I don’t know what came over me. For one moment I was just staring at Hans, shocked while a plethora of emotions raged for dominance inside of me. Then I was ignoring them, and everyone and everything else. I charged into the hospital, shouldered past everyone who was in front of me and threw myself at Hans. My arms wrapped around him, and his closed around me as he caught me against himself. I’d hit hard enough that his breath had rushed out in a surprised “oof,” preventing him from saying anything. I tried to say something while I buried my face against his sternum. What came out was a muffled complaint: “Hans. You’re too damn tall.”
I thought — or maybe I imagined — I heard the faintest whisper of a chuckle. Then I squawked as Hans abruptly shifted his grip. He caught me, scooping me up with his arms under my butt and hefting my feet off the ground. I scrambled for a better purchase and wound up with my arms around his neck. One of his arms rose again and hugged around my back, while the other stayed as something between a seat and a restraint. “Better?” He asked.
I reburied my face against his shoulder. I reveled in the feeling of his arms wrapped protectively around me and the solidity of his body as mine was smooshed against it. “Yes,” I mumbled. I closed my eyes and tried to shut out everything else except this feeling. I held my breath so I could focus on the subtle rise and fall of Hans’ chest as he breathed. His heartbeat was a steady ba-dmp ba-dmp ba-dmp that seemed to soothe me with each beat.
I can’t do this, I realized. I can’t just give this up. For the first time in days — even though I knew that I was a far scarier being than he was — I felt safe. I wanted to be like this forever. I’m sorry, Fumiko. I was a greedy, selfish, possessive bitch and if Hans wanted to break up with me I was going to fight him on it. I could give up feeding on him. But after how much I’d needed to be held over the past few days… now that it was happening, there was no way I was giving Hans up. Hans ducked his head down to rest his cheek against mine. I tried to ignore my conflicted, guilty emotions and just bask in the moment. Maybe we can just share? I mean… if Fumiko and Hans are okay with that?
For a moment we just stayed like that, holding each other. I lost some of my initial focus on Hans — mostly because I was distracted by the thought that if Fumiko really wanted him and I was in the way, she could probably just break me and take him. And then because omg sharing Hans like that had the potential to be hot. But then, abruptly, I felt a surge of confusion as Hans’ cheek warmed against mine. Why is he blushing? Well, maybe he thought it was hot, too. Greedy bastard. He already had me and Emma was interested. At this rate his harem was going to be just as big as mine, and probably consist of the same people.
Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Hans x Melvin x Ben x Pips? I started blushing, too. Yes please! I could totally ship that.
Hans straightened and cleared his throat. “Ah,” he said. “Hello, everyone. I’m Hans. These are Cassie and Curtis. John, for those who haven’t met him, is the guy staring at his phone. Thank you for coming. Your help is appreciated.”
Oh god, I thought as a new realization shoved aside thoughts of whether our not Hans’ home country had a men’s-only league for their national sport. Did I really just jump my boyfriend in front of every… Nope. Not thinking about that. Ignoring. So ignoring. Come back, my ecchi bishounen dreams! I clung tighter and kept my face pressed against Hans’ shoulder so I wouldn’t have to look at everyone who was probably staring at us. I could feel their eyes. It was really, really creepy. I shivered once, and Hans tightened his grip around me.
“I’m Valerie,” my mentor said from somewhere behind me. Damn my supernatural ears. They were making it much harder to ignore everyone than I would have liked. “Of the Grenz family. These are my friends: Misters Morgan, Edwards, Perez, Drake and Shea. This…” I heard a noise of protest and imagined Valerie dragging someone forward “…fellow with the crumpled dreams and squashed hopes is Benjamin, from the Dolcet family. I’m afraid I don’t know all of his people. But regardless, it’s a pleasure meeting you. Abigail did not exaggerate.”
Oh god! I felt my ears start to burn as the blood rushed to my face. Forget jumping Hans in front of everyone: Had I really just jumped him in front of Ben?! Despite myself I twisted around to peek over my shoulder. Valerie had dragged Ben forward to stand next to her. He didn’t look particularly crushed, though: instead he was shooting my mentor a dirty look. Valerie looked a combination of amused and innocent that totally undermined the innocent part — but I also noticed her fidget slightly. I probably wouldn’t have if my senses weren’t supernaturally sharp, but it gave me the sudden impression that her humor was forced and for some reason she was feeling uncomfortable.
I need to get down. This was so undignified. My thoughts were scrambling. I didn’t know why Valerie would be uncomfortable with me pouncing on Hans after the way she’d teased Ben — she’d seemed so much more relaxed and sadistic than that! But then again, she hadn’t seen me jump Ben. And here I was being one of those girls in public! God, what would my mom think? No. Do not ask that. There are so many things wrong right now…. I didn’t know what should be more horrifying: the blatantly public display of affection? The fact that I was performing it in front of my potential second boyfriend — the fact that I potentially had a second boyfriend? — or the fact that there was a crowd of people watching it all, including two members of what were the vampire equivalent of high society. I mean: Ben had a freaking limo. I squirmed, but Hans didn’t let me down. Just great, I thought as I gave up my struggles. And now I’m turned on a little. Because being trapped was the reason for that, and not the flagrantly homoerotic fantasies I’d just been having. Right.
In any case, Hans didn’t even seem to notice my struggle. I wasn’t sure if that helped or hurt my fucked up libido.
“The pleasure is mine,” Hans said formally. “I only regret that it has to take place in this unfortunate situation.”
“That’s life,” Benjamin snorted. He finally looked away from Valerie — who had ignored his glare just as easily as I was failing to ignore everyone. “I assure you that we understand, and are happy to help however we can. Keeping things like this from ballooning out of control is part of the Center’s mandate — and our duties as scions, regardless. If there’s anything we can do, we’re here to assist.”
“Thank you,” Hans said earnestly. “We have the victim’s description, name, and home phone number,” he said quietly. “John is doing his thing to dig up more. Hopefully we’ll have his location soon.”
“I have his home address now, too,” John said smugly. I glanced back over Hans’ shoulder and saw that John had looked up from his phone. “The phone number is his mother’s cell, though. I’ll try calling again in a moment: I don’t want to spook anyone by having one of us just show up at his house, but my first call went to her voice mail.”
“Hans?” The interruption came from a brunette who was sitting next to John. She was wearing jeans and a light jacket, and had thick, round glasses. Total otaku bait, I thought while trying to remember her name. Cassie. “I think we should have this conversation outside,” she said. “The shades are…” Her eyes widened and Hans squeezed me protectively, as though he knew she was starting to freak me out. “Your wolf just…!” I felt another shiver run through me: something about the way Cassie was talking felt more than ominous, even though her tone had started out sounding uncertain — except that right then she bolted to her feet.
“Get it off of her!” Cassie shrieked. I couldn’t tell what or who she was talking about — she was looking toward me, but not at me. I started to panic, even though I had no idea what was going on. Maybe because I had no idea what was going on. I looked, but there was no one else around except Curtis and John and Ben and Valerie and their donors — and, more distantly, a nurse stationed behind an information window who was starting to look alarmed at the large group of people and sudden shouting.
“What’s going on?” Ben asked for me.
Cassie ignored him. She ran toward me and tried to shove Hans forward while waving her hands in the air around us. I felt another chill that passed in just a second, followed by Reid’s thoughts in my head: Listen to the witch! You need to leave, now!
That just made me panic worse.
I tried to push myself out of Hans’ arms so I could run for… I don’t know. The door? I didn’t know what was happening, but I was so dizzy. And cold. Hans’ arms kept tightening around me and he twisted about as though looking for something he couldn’t see. I looked at him, wide eyed, and saw an angry snarl on his face. It was a good thing that I didn’t need to breathe because I couldn’t, he was holding me so tight. What’s going on? What’s going on?!
I felt another shiver of cold run through me. Why is it so cold in here? Was Hans standing under an air conditioning vent? I feel so alive, another thought formed — only it wasn’t my thought. I pulled in on myself in abrupt terror. Someone else was thinking in my head.
Curtis ran forward to help Cassie, but as he neared Hans spun around and backhanded him with a bestial snarl. Cassie yelped and stumbled back. She was behind me now and I had to twist around to see what was happening. Hans’ arm clutched around me again and Cassie scrambled back up to her feet. She lunged at me — but not for me. She grabbed the air behind my back and pulled and I cried out as something in me ripped and my aura began to pour free. My fangs descended an instant later.
Get out of here!, Reid’s thought screamed into my mind. It was an order, but I was too far gone to react in a panic and blindly follow it. I narrowed my eyes and focused on Reid’s leyline. All around me was a cacophony of confusion and questions. No one seemed to know what was going on except for Cassie — who was in tears and had turned around with her arms spread, as though to hold something back — and Reid, who hadn’t even shown himself. Living Abby wouldn’t have been able to concentrate for shit like this. But whatever had happened seemed to have torn open my soul’s stitching, leaving me as Vampy-Abby once more.
Vampire Abby could focus. I seized onto Reid’s leyline and followed it mentally. Just like it had when I’d followed Pipsqueak’s and Bonbon’s lines, my attention shifted subtly. Reid was here — otherwise he wouldn’t be able to push thoughts at me. He was just somewhere slightly out of sync with the rest of the world.
Abruptly, I was aware of him. I could see him as a partially transparent image overlaying reality. And he wasn’t alone.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but apparently whatever the place between worlds was, it was shared between faeries. In addition to Reid, I saw two trolls. They flanked Cassie while Reid flew in swift loops around us. Beyond them, though?
Or rather, caricatures of people: people who were nothing more than a weeping face or gnashing mouth or diseased body. People who wailed and moaned and wept. People who had the same translucent quality — even more transparent, really, and surrounded by an indistinct haze that pulsed and writhed nauseatingly — as Reid and his trolls.
Hazy, transparent people who were reaching for me like a horde of spectral zombies hungering for undead brains.
Hans twisted around again. He couldn’t see it, but we were surrounded. There was another pair of faeries on this side, holding back the broken ghosts. One was a troll, and the other was an elf — there was something familiar about that one. I fed on him this morning, I realized. Between the two, an actual wolf — a ghost wolf — snarled and snapped at any of the diseased or grieving zombie-ghosts that approached us. It pounced on one that got too close and snarled as it eviscerated the bald, emaciated man. Hans growled in sync with it, and his muscles tensed as though he were the one killing something. Another ghost reached past the momentarily distracted wolf — reaching for the gaping wounds in my soul — and Reid suddenly darted in front of me. Reid wielded a sword with a blade at least as long as he was. It severed the ghost’s arm halfway between the elbow and wrist.
The severed hand hung in the air for just a second. The hazy aura around it brushed me and I felt barbed hooks snarl into my soul for a bare instant before the hand — and its aura — was torn apart in midair. It dispersed like a slain faerie: it must have been torn asunder by the weave’s greedy, flailing hooks. Although I couldn’t see the weave itself when it wasn’t interacting directly with me, I could see how interacting with it affected the magic around me. The weave must have snatched at the ghost’s injured arm as well: I watched as the wound was stretched and suddenly ripped wider, until the entire ghost unraveled. The ghost’s scream echoed in my ears even as another specter surged into its place. The first ghost dissipated into the weave — and, where its remains brushed their auras, into the other ghosts.
That isn’t an aura, I realized. Nearly transparent tendrils — no, threads — whipped around the ghosts. The weave, I thought. I could only see them at all because there were so many of them anchored into each ghost, forming a ragged nimbus around them. The weave tried to tear them apart and couldn’t. It was torn instead. That was how its aura could tear at my soul. Even though I was more dead than alive, I felt a spike of fear. Fear was, after all, a survival thing. The grasping weave was constantly trying to siphon my aura out through the wounds in my soul. Now these ghosts were trying to do the same, using tendrils that they had torn out of the weave. Only where the weave would only take my aura if it slipped free of the confines of my soul, the ghosts seemed intent to rip me — to rip my soul — apart if that was what it took to get at my essence.
Or worse: perhaps they weren’t interested in my soul. That stranger’s voice that had thought in my mind….
Perhaps what they wanted was to dispose of my soul and take over my undead body.
Fuck, I was going to panic about that when I was alive again. I shoved the thought aside and tried desperately to find a way to survive long enough for that to happen.
Now that I knew what I was looking at, I picked up more. There were thicker lines in the faux auras: mutual lines of grief and anguish and despair that had interwoven into thicker cords and twined between the ghosts, made from the tattered, torn lines of the weave. They were like some sort of a mockery of true leylines: a self-reinforcing miasma of emotions tying together the spiritual remains of the people who had borne them in life.
But, mockery of magic or not, they were still connections. The zombie-ghosts were tied together by them, and I could see the ripple of expanding lines running out through the crowd that surrounded us, drawing in more, and more, and more.
I was a vampire. I was dead. I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything.
And I was terrified, because even though my aura was leaking out of my wounded soul, I was alive enough for that. And I didn’t know how to fight a ghost. They didn’t have blood! I wasn’t dormant, and without having a connection of my own or my shard of Megan’s faerie soul free to act I couldn’t just pull their essence out of them! I’d only had a second or two in which I could see them — but almost all of my allies were confused and entirely oblivious to the threat, and those who weren’t were already almost overwhelmed.
Another chill shot through me as a ghost’s aura raked my soul, only to be cut off when one of Reid’s faeries tore a shambling figure with a bloated abdomen and grey, dead skin off of my arm. I lashed out at another zombie-ghost, then ripped my arm away when its aura used my attempt at defending myself to tear at my soul. It didn’t find purchase in the wounded rents that violated the integrity of my aura, but that was only because I’d realized what was happening and ripped myself away before it found them.
I can’t even fight back!
And worse? Feeding into my panic even as my ability to panic poured through the reopened wound in my soul? More of them were coming: a monstrous, diseased, grieving horde of them that was scattered throughout the waiting room and packed dozens thick around the hospital door — and that was slowly, but with growing numbers as awareness spread through their faux leylines, turning and stumbling toward us with outstretched, grasping arms and empty, weeping eyes and gaping, wailing, hungry mouths.