I started to shoulder past Mr. Fiore, but he caught me by the elbow.
“Wait,” Fiore growled quietly.
I froze, then snapped around to glare at the offending hand. Mr. Fiore quickly removed it, and so I shifted my angry gaze up to his offending face. He managed a not unimpressively angry glare back.
“So one of your fae bled out on you in the limo,” Mr. Fiore growled. “I don’t care. I wasn’t trying to convince Val that we should stake you while you were dormant, dammit.”
I felt myself start to frown as I took that in. I didn’t trust Mr. Fiore at all, but when I flicked my eyes to Valerie she nodded. I looked back at Mr. Fiore, but now my scowl was more because I was confused and really, really didn’t like him than because I was braced to have to literally tear his head off.
Mr. Fiore hastened to explain. “After you left the hotel,” he said, “I received new orders from The Center. Or at least from whatever faction was responding to this mess first. They had heard about you being knocked dormant when you came back from faerie, and were passing on orders that if another ‘opportunity’ like that came up we were to take advantage of it to neutralize you until the Directors as a whole could decide what to do about you.”
Valerie snorted. “Which, if you were dormant, could have taken decades. If it wasn’t just considered resolved and your interred corpse conveniently forgotten — which is exactly why I’ve opted not to have received that message yet,” she said. “And won’t until another faction or two has started giving conflicting directions,” my vampire mentor concluded with an innocent smile.
Mr. Fiore shook his head. His hands clenched and unclenched once in frustration. “And even if that wasn’t transparent as fuck,” Fiore told Valerie, “You still would have pissed off whatever group of elders is actually paying attention to what’s going on in this insane city already.” He glared at me again. “Which is why I was trying to convince Val to give me time to clear out the people around the gate before she took you there. I don’t have a clue who told The Center about you going dormant this morning — I didn’t even know about it until I overheard at the hotel. And I don’t know if that report went to The Center as a whole, or if it was diverted to just whoever responded. But either way I didn’t want someone to tip them off that you were ignoring a Center directive.” He turned back to snap at Valerie. “Especially since they know I got the message, so if I happened to be there when you decided to do your own thing it would have clearly been in defiance of them, whoever ‘they’ are this time.”
I was very much scowling because I was confused, now. “That doesn’t make sense,” I protested. “You were trying to help me?”
“I was trying to help Valerie,” Mr. Fiore shot back. “She was trying to help you, but I still don’t think that with what we knew I made the wrong call last night. Frankly: I still don’t know who you are or what you are or how you did all the things everyone says you’ve been doing. I don’t even know that Archarel is really dead — no one I trust saw you kill him, and it’s not like a faerie can’t just up and vanish.” He sneered at me. “Or decide to play a long con just to see if they can pull it off.”
Mr. Fiore’s nostrils flared angrily as he overrode my attempt to reply with his own rant. “So no: I don’t want to help you. And as long as I’m being frank? I don’t trust you, either. Because there is too much stuff going on with you that shouldn’t even be possible, and one of us has to keep being suspicious of you just in case. And it may as well be me, since you seem to have gotten everyone else on your side already.” He lifted his chin defiantly. “And since Miss Grenz is among the people I do care about, keeping her from getting screwed over by getting dragged into the political backlash over your mess just happens to be to your benefit this time — or would have been if you’d actually been dormant. Since you aren’t, it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Yes, actually, I thought. It does. I glared at Mr. Fiore but I didn’t speak my thoughts aloud. If you want me to get staked while I’m helpless, that matters a lot even though I’m not helpless right now. “Whatever,” I growled back at him. He didn’t like or trust me? Fine. The feeling was mutual. And maybe I was being a little petulant about it, but Thaddeus’ essence was being subsumed which was letting my fear and anxiety in the face of Mr. Fiore creep ever higher. I wanted to get away from him while the getting was good, not win a stupid argument about motivations.
I turned toward Valerie. I kept some of my senses keyed onto Fiore, though, just in case he did something really stupid and forced me to self-defense him. “So, where do we go from here? I’ve never used this gate.”
Valerie chuckled. “No one I know of has used this gate,” she said. “Except maybe some of the faeries following you around. I haven’t even seen it, myself,” she added. “Matt?”
Mr. Fiore scowled at her. “It’s this way,” he said. He turned and stalked into the building, leaving Valerie and I to follow. I waited until Valerie had started and then checked to make sure that Reid and Thaddeus were with me — they had gone immaterial, but I could sense them through their leylines. Confident that I had secret backup, I started walking behind Valerie.
The entrance to the building was small enough to not even count as a proper hallway. Maybe an antechamber? I guessed that it only existed to help regulate the building’s temperature when people came and went. In three steps we crossed it and passed through another set of doors.
Those led to what I had to guess was a large room. I could only guess, though, because other than a small L-shaped counter by the door, the room was packed with shelves, carts, and stacks of books. “What is all this?” I whispered to Valerie.
But of course Mr. Fiore could hear as well. He answered. “This is the campus library’s archival annex. This floor is mostly out-of-date textbooks and reference materials; things like that. Genuinely rare volumes are stored upstairs, while the magazine and newspaper archives are in the basement stacks.”
“And the gate?” I asked crossly. I was a little annoyed with Mr. Fiore knowing the answer to my question when I didn’t — I’d actually gone to this college. Of course, I hadn’t spent any time researching anything esoteric or historical, so I’d never had a reason to seek out anything that I couldn’t find in the regular library. Or better yet: online.
“Sub-basement,” Mr. Fiore told us. I got the feeling that he was more interested in informing Valerie than me. I could deal with that, though. “The original portal was opened in a small cave accessible from the woods off campus. It covered the caves, some of the woods, and the very edge of campus. To make it more accessible and easier to defend, the local coven invested a fair amount of energy in refining the portal’s focus and shifting it so that now it is only accessible from the warded circle they maintain below this building. It makes for a more effective bottleneck of the gateway and lets them keep a few of their members comfortably on watch over it without raising too many questions with the mundanes.”
Actually, Reid commented in my head, so many of us had come through it by the time that they started putting in those wards they didn’t actually describe the full area that the gate covered. When Lord Archarel called us all back for the evening, it removed all of the leylines that were ‘crowding’ the pathway outside of the coven’s wards. There were places out in the woods this morning where we could still travel between the worlds unnoticed, so long as not too many of us were using the path at once. If you withdrew your people from this realm and gave the gate time to recover, those ways would be available again.
Mr. Fiore didn’t slow down or look back at us while he spoke. Instead he led us between some of the shelves, threading his way to a central stairwell. It proved to be unlocked. He pushed it open and went in. Valerie and I followed him down.
Huh, I thought to Reid. Good to know. Reid had told me the other night that Archarel had drawn his people back to celebrate his forthcoming nuptials with Orlina — now I couldn’t help but think he’d had a tactical reason, as well. While some of his people could have gone through Katherine’s portal to strike at the city by surprise, he could have dispatched another group through those ‘places in the woods’ to strike at the people guarding this gate from behind. If more of his people had surged through the gate at the same time, Mr. Fiore and Linda’s witches would have been effectively flanked by an unending horde — more fae would have been able to replace any that were banished just as quickly as the banished ones left this realm. At least, they could until the portal had been used for long enough that it began to resist the presence of more fae traveling through it.
That was probably why he hadn’t just gathered the troops that were already in the city and used them to ambush the guards on this portal: by allowing it to exist without any leylines running through it he would have given this world time to ‘relax’ in its resistance to faeries coming from that avenue. If he had simply used the forces he had present, reinforcements through the portal would have been restricted and only arrived in a slow trickle. By setting it up the way he had, his forces would have circumvented that restriction.
Archarel would have had fewer fae in this world once he moved out from this point, I thought, but he would have had effectively infinite fae with which to fight the battle here. And since all Linda’s coven and Director Salvatore — or Lewellan and the scions, after I killed Salvatore — would have been gathered here to bottleneck the faerie invasion, he would have won by having overwhelming numbers available for this battle — the only battle that would have mattered. I noticed Reid following my thoughts and looked to him for confirmation. That’s how Hans’ pack was overwhelmed, wasn’t it? Because they were fighting right on top of the portal and the portal was newly made, the fae could come through just as quickly as they were sent back — it was a war of attrition, but only one side ever actually lost its numbers. It was sneaky and devious and exactly what I would have expected of a faerie general.
I don’t know, Reid answered. I was already on Archarel’s bad side, then, and had been sent to the city. I wasn’t present for that battle — but I strongly suspect you are right. I hadn’t considered that, last night. Perhaps tormenting those of us he called back but would not permit to attend the festivities was simply a bonus to Lord Archarel’s plans.
You need to start thinking more like a general, Reid, I chided him gently. It wasn’t a very serious thought, though, and he knew it. If I needed a tactician I’d expect him to find the best one among my followers. Not be it.
Reid’s psychic chuckle rumbled down the leyline from him. I suspect that if you need a tactician, Lady Abigail, you’ll be the best one available. You’ve certainly outfoxed everyone you’ve gone up against so far.
Well, yes, but that was just because… A sudden, horrifying side thought derailed my focus and almost made me stumble as I followed Mr. Fiore around a corner of the basement and down a second flight of stairs. Oh god, it went. Some of Megan’s faeries… Hell, some of my faeries might have been the ones who killed Hans’ pack mates!
Reid immediately dropped the old conversational thread. His reply to my newest thought was surprisingly somber. I can find that out for you, he offered.
Stunned by all the things that could explode from that, I struggled with my reply. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to have to cope with whatever happened if Hans was confronted with an individual faerie who had slain one of his pack… one of his family, if my understanding of how he’d felt about his pack mates was right. But I couldn’t push this thought aside. Not and live with myself. Add finding that out to the list of your responsibilities, I told him gratefully. I don’t know what to do about it, but I need to know before it blows up in my face. Or Hans’.
I shall, Reid promised. Then he left me to my own thoughts, so that I could attempt to regain my mental equilibrium — and because Mr. Fiore had stopped. We were at the end of a dimly lit hallway. The tiles that patterned the floor were old and weathered, and the ceiling lights were sparse. One of them flickered as though on the verge of burning out.
Mr. Fiore opened the door at the end of the hall and gestured for us to walk through. The room on the other side appeared to be unfinished — but furnished as though it was used frequently. About half of it was covered with an array of throw rugs instead of fabric, and there was a card table and chairs and a bookshelf visible from the door. On the far end of the room, where the floor was still plain concrete, rings of arcane etchings and symbols wrapped around a circle of bare floor. Perhaps it was just because I had my awareness elevated into that ghost-ly realm where Reid and Thaddeus’ immaterial forms hid, but I could practically see the waves of energy that were contained by those wards.
“Thank you,” Valerie told Mr. Fiore. She stepped past him and into the room. I followed — and only after I entered the room did I hear the beating hearts of the two solocks who stood guard by the door, and the half dozen others that had been taking their ease out of view from the hallway. Mr. Fiore entered the room behind us.
Valerie strode up to the portal’s edge. I continued to follow her, and Matteo Fiore continued to dog our steps. I couldn’t sense Reid anymore — he was stuck on the other side of the wards I’d passed through at the edge of the room. I wasn’t too worried, though. Faeries could always travel from our world to theirs, so he could rejoin me once I’d passed through the portal with Valerie. “Shall we?” I asked her.
Valerie grinned. “I don’t mind admitting I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I realized it might be a possibility,” she said. Then, without so much as hesitating, she stepped into the portal. I followed — but while my foot was still crossing the border I heard Mr. Fiore shouting in alarmed protest. His arm shot past me, grabbing for Valerie. Then my foot set down on the other side of the portal’s shimmering curtain — and in a stone courtyard beneath a starlit sky and crescent moon.
I was in faerie land again.
Valerie breathed out. Her sudden laughter — almost childlike in wonder and glee — surprised me. So did Matteo Fiore’s stunned gasp. I locked my gaze on him: he was still holding Valerie’s elbow and had caught himself, precariously balanced, on her arm. She must have pulled him through with herself.
“Are you insane?!” Mr. Fiore shouted at my mentor. “What if this was an ambush?! Why didn’t you tell me you meant to come through the portal with her?! I could have had my men establish a perimeter on this side; ascertain that it was safe!”
Even as he said it, four of the solocks we had left on Earth burst into existence behind us. Their guns swept the area around us as they circled us in a practiced, protective formation. Or at least around Matteo and Valerie — I had the distinct impression that I was only included by misfortune of being in physical proximity to the other two vampires. Although perhaps that was just my paranoia ascribing Fiore’s dislike of me to his men.
“Abigail!” The joyful shout distracted me, and I spun around. At the far end of the courtyard was one of the archways that served as doors to the myriad locations in Megan’s kingdom. And striding toward us from it was none other than Megan herself, followed by Melvin and some sort of gnome or goblin. Emma emerged from the portal behind them, but then crossed her arms under her breasts and leaned against the archway’s frame, apparently content just to watch Megan’s and my reunion.
I shoved my way out of the box of Solocks, then came to a stop in front of my best friend. I hated it, but I didn’t know how to approach Megan further. I didn’t know where we stood anymore. I had my suspicions; I had my hopes — but I didn’t know.
And then Megan threw her arms around me in a fierce hug. “I’ve been waiting for word you’d arrived ever since you asked to bring a guest when you came back!” she cried. “I thought you would show up at the other portal.” Megan hugged me again and then pushed herself back so that she could peer at everyone who was arrayed behind me.
“Hello,” Megan said cheerfully. Are these really all friends of yours? she asked me personally, through our leyline.
Valerie is, sort of, I think, I said. Mr. Fiore not so much, but he’s a friend of Valerie’s, I guess, and she didn’t tell him she meant to come through with me, so he followed to make sure she was okay and then his solocks followed to make sure he was okay, so… Yeah.
Solocks? Megan thought. Wait, no: I get it. Soldier warlocks. Wow, they seem keyed up, too. But that’s okay. As long as they don’t cause trouble I don’t mind a few more visitors, I guess.
Megan beamed her most friendly smile at the group. “So long as you come and stay in peace,” Megan tried to reassure them, “neither I nor any of my people will offer you harm, so be at ease.” She stepped around me, so that she was standing at my side. Will you handle my side of the introductions, Abby? she asked me.
I hastily turned around. “Everyone, this is my best friend, Megan. Megan, this is Valerie Grenz and Matteo Fiore and… um, I don’t actually know any of the solocks, but they’re Matteo’s people, so he can introduce them if he wants.”
Megan smiled as though I hadn’t just handed everyone the most ineloquent introduction ever. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintances,” Megan said. “Welcome,” she greeted them warmly, “to my kingdom.”