I sat up with a gasp. My fangs shrank back, but my aura was still messed up and after getting hit with a moment’s anxiety — what did I just do?! — I started to feel better. Mostly because the bulk of what I’d taken from Fumiko and Bonbon was already spilling out, leaving me with less emotional scope (which went mostly into relief that this nightmare was over), but also because the apathy that an empty aura made me feel was pretty much the exact opposite of anxiety. Rather than worrying too much, I started not to worry at all.
Instead, I looked over the gathered faeries. They seemed to be divided into three camps. A few were hovering uncertainly by the archways. A lot were still half-cowering, half-weeping. And about half of them were holding themselves ready, with a variety of drawn weapons in hand, looking set to fight. I locked my attention on those ones while Bonbon fawned over Fumiko and Megan helped her up.
The armed faeries had clustered together. Looking at them I realized that they were used to fighting, and used to supporting each other: they had formed up in ranks like a military unit of some sort. Archarel’s guards? I thought at first — except that then I realized they had formed up in ranks around Orlina. Guards, yes. Archarel’s, no.
I turned to Megan. I felt peckish, which was going to get annoying if those holes in my soil weren’t mended soon. Still, I was enough my living self to have my priorities straight. “Megan,” I said, “Emma is here, too.”
“I know,” Megan interrupted me. “I could sense both of your leylines strengthen when you crossed through the portal.”
“Huh,” I said. “Well, you won’t believe everything that’s happened, but the important thing right now is that her aura is messed up.”
Megan’s eyes widened in alarm. “She’s hurt?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. Then I furrowed my brow. “Well, not physically,” I explained. “I need you to push ‘clean’ aura to her until the cursed aura I’ve been pushing to her burns itself out. Do you think you can manage that?”
Megan nodded in immediate affirmation. “Yes,” she said — but I already knew that. Emma and Megan had been lovers, so of course Megan had a sufficiently strong connection to be able to channel essence to Emma. “I can…”
“Wait!” Orlina’s voice suddenly rang out. “I must protest!”
I turned to look at her. What? She was the center of everyone’s attention — everyone except her guards, who were looking at me with the nervous anticipation of people who were good at violence and anticipated being on the losing end of it. For that matter, Orlina was so scared I could pick up on it even without looking at her leyline: I was sufficiently familiar with forcing myself to do things I was afraid of to be able to recognize it in someone else.
“I really don’t have time for this right now,” I told them.
Megan caught my arm. I could feel her nervousness without even looking at her. It was weird, having that kind of connection always on. I was so used to thinking of her as unflappable in the face of, well, everything that it was disconcerting to realize that most of the times I was being crazy she was probably more unsure of what was going on than she let on. At least, she must have been back when we’d first become friends, anyway.
Even stranger was the realization that she was more worried about what I was going to do than what Orlina and her small army of guards might do.
“Don’t worry,” I said aside to Megan. “I’m not in the… mood… to be aggressive.” Or panicky.
I caught a brief surge off something that felt like “Thank goodness,” — in a mental voice that resonated along Megan’s leyline. It was like when I’d been picking up on Pipsqueak’s thoughts while he’d been draining me. Clearly I was going to have to talk to Megan about getting some training on being a faerie. Not that I really was one, but as long as she was getting lessons on what faeries were capable of from Melvin it couldn’t hurt for me to explore what I was capable of, either.
“Then let us be brief,” Orlina said — bringing my attention back to her. For all that my focus at the moment was mostly on save Emma, my aura was sufficiently depleted that I was having trouble maintaining that focus through the rest of my apathy. “You cheated. The duel called for a battle of physical force. I do not know how you destroyed Archarel — but it wasn’t through physical force. Brute force alone cannot destroy a faerie permanently, but Lord Archarel is gone. And since you cheated I must protest your claim on his kingdom. He was my betrothed. By faerie traditions, we were married in all but deed. With his passing this kingdom is mine.”
I tilted my head as I regarded Orlina and her troupe. She’d said something twice now: I must protest. None of the faeries with her looked like they had any desire to back her up on her claim, though they all held themselves as though they were ready to. Orlina herself seemed to be growing more terrified by the second. I must protest? Can they even make the choice not to? If I were a faerie king and sending my daughter off to another king to be his bride, what were the odds that I would put massive compulsions on her to ensure she would act in my best interests even when she was attached to another kingdom?
Well, I wouldn’t do it. Unless I were dead. Dead me was a bitch that way. And faerie kings, I suspected, were dicks in general. And from the emotions I was reading off of Orlina and her guards…
“She doesn’t have a choice,” Megan quietly said at my side.
I nodded. “Yeah, I picked up on that.” The question, then, was what to do about it. I frowned. I didn’t even want to be in control of some faerie kingdom — but I would much rather the faerie in charge of the world opposite the city I lived in were Megan, instead of another faerie lord jerk. On the other hand, I could feel the weave trying to sink hooks into me to rip away what I had supposedly ‘stolen.’ And since I’d already given it to Megan, that wasn’t something I wanted to live through.
I looked at Orlina and shrugged. “I didn’t cheat,” I said. It seemed evident that Megan was worried about me going apeshit and destroying more people. That would probably bother me when I was capable of more diverse simultaneous emotions. But in any case, I wasn’t interested in killing everyone if they didn’t force me to. If they were lucky, the compulsion on them would only force them to make a token attempt at seizing power. “It stopped being a duel when Fumiko interfered and killed Archarel the first time. Otherwise he would have ‘won’ when he broke my neck.”
Orlina trembled, but didn’t debate me. The weave’s strands fell away as she accepted my refutation of her claim. Then they redoubled in their persistence. “Then what you have taken was stolen, by murder, and you have no claim to it at all.”
I narrowed my eyes. Fumiko had joined Megan and I. “Abigail,” she said, “we have Megan. Let whoever wants it have the kingdom and let’s get out of here.”
“No,” I told her. I was giving serious thought to slaughtering all of Orlina’s guards just because it would be easier than arguing more and I was feeling a little peckish. Unfortunately, I knew all of their aura would just be lost again through the rents in my soul — although, since it would spill into Archarel’s… no, Megan’s… realm I would be able to take it all back eventually by feeding on Megan.
But Megan didn’t want me killing anyone else. That was all that was really holding me back, but it was enough. Save Emma. Save Fumiko. Save Megan. I cared about Megan.
I shook my head again. “Not even remotely,” I said. “He broke my neck first, after the duel was invalidated by Fumiko’s interference. He threatened my friends, my coworkers — though he’d been threatening Megan, they were my coworkers too — and tried to destroy me. Killing Archarel wasn’t murder, it was self-defense. Claiming his kingdom wasn’t theft. It was conquest. He invaded my city first. His people have been plaguing it for years, before I even knew he existed. This realm was claimed as the spoils of war.”
Again the weave fell away as those who heard me accepted the truth of my claim. Orlina took in a deep breath. She looked almost physically ill. “In that case, what has been taken by force once may be reclaimed. You have no one here to support you, and I have three dozen of my father’s knights at my side. You may have been able to overwhelm one lord, but there are enough of us to incapacitate you, to hack you to pieces as Lord Archarel intended and scatter your remains into realms where they will burn.”
Orlina nodded to the dark, ashy smudge where the arm Archarel had lopped off of me had landed on the ground. I hadn’t even registered it bursting into flames when I un-froze time: another had grown to replace it somewhere in the frozen time, when I’d started using the last remains of Archarel to mend my body enough to not be dormant. “You aren’t invincible,” Orlina said.
I wasn’t sure she believed it.
“Neither am I alone,” I shot back. Then, loudly and clearly, I said: “Reid. Get your ass in here, now.” Almost at once, the portals around the clearing opened. Reid came through, and he didn’t come alone. A few hundred faeries — trolls, goblins, ogres, gremlins and all sorts of monstrosities — accompanied him through the portals opposite the ones Orlina and her knights clustered in front of. Leylines snapped into focus as they appeared: Reid had been busy. I had an army again.
Orlina’s knights abruptly looked relieved, off all things. “Lady Orlina,” one of them said quietly — but not so quietly that my supernatural hearing couldn’t pick it up — “we cannot win this. You tried and the geases will no doubt be satisfied with that. But if you continue to push you will only be throwing your life away, and possibly ours. It will not serve your father’s interests.”
Orlina trembled. Her knights began to back toward the portals behind them as she nodded. Her heart was pounding, and I could hear her breathing accelerate. She was starting to hyperventilate. Her distress was so clear that I could feel it through Megan’s empathic imagining. Megan’s grip tightened on my arm.
“We… we will retreat, then,” Orlina said. “This realm is yours.”
“Yeah,” I said without thinking. “About that. You aren’t going anywhere.”
Orlina stiffened. The knights around here suddenly snapped back on guard, all relief flowing away. “What do you mean?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure myself. I’d just said it in response to Megan’s distress. If Orlina goes back to her father with nothing to show for her time here, Megan was thinking, he will take compensate payment from her. She’s human. Her aura replenishes. He’ll torture and torment her for centuries, until he forgets why he was doing it or feels he’s gotten back what she lost him here.
I tried to digest that, and while I thought about it I let my autopilot manage the conversation. “I took this kingdom by right of conquest,” I said firmly. “And we’ve both acknowledged that the duel was invalidated, which make you the rightful ruler in Archarel’s absence. And as the queen of this conquered realm, that makes you a prisoner of war. I will be keeping you hostage here to ensure your father’s good behavior, Orlina.” That was a thing that kings and queens did, right? Keep each other’s family members hostage? It would probably work, anyway, at least for a while: if it wouldn’t serve her father’s interests for Orlina to throw her life away then it wouldn’t serve his interests to get her killed by pissing me off.
And even if it didn’t work, it was worth making the attempt just to feel the surge of relief and gratitude that came from Megan. Her hands tightened even more on my arm. She wants to kiss me right now, I realized in a startling non-sequitur.
Yes, I do, Megan thought back.
I swallowed. I was going to be really freaked out once my aura was fixed, wasn’t I?
Probably, Megan thought sheepishly. Sorry.
Orlina slumped in a mix of defeat and relief. It probably would have been funny if the other faeries hadn’t abruptly tensed up.
“We can’t allow that,” the knight who’d tried convincing Orlina to leave reluctantly declared. I shifted my gaze to glare at him. “We are bound to protect our lord’s interests as well. Specifically, we cannot allow his daughter to become a tool wielded against him.”
I scowled. Out of the corner of my eye I saw even more of my allies arrive through the portals, being led by Mr. Eyelids, of all people. There was no way we’d lose a fight, but if Orlina’s knights grabbed her and ran….
“Wait,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would you have that as your binding geas? Orlina was getting married to Lord Archarel. There’s no way her father could have anticipated my taking her hostage, instead.”
Sir Monkeywrench looked at me like I was stupid.
“Those orders were about Archarel,” Megan whispered to me. “Orlina came to me for help because of it. Abby, as soon as I was delivered to her father, Orlina’s ‘guards’ were going to kill her so that Archarel couldn’t use her against her family.”
I blinked twice. “Oh,” I said. Then: “Ohhhh.” I pointed at the faerie beside Orlina. “You know you can’t beat me, so if I press this you’re just going to kill Orlina to deny her to us because you think we actually will be using her as leverage against her father?” I wasn’t sure if it was more distressing that Megan’s faerie father was that huge of an evil bastard, or that I wasn’t even shocked. I’d have to feed again before I could sort that out. “And then you’re going to, what? Run or kill yourselves before I can destroy you? Don’t be stupid, Sir Monkeywrench. I’m just taking your princess prisoner because Megan is a softie and doesn’t want Orlina’s torture on her conscience.”
“My name is Donovan,” the faerie knight declared. “And I will fight to keep Lady Orlina free of you. We may even win,” he said — though I think neither of us really believed that. “All it takes is one of us to behead you and hold your remains hostage against our release. But if it does come to Lady Orlina’s freedom or her life… I won’t have a choice.”
I sighed. He probably didn’t have a choice about fighting, either. I didn’t reply, though. Benjamin — who had been among that last group of allies to appear — finally stepped forward.
“You may want to reappraise the situation,” Ben said. “If you haven’t noticed, there is more than one vampire in this realm, now. And I will personally go after anyone who makes a move against Abby.”
Sir Monkeywrench took an involuntary step back. He and the others started looking around anxiously, trying to see if any other vampires were lurking in the crowd. There weren’t. Thomas, apparently, had stayed behind.
There were, however, Daniel, Derrick, Justin, Terry, Anna, Adam, and about a half-dozen of Benjamin’s donors and other men — Kel’s warlock friends, maybe? — that I didn’t know. I put my hand over Megan’s and gave it a reassuring squeeze. This is your kingdom, I thought at her. Focus on protecting Orlina while I deal with Mr. Monkeywrench et al.
Okay, I felt her reply. But what are you going to do?
I answered out loud.
“Take the shot,” I said clearly.
Benjamin had moved away from the group he’d arrived with before stepping forward. Orlina’s faeries were fixated on the major threats in the room: myself, Benjamin, and Reid’s small legion of monsters. None of them were sufficiently aware of the solock snipers, military trained ghoul, and other heavily armed mortals hovering at the edge of the gathering.
Derrick and Justin pulled their triggers so close to simultaneously that the report of their rifles sounded like a single gun firing. Mr. Monkeywrench and the faerie knight closest to Orlina on her other side exploded into swirling bursts of shadowy mist as high caliber bullets ripped them apart. A wall literally sprang into existence around Orlina: a glamour formed by Megan to keep anyone from attacking her human counterpart.
It was completely unnecessary. Daniel, along with the rest of Benjamin’s people, all opened fire. Benjamin himself dropped to ones knee and produced a submachine gun from his coat that he fired in one long, insanely controlled spray of bullets. Apparently superhuman strength negated the recoil that made automatic weapons so unreliable in the movies, or something. I’ve definitely got to go to the gun range, I thought. I added it to my list, right after getting real self-defense courses from Fumiko, how to be a faerie lessons from Megan, and magic lessons from someone.
It was a slaughter. In seconds Orlina’s faerie escort was gone. Not destroyed, but dead enough that their glamours had dissipated and they would be forced to reform wherever it was that they would reform — in another kingdom, far enough away not to bother me anymore. At least, not for tonight, I hoped.
Silence followed after the gunfire. Even Reid’s goblin army seemed subdued, like they hadn’t realized mortals were capable of such decisive violence. The rest of Archarel’s courtiers actively trembled in shock. It’s the guns, I realized. Faerie weapons are glamours: extensions of themselves. That’s why they all use swords or claws or whatever. Its not just because that’s scarier and more personal or that they’re just that damn archaic. Bullets and arrows and ranged weapons would mean throwing away bits of themselves that could be captured and used against them.
“Okay,” I announced to the room at large — and Archarel’s courtiers in particular. “I want to go make sure my girlfriend is taken care of. So: is there anyone else who wants to give me shit tonight, or can we all move on now?”
This time, thankfully, no one stepped up to my challenge.