Reid led the way to one of the portals. We were escorted under the heavy guard of everyone who had come through from the mortal realm, but even before we reached the portals a few of the faeries who had belonged to Archarel had tentatively begun to follow us. A few others turned themselves in to Reid’s goblins to be escorted away, but not as many as I would have expected. Then again, most of them weren’t really moving one way or another, yet.
I did assume that none of the ones who were turning themselves in were doing so with the intention of being imprisoned until I destroyed them, though. I really didn’t expect anyone to go for that option.
I stayed close to Megan and Fumiko, though I remained separated by a step so I wouldn’t accidentally brush against Megan and share too close a glimpse of my thoughts. There had to be a way to… shield against that, or something. Otherwise I figured it would drive the faeries nuts. I briefly thought about asking Melvin, but quickly discarded that idea. I’d learn about faerie abilities second hand, from Megan — or, if I had to ask questions, I’d ask Reid. I was a lot more certain of his loyalty than I was of Melvin’s.
Or at least, I was more certain that Reid wouldn’t screw with me in some subtle way. So far he’d just been too direct — unless that was all part of a long con. I mentally sighed. Why did things have to be so complicated?
We went through three portals before we reached Emma. After each one, the tension of the mortal component of our group ratcheted up. I couldn’t blame them: who really knew where Reid was taking us or how to get back, other than Reid? But I didn’t have it in me to get anxious about it, myself. I checked the solidity of the leyline anchoring Reid to myself and, satisfied that I didn’t have to worry too much about sudden betrayal, left that concern out of mind.
That left me staring at Melvin’s coattails. For some reason I didn’t have much trouble bringing myself to scowl at those. Probably because Orlina was still on his arm, and I couldn’t be sure if I could trust him to keep an eye on her. I mean: she was supposed to be a prisoner of war, but they had been members of the same kingdom together. Who knew what kind of relationship they might have had?
There is clearly a conflict of interest going on there, I decided. We should split them up post haste.
And that wasn’t jealousy. It was just prudence.
After the second portal, Benjamin surprised me by intruding on my thoughts — and space. While Megan and Fumiko were walking on my right, Ben slid into the spot on my left and caught my hand. I almost jerked it away before remembering that the whole mind reading thing was faerie only. Even so, I know I jumped. A considerable portion of my aura remembered what to do when strange armed men were in my space and/or surrounding me, noticed that both things were relatively true, and promptly started trying to get more of what was left to start panicking, too.
On the upside, I did stop worrying about Melvin.
“Are you alright?” Benjamin asked softly — so softly I didn’t think anyone other than another vampire would have heard. The words were barely more than a hum in his throat; when I glanced at him his lips hadn’t seemed to even trembled.
“I’m fine,” I answered in kind. “A little empty,” I added — knowing he would understand. “My soul got torn up in the fight with Archarel, and I can’t seem to hold onto what I normally would. It’s a nuisance.”
Benjamin gave my hand a sympathetic squeeze. “What happened?” Ben asked. “Did you really manage to destroy him?”
“Yes,” I answered. I was more okay with the the apathy of a mostly empty soul when I said that. I could remember how torn up I’d been over becoming a murderess when I’d put down Lewellan — I didn’t think I’d handle obliterating Archarel much better, once my aura was restored.
At that point we reached the final portal, and our conversation was cut off as we passed through it. “I’d always been told that would be impossible,” Benjamin commented once we were on the other side.
“It should have been,” I murmured back while looking around. Unlike the other ‘rooms’ we’d passed through, this one was actually covered. Sebastian did tell his men to take Emma somewhere dark, I thought. Fortunately my eyes didn’t need to adjust: the ‘room’ was the inside of a cave, only parts of it had been smoothed and tooled to form walk ways and benches and tables. Disturbingly, most of those were covered with implements of torture.
When we entered, one of the goblins that had taken Emma away hastily came toward us. “We did what we could, Lady Abigail,” he told me. “It wasn’t much, but we kept her comfortable, at least, and did nothing to further drain her. But she collapsed shortly after we arrived.”
Immediately alarmed, I shoved past my armed escort and rushed to Emma’s side. Emma was on what had probably not been meant to be a bed: at least, it had straps and other such things I usually don’t associate with comfortable sleeping arrangements — but they were mostly obscured by quilts and pillows and a mattress of sorts.
Megan still beat me there: in an abrupt shift that caught me entirely off guard she vanished from the group behind me and instantly reappeared beside Emma. “Emma!” Megan cried, quickly trying to assess her ex’s condition.
I froze. I hadn’t even made it halfway to the bed side, but I was abruptly intensely self-conscious of the fact that Emma’s being there was my fault… and equally conscious of the genuine, deep concern — no, panic — that surged across my view of Megan’s aura. Megan had apparently been listening when I told her what we needed her to do to help, because she was already pushing essence to Emma.
Emma stirred, and my own guilt condensed into the urge to retreat. Preferably to somewhere where I wouldn’t have as firm a connection to Megan. I knew Megan had a crush on me. I knew it was a pretty strong one, and probably exacerbated by the fact that we were best friends. But what I felt through my leyline to Megan while she attended Emma was not the product of a crush. It was something that was more developed than idle fantasy and speculative desire. It was something real.
Almost as quickly as I took that in, Melvin appeared beside me: his step through the leylines landing him at my side since I was closer and carried a part of Megan’s soul. Without hesitating a beat he kept on until he was beside Megan.
“That’s bad,” he said after a cursory examination of Emma. “You’ll have to keep feeding her aura while her soul mends, and damage that severe could take a few days before it would be safe to stop.”
Megan nodded, and didn’t change what she was doing.
Melvin hesitated for just a second, and then said: “If you keep that up, your line won’t recover. It will remain open, stretched wide like it is now — and only flowing toward her. Megan, that is how familiars are bound to their mortal.”
Megan turned to look at Melvin, but didn’t say anything. Her eyes were shadowed.
“You won’t be able to close that link,” Melvin told her. “You won’t be able to draw from her, ever. And you won’t be able to stop her from drawing from you.”
Megan turned away from Melvin and stared at me. “Abby, what happens if I don’t take care of Emma like this?”
Somehow I managed not to flinch. “Either she becomes a ghoul,” I said, “or she dies.”
Megan turned back to Melvin and shrugged. “I don’t have a choice,” she told him.
“I know,” Melvin quietly replied. “That’s why I’m letting you know what to expect. It’s not entirely one-sided. She won’t be able to drain you like a vampire could: mortal auras can’t contain essence like that, not if they’re intact and generating aura on their own. When she does pull from you, most of it will spill out into the world. That’s what mortals use for their spells: essence spilled into the world that they can manipulate by forcing the weave to react and shape it for them. But if a mortal channels too much of their aura outward, their soul will become less permeable. A defense mechanism, but it will also serve to throttle how much she can pull from you. And what isn’t used by her spells will still be yours until it sinks into the weave. It should be easy to reclaim, so long as you are present.”
He offered her a smile, but it seemed weak to me. “You’ll be safe enough, especially with this kingdom to pull on to replenish yourself, but you should expect some difficulty with other fae because of it. Being bound to a mortal like that, with the lines fixed open… it is typically considered a mark of ineptitude, if not perversion.”
Megan nodded again, and turned away from Melvin. On the improvised bed, Emma settled back down and began breathing more steadily. Without looking away, Megan said: “Jack, have anyone who intends to swear fealty to me wait. I’ll see to them when I don’t have to focus on this. And make sure anyone who needs a portal to the mortal realm is led to one.” She raised her head again to look at me. “Abby,” she said, “Thank you for rescuing me. I’ll take care of Emma for you, I promise.” Then she turned back to Melvin. “And Jack, if anything comes up that you can handle in a way I would approve of, deal with it accordingly, and let me know of it after.”
Melvin’s head bobbed and he backed away, leaving Megan to turn back to Emma. Once she had turned away Melvin pivoted himself. He walked past me without looking at me, but I suspected he had a good idea of the turmoil in my soul — and could probably estimate how much worse it would be if my aura wasn’t weakened. I didn’t turn away from Megan, who didn’t turn away from Emma. I barely paid attention as Melvin started giving directions to the faeries who had followed us.
I did notice when Benjamin stepped beside me again, though.
“We can wait here,” Benjamin offered. He wasn’t whispering. “For as long as you need us.”
I shook my head. “It’ll be alright. I don’t think anyone will dare screw with us. Not after what I did; not anytime soon.” Megan was holding Emma’s hand and stroking her hair. I made myself look away.
“Reid,” I called. While he lumbered over I looked at Ben. “I’ll make sure you’re kept informed as to what’s going on over here,” I said. “Just in case.”
When Reid reached us I turned to him. “Make arrangements with your followers to watch the gate we used to enter this realm,” I told him. “Have them do it in shifts, with people on both sides. Anyone in this room who is native to my world is to be given free escort through the portal, and from there to me or wherever they wish to go. And have some serve as liaisons with Ben, Thomas, Kallaher and John, so they aren’t ever out of touch. Bonbon… er, Jamie should have free passage, too. She can be considered Fumiko’s liaison, I guess, and given whatever access she needs for that.” I glanced at Fumiko. “If that’s okay?”
Fumiko nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I will stay here, though.”
I swallowed. “Okay,” I said, and Fumiko went to join Megan. I turned to Reid. “Once, once you’re done with all of that,” I told him, “You should probably make time to find whoever it was you didn’t get to see while Archarel was keeping you exiled on earth. If you can.”
Reid blinked and took a half-step back. I didn’t wait for him to come up with a reply. I stepped away from Reid and Benjamin, who reluctantly let one of Reid’s goblins lead him away, while Reid himself turned to attend to my instructions. I tuned out the conversations that started as Melvin and Reid started organizing things. They weren’t directed at me, anyway.
Instead, I found a nearby… I don’t know what it was, but it was big and looked like it was meant to hurt people. I sat on the floor next to it, mostly out of everyone’s sight but still able to keep an eye — or more accurately, a supernaturally acute ear — on Emma’s breathing and heartbeat. Fumiko spared me a concerned glance. I shook my head to forestall her from saying anything, and she turned her attention back to Megan.
I leaned back against whatever archaic torture device I’d taken cover behind and closed my eyes. And then I waited.