It seemed obvious that the zombie ghosts wanted to live. So did I.
“Run!” I shouted at Hans. I didn’t know if he could hear me; his eyes were wild and he moved with the swift jerking speed of a trapped animal: snapping from one position to the next.
The spectral wolf heard me, though. It raised its head from the specter it was ravaging and looked at me, then howled and tore off toward the front of the hospital. Hans surged forward in pursuit. His wolf, I suddenly thought. That’s his wolf! With the surge of recognition I suddenly found the leyline connecting me to the beast: it was the wolf whose primal needs surged through me when I fed on Hans — but for some reason it was obeying my commands.
I felt a wild, manic urge to laugh. Of course it was obeying my commands: I’d always fed on Hans’ wolf as much as I had on Hans. More than. Hans had never been enthralled when I’d fed on him — but his wolf had been.
The wolf barreled through a scattered group of wretched ghosts. It knocked over an elderly woman with sightless eyes, then ripped the throat out of an office worker whose moans were muffled by phlegm. Hans’ wolf trampled the fallen spirit and was moving on even as it dissolved away, with Hans running in blind pursuit behind it.
I heard Reid shouting directions to the other trolls: “Guard her! Hold them back!” First one and then another fell behind as they were bogged down in a doomed attempt to delay the horde of malevolent spirits that shifted to pursue Hans. Only Hans’ wolf, Reid, and the elf I had fed on before remained in front of me. Reid and the elf ruthlessly cut down any ghost that angled in to intercept us from the front, while the wolf bowled through any ghost that dared stray directly in front of us.
For a split second I was afraid that we were going for the hospital’s front doors: the very thick of the spectral horde. I must have run through them too quickly for them to have latched on to me when I charged at Hans: too quickly for them to have realized that I was vulnerable to their grasping auras. But one of them had become aware of me while we’d been standing still. One of them had gotten its hooks into me — and that awareness had spread through the horde along the gnarled, faux leylines that united them all. If we went for the thick of the horde now Hans would probably make it outside with my body. But I doubted my soul would still be inside it.
If it had just been Hans carrying me, that might have been my fate. I started to yell at him not to use the doors — but he was clearly more than half gone: he was following his wolf as though he were running on instinct — and his wolf was aware of the threat. It led us at a sharp angle that took us to the side of the doors and toward the large plate windows along the front of the waiting room. The wolf leapt effortlessly through the glass as though it were completely unaffected by the physical barrier. An instant later Hans pivoted without slowing. He tucked his head down, folding himself around me, and threw himself backward. The glass shattered and we tumbled into the street.
The sun seared me immediately. The brightness was so intense I was momentarily blinded by it, and I had no idea if I’d been cut by the glass because my entire body was seared with pain. I could smell blood: Hans’ blood. My fangs extended further, making my gums ache as I hissed in pain and need. Hans shifted, rolling over and pinning me under his bulk. His body mercifully blocked most of me from the sun’s direct light.
Abruptly Reid’s faerie form dropped out of the ghost world and manifested in reality beside us. The nurse, I thought inanely. He couldn’t manifest in the hospital because she was watching us from the information window, but now she can’t see him from there. “This way,” he cried to Hans. “Her conveyance is protected by wards and darkness! She will be safe!” I squinted against the sunlight and saw that the ghosts who’d pursued us were clawing at the air where the broken window had been. Reid’s elf and the three trolls were just outside of it, making sure that none of them escaped — but it seemed none could leave the hospital itself.
“Go,” I hissed to Hans. The need to feed was momentarily overwhelmed by the need to survive, and I managed to restrain myself from sinking my fangs into Hans in order to give the order. I needed to get out of the sun. Then I could safely rip his throat out.
Hans scrambled to his feet and I cried out again as the sun found me. I felt my exposed skin crack and split and ooze and blacken — but that didn’t stop Hans from scooping me up. He cradled my agony-wracked body against himself and lumbered after Reid at a run.
Fortunately, we’d parked as close to the front entrance as we could in order to minimize exposure to the sun. It was a straight shot into the parking lot in order to reach Benjamin’s limousine, and Hans’ legs ate the distance with enough speed to confirm that track was his preferred American sport. Even better: Benjamin’s driver had waited with the car, and when he saw us coming he darted to the back. He had the door opened before Hans and I arrived. When we did, Hans’ wolf leapt into the vehicle without slowing and Hans didn’t hesitate to follow.
As soon as we were inside I tore myself out of Hans’ arms and scrambled as far forward as the luxury compartment of the limousine would allow. Hans stood by the door, panting softly from exertion. His wolf whined and flopped onto the floor where the sun poured through the open door. Hans sagged slightly and caught himself against the rearmost seat, then straightened as though coming back to himself.
I watched him with cold, calculating eyes. I needed blood, but my body was weak from pain and atrophied where the sun’s smoldering rays had seared and ruined my flesh. I needed to get him out of that patch of sunlight. Otherwise, I was likely to combust even as I fed.
“Hans,” I purred — insofar as I could, since the attempt to talk made my raw, blistered throat scream in pain. I felt like smoke had blasted through my lungs: the act of breathing, when I tried it to clear my esophagus, sent a rasp of blistering pain in a line from the roof of my mouth through my neck and into the depths of my sternum. “Come here,” I ordered, giving up on the half-formed ploy to play innocent and harmless and seductive.
“Don’t,” Reid said from the door of the limousine. “She wouldn’t forgive herself. We have this.”
“Get back!” Benjamin’s driver shouted in alarm when he noticed Reid. Reid didn’t answer: the driver’s command was followed by a sudden scream and the clatter of something metal being tossed on the pavement. “Let me go! Put me down! Help!”
One of Reid’s trolls appeared by the door — and it wasn’t a semi-transparent astral projection, now. Instead, the troll had a fully formed phantasmal body, visible in the ‘real’ world. I could only assume another troll had manifested to take care of Benjamin’s driver.
I hissed. “What do you think you’re doing, Reid?” I demanded.
“My duty,” he said back to me. Then he nodded at the troll and gestured to the limo’s open door.
Hans, having reclaimed his rational senses, had pressed himself into the back-most corner of the limousine: where he was protected by a slash of sunlight through the door, and yet as far from the outside — and the troll standing there — as he could be without coming where I could get him. He looked around frantically, perhaps for a weapon.
The troll took a deep breath and reared back. Then it surged forward. I felt a psychic crackle ripple through the weave in response to the troll hitting the wards. It screamed in the same kind of agony I’d seen Mr. Salvatore experience when he’d entered my home uninvited. The troll collapsed in on itself as the ward, reinforced by the weave, tore him apart. He dispersed, his phantasmal body giving way to an astral manifestation — a manifestation that was barely half the size it had been before. The weave had claimed its price for violating the sanctity of the limousine’s wards.
I snarled and started forward. I knew I could sink my fangs into the astral form of a faerie, as long as I could perceive it: after all, I’d fed on Pipsqueak while he’d been out of sync with reality under Daniel’s bridge. But before I reached the wounded, depleted faerie a second troll levered itself through the limousine door. It lunged forward, toward me, and bore me back. I sank my fangs into it, but that seemed to have been its plan to begin with.
The surge of life was absolute bliss. I bit harder — hard enough that the monstrous faerie’s shoulder crunched between my jaws and he howled in pain — because I wanted more. The blood flooded into me — and then out again, pouring out of my wounded soul almost as quickly as I could bring the troll’s aura into my own.
The troll grappled with me, but didn’t push me away. I snarled and bit into him again. My body was healing, but far, far slower than it would have if my supply of essence wasn’t leaking out of me faster than my curse was putting it to use. The troll’s strength flagged, and then another one reached past him to shove my head away from my current victim. Snarling, I sank my fangs into the wrist of the offending appendage. The troll I had been feeding upon was yanked backward. He stumbled and collapsed on the limousine floor while the next troll — the last of the three, I thought — took his place.
I didn’t care that my aura couldn’t stay full and I didn’t care that this troll, too, began to sag under my continued greed. My desperation to slake my thirst left me absolutely no concern for my victim: once I destroyed him I would move on to his wounded fellow, and then Hans if need be.
And it would be needed — I wasn’t doing anything about my torn soul. I couldn’t. Even if I had the psychic dexterity that only manifested when I was dormant, I wasn’t dormant. And I was too desperate for blood to do anything about the fact that my thirst wasn’t being effectively slaked.
The troll I was feeding on sank to his knees. He tried to push me away feebly, but I refused to let up — and even though my injuries were still only starting to heal I was stronger than him now. He let out a wheezing, inarticulate protest. I could feel his fear coursing through me as it was consumed by my aura or spilled out into the world. Reid shouted a more articulate protest.
“Stop her!,” the faerie general cried. His command was so insistent that I didn’t just hear it — I felt it through our leyline.
You’re next, I thought at him with malicious greed. First this troll. Then the one on the floor. Then Reid. Then Hans.
I let my fangs slip free of my current victim so that I could find a better purchase to bite: the troll had been collapsing in on himself as his aura depleted, and now he was a ragged, emaciated husk of a being. Before I could sink my fangs back into him, though, I discovered that Reid had not been shouting at me, or my victim, or anyone else I had realized was in the car.
I arched my back and cried out as a wide, double edged blade — a dagger that could have counted as a short sword — erupted from my chest. It plunged into the troll I was holding, as well, and his phantasmal body exploded into dark mist that was ripped away by the weave. I saw his astral form for just an instant before it, too, vanished: torn back to the faerie lands because it was too weak to continue forcing its presence on this world. I could still feel the connection between us, so I knew he had survived. No: escaped.
It made me furious.
I tried to twist around so that I could make whomever had dared stab me through the back pay, but my ambusher wrenched and twisted his knife. My heart had already been pierced. The twisting blade sundered it completely. At the same time, my attacker slammed a fist wrapped in brass knuckles into the side of my head. I didn’t feel it. My consciousness was already blanking out and transitioning into dormancy.
My body crumpled to the floor. The dagger was left jutting out of my back and through my chest, preventing what was left of my aura from healing the wound that had put me under. My curse directed essence into mending my cracked, burnt skin instead. And now that my awareness had expanded in all directions, I could finally see who had ambushed me.
Pipsqueak looked down at my inanimate remains. He cleared his throat. “Queen Megan has requested that I convey her reply to your request. She would be happy to host yourself and your friend Valerie in her kingdom. She and the Lady Emma have determined that Lady Emma’s aura is stable enough for her to be herself so long as Queen Megan is keeping it topped off, and so they would like very much for you to visit this evening — and have no problem with your bringing anyone else you would like for them to meet as guests, so long as you are aware that they would like to discuss some personal matters with you, in private, as well.”