me. But I’d been basing that on how the other auras I’d pushed to had felt: Emma’s and Dad’s and even Thomas’ and Benjamin’s. Fundamentally mortal auras. But Megan wasn’t mortal, and it had taken seeing her and Bonbon side by side for me to realize that I was still thinking of her like I always had: as my perfectly normal friend.
What did they think they could do? They were just faeries.
And Megan wasn’t just a faerie. She was a faerie noble, like Archarel.
I pushed his aura to her. My connection to her was stronger than my connection to anyone else. Maybe it was our proximity. Maybe it was the fact that we shared a soul. Probably it was both. Whatever it was, I started with just a trickle of what was possible – and when I didn’t hear her scream I threw the gate open. I turned myself into a conduit and let power flood into Megan.
I heard her breath catch mid-word. I heard her heart start to race. But I didn’t hear her scream, or sob, or anything else to indicate that she was in pain. She didn’t try to push the aura back to me. And although her aura continued to feel full and robust and vibrant, it didn’t start to feel more full, even with me dumping energy into it.
Yes! I exulted. This was going to work! I didn’t know how Megan’s aura could contain that much essence, but it could!
And then Archarel ripped my head back. My fangs tore free of his shoulder. His blood spilled into the air for a second before his wound closed and his doublet mended itself over it. Then he wrenched with his hand on my waist while his other lifted me off my feet by the hair.
With a deafening snap my vertebrae gave way and my body twisted around one hundred and eighty degrees while Archarel held my head in place. Abruptly the flow of power from Archarel cut off. He cast my corpse angrily to the ground. It landed in a boneless heap; my head lolling to the side at an impossible angle.
The only reason that I knew what I looked like, lying there, was that my consciousness had already flooded out of my body: trading my physical senses for the partial omniscience of dormancy. And for a moment I rode the swell of tranquility that came with dormancy like it was a comforting wave.
I knew it was only a moment because Archarel was still moving and acting within the sphere of my omnidirectional awareness, giving me something to judge the passage of time by. He turned angrily toward Megan, who I could no longer see.
“I told you not to interfere,” Archarel snarled.
I felt Megan’s answering surge of denial, even though her words were lost somewhere beyond the radius of my awareness. But I did see Archarel scoff in response.
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice you trying to pull from Abigail’s aura?” Archarel sneered. “You weren’t subtle enough to hide when you pushed aura to her, and you aren’t subtle enough to hide that you pulled essence from her! I am prepared to tolerate quite a bit from you, Lady Megan, in deference to your youth, ignorance, and the usefulness of your presence to my plans. But if you attempt to steal from me like that again then I won’t stop at killing these two of your friends. I will feed the captive third to my goblins in slivers, taken from her still living flesh. I will take you to see your coworkers slaughtered after we attend to my daughter tomorrow. Anyone that you know in the mortal realm whom I can reach before I am honor bound to return you to your father will die, and I will personally break your soul, reclaiming what you have taken.”
He turned slightly toward someone else, who I also couldn’t see or hear.
“Oh, I’ll keep my word,” he assured whomever had spoken. “She will be returned to your father. But if she forces my hand, I will return her with a soul so broken that it will be centuries before she experiences a rational thought again.” He turned again in the direction of Megan. “I would prefer not to antagonize your father, but I know him well enough to know he will still be able to get adequate use out of you, even in that state.” Archarel smiled. “In fact, he will most likely be furious enough with you for antagonizing me that I will be able to settle any animosity between us by buying you from him when your usefulness as a changeling has passed. And I can assure you that I am a patient enough being to enjoy the cycle of mending and breaking someone who has earned my ire until I have had it satisfied in full.”
I missed the others’ responses, of course, but this time it was because my curse had mended my body. With a sudden pop my head snapped back to a proper angle and my awareness was suddenly dragged back into my newly breathing corpse. I sat up. Between the rents in my soul and the drain of my resurrection, I was starving again. Something tickled at the edge of my awareness. I was on my feet and leaping at Archarel before those thoughts settled back in: Save Fumiko. Save Emma. Save Megan.
Archarel pivoted and caught me by the neck mid-leap. My hands latched around his wrist. My fangs couldn’t reach him. He scowled at me with distaste. I clawed at his face with my fingers, but he held me in the air at arm’s length, and I couldn’t reach further than his shoulders.
“It’s so much more satisfying to break your kind with their own hubris,” Archarel told me. “But dismembering you until you no longer come back, then letting the sun incinerate your remains and scattering the ash will work just as well.”
I started to snarl a response, but Archarel’s sword appeared in his free hand and slammed into my gut again. He twisted the blade and slashed up, into my ribs. Old, dead blood burbled in my lungs. I spat a mouthful of it in Archarel’s face. “Last chance to surrender,” I hissed. It was a lie. In my hunger I had reevaluated my living self’s objectives and reformed them into a single, unified objective: Destroy. Lord. Archarel.
Archarel laughed despite the blood — my blood — that dripped down his face. “Well,” he said, “that’s not quite what I meant, but I’ll appreciate the hubris while I carve you to pieces nonetheless.” Then he wrenched his sword out through my side, leaving my nearly dismembered torso and legs dangling by the remaining un-severed flesh. Cut arteries oozed blood, but even though he’d hewn through ribs and at least one lung he’d also carved around my heart, and I didn’t go dormant from the wound.
My curse freaked out. I was obsessed with survival on an instinctual level and the curse goaded me to fight back. It clawed at my purpose, trying to pull that essence apart for the power to mend my body. I refused to let it, using everything I had learned about manipulating my own aura to keep that last bit intact. My instincts might have been screaming at me to let my curse heal me, but I knew there was more to survival than living.
I stopped clawing at Archarel and pressed my hands to my chest. He lopped one of my arms off just above the elbow; his blade slicing through flesh and bone with the same ease that Melvin’s had punched into my countertop on that first night I turned, when I had killed Melvin to keep him from being drained by Mr. Salvatore.
“Now now,” Archarel chuckled. “There’s no point in trying to hold yourself together, Abigail.”
I smiled back at him: my best feral grin. He had no idea what I was actually doing, and he’d left me one hand to finish the job. “Not trying to,” I hissed back to distract him. My fingers groped at my wound; pain flared as I forced them into the parted flesh. “And you should have listened to Megan. She didn’t pull aura from me.” My fingers found what they sought. While they closed around it I isolated the leyline between Archarel and myself. I couldn’t resist taking one more dig at Archarel’s confidence. “And you may have destroyed vampires before, but there is no way you have ever faced one like me.”
I saw an instant of uncertainty flicker across the other end of the leyline Archarel and I shared. It was all I needed. Uncertainty and ignorance were the cornerstone of fear. Fear was the gateway to feeding on a soul. And I had been thinking about myself through the same obliviously ignorant lens I had been thinking about Megan. Archarel had probably been preparing to fight vampires for decades, if not centuries: at least since Salvatore had made his home in the city. Probably from before he’d sired a changeling of his own.
But I was no more just a vampire than Megan was the human she seemed to be.
I grit my teeth and forced my fingers to act in defiance of my undead survival instincts. I spasmed my hand into a fist, pulping my own heart in the process.
This time I expected the transition from un-life to dormancy and there wasn’t even an instant’s disorientation. My leylines seemed to widen as the faerie portion of my soul took over my thinking and feeling, but I maintained my grip on my purpose. I’d learned how to do that after being shot in the head. Destroy. Lord. Archarel.
He let my corpse fall again. Archarel spun toward Megan, who was once more beyond my awareness. “What…” He started to demand of her, but arrested the question before it could be completed. “Why did she..?”
I gave him a hint and directed a surge of aura — a portion of what I had held in reserve — out to Megan and every faerie who owed me. Split like that it was almost an infinitesimal amount. But it was aura that Archarel had pushed into me, aura that I had not subsumed. Aura that was still fundamentally his, and he felt it move, just like he had realized it when I had pushed aura to Megan. And just like then, he made the wrong assumption about what was happening.
Archarel recoiled. “Traitors!” He roared. “Even together you can’t draw enough to break your bonds to me! I’ll…”
I didn’t let him finish. In the midst of his protest I found what I needed: his bubble of uncertainty had burst under the weight of the reality he assumed was taking place. No, Reid and the rest couldn’t overwhelm him, even working together. But if they had all pulled from me together while he was pushing essence into me still — a tactic he had claimed to use against vampires before, and thus one they could have anticipated — they might have been able to steal enough to free themselves. It was only dumb luck that they had struck too late, after he had changed his strategy.
He’d had a fright. And it was that fright I struck. I had been thinking of myself as a vampire, and so had Archarel. He was completely unprepared for me to strike at the weakness of his fear and pull. And I didn’t give him time to recover from his ignorance.
Instead, I froze time. Of course I was able to: I’d used fae powers while ‘alive’ often enough, what with all the watching leylines and controlling my aura, that I didn’t know why I hadn’t tried to do the reverse: using my vampire powers while dormant. My grip on time wasn’t as secure as it was when I was ‘alive,’ but it was enough. Everything stopped.
Everything, that is, except the trickle of power I was pulling in from Archarel — and the far thinner flows I’d extended to Megan and the rest. As with all the other flows I’d experienced in frozen time they remained open, and I continued to direct what I gathered from Archarel down the other lines. After a moment — or an hour or a month or a year — I cut off the flows to everyone except Megan. I had only opened those channels to alleviate the flow from Archarel before his overwhelming aura could tear me apart, but what I was able to pull was nothing like what he had been pushing into me through my fangs.
I poured all of it into Megan. I had to keep fending off the grasp of my curse to prevent it from latching onto Archarel’s aura and restoring me to ‘un-life.’ If I were to leave my dormant state I would lose the ability to pull from anyone I didn’t already have a strong connection to. I might even lose my ability to keep time frozen as my buffer of aura was consumed without a link to Archarel to restore it. I struggled desperately to balance my hold on time and on the curse and on Archarel’s aura.
Gradually, it became easier to handle. I don’t know how long I was struggling before it became second nature, but I didn’t care. In the tranquility of dormancy, the passage of time was meaningless. The only point at which I was aware that time had passed at all was when Archarel abruptly vanished from physical existence. His physical glamour collapsed as the aura sustaining it was consumed. I cut off the flow to Megan and drew those last threads of Archarel’s soul into myself, feeding them to my curse as I did.
The vampirism tore Archarel’s essence apart and streamed it through my soul. I watched, fascinated, as my heart rebuilt itself, breaking my fingers’ deathgrip — breaking my fingers themselves — in the process. My fingers healed. The mending of my flesh forced them out of my chest cavity, and then my awareness swam. My heart beat once. I let go of my hold on time and I sat up once more.
Absolute silence greeted me. I stood and hissed. The sun scorched my face.
Archarel was gone.
I strode across the cleared space toward Fumiko, Bonbon, and Megan. “I’ll fix Fumiko,” I snapped at Megan. “You do something about that damn sun.”
I knelt. “If I start to over-imbibe,” I growled at Bonbon, “push essence to replace what I take.”
Bonbon nodded and steeled herself. I sank my fangs into Fumiko’s arm. Bonbon began to push aura into Fumiko almost immediately, and my sympathetic healing began to take hold. Fumiko took a steadier breath.
And then the sun went out, and a crescent moon blossomed in its place. Stars lit up across the sky. And then the gathered faeries finally realized what had happened.
Archarel was gone.
I had eaten their lord, and done so essentially instantly. I hadn’t even given them a chance to try to break their bonds to the land and Archarel before I’d destroyed him and given control of his realm to Megan.
His realm, which they were all bound to.
Megan, who had followed my commands and extinguished the sun.
Some trembled. Some shrieked, or collapsed, or burst into tears. Some tried to flee, though I couldn’t imagine where they thought they would go.
They were Megan’s, and through her they were fucking mine.