This morning when I’d stepped from Faerie into Katherine’s home uninvited it had rendered me dormant. But this morning my soul had been in tatters and my aura was almost empty. When Salvatore had entered my apartment uninvited, he’d been deliberately starving himself — but it hadn’t knocked him out or even made that much of a difference in how he was acting, as far as I’d been able to tell. Now I was gambling that stepping through the church’s wards wouldn’t be as bad as Matteo predicted: not with my soul stitched up and my aura full to bloated. I set my foot down inside the church and then stepped forward with the other.
And then the wards reacted.
It wasn’t like entering a house uninvited.
I mean, at first it was. It was like there was a wall of resistance that I had to push myself through, but I did it. Oh, the effort still wracked me with pain and I felt my curse consume a chunk of my buffer as I forced myself into the church itself. I wasn’t sure how much I’d lost — I still hadn’t really figured out how to measure something that I could only describe metaphorically. It was a lot more than I’d lost crossing into Katherine’s home, but as a quantitative amount I couldn’t begin to describe it. A third? Two Hans’ worth? Six Emmas? Did any of that even make sense?
No, not really. But I wasn’t rendered dormant, and I didn’t go psychopathic. That was what was important. I had stepped into the church without collapsing or bursting into flames or deciding I had to murder people. And once I was past that wall, it was done.
Except it wasn’t.
Immediately, a new pain began to burn through my extremities. And by extremities, I mean everything on the outside — like my whole fucking epidermis. It didn’t matter whether my skin was covered or not: I felt like I was fucking sunbathing. But while entering a house uninvited meant a huge amount of pain when I breached the threshold, this was almost bearable… except that it was ongoing. It felt like a weight was trying to compact my soul, and my body was reacting by trying to ignite. I gasped and staggered, but managed to keep my feet. After a couple of seconds I adjusted. Keep it together, I told myself. This isn’t that much worse than the scalding showers you used to take when you were alive.
Well, okay: it was a little worse.
Holy ground, I thought. This is what Mister Fiore meant when he said that every brick or stone or timber of the place would be warded. It’s not like punching through the threshold of a home because this is a church. The whole damn thing is a symbol and focus of people’s accumulated beliefs. Actually, it was not a lot unlike the discomfort I’d felt in Mister Salvatore’s room — only dialed up to two thousand.
I gritted my teeth. My buffer had taken a noticeable hit, and Melvin’s aura was siphoning away to replace it. The ongoing pressure of the church wards was starting to make me anxious, too — or maybe it was that my aura had dropped down enough that I was thinking ‘normal’ — or, as was normal in my case, neurotic. Regardless, the fact was that my buffer wasn’t growing as Melvin’s aura was subsumed into it: fighting off the wards’ attempts to light me on fire seemed to be draining my buffer at about the same rate as I was managing to feed Melvin’s essence into it.
I didn’t have a lot of time before I would become a danger to others. I had to get this done quickly. I had to be just as fast as my aura was shrinking. Which meant I had to find the people I was supposed to find, fast.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to go far before I saw someone. One of Fiore’s solocks — a woman with short cropped hair, wearing the same cargo pants and urban-militia uniform as the rest of his solocks — was standing watch at the entrance to the sanctuary. Her eyes widened when she saw me.
“Where are they?” I asked. I meant the kids — the injured kids, not the ones that were being sequestered away to protect their ability to disbelieve. I probably should have specified. She seemed to understand anyway, though, because her eyes widened and she hastily stepped aside. She gestured toward the sanctuary. “In here.” I didn’t waste any time going to the door she was guarding to see for myself.
Fiore’s solocks were administering first aid to no fewer than three people, though even without the improved perception of my supernatural sight I could tell that two of the victims weren’t getting much more than comfort, if that. Neither of those two appeared to be conscious.
“Who’s in the worst shape?” I snapped as I stepped into the sanctuary. I wasn’t thinking — I was too busy being assailed by the scent of blood and the way my skin was drying out and tightening now that I was in the sanctuary proper. My fangs descended while I was talking, making me stumble on the word ‘worst.’ The impact of the church wards was far stronger here. I bet an older vampire probably would have burst into flames by now, I thought. Which was good to know, I guess?
Mental note: if needed, shoot the next Director The Center sends to town out of a cannon and into a church. Damn, I wish that had been an option with Lewellan.
One of the solocks looked up. He sucked in a startled breath at the sight of me — or maybe at my fangs? After all, these people had to know that their vampire hadn’t been able to enter the building. If I’d ever wondered just how big a difference being adapted to a faerie instead of a mortal made to my starting off point, that was a pretty big indicator that it was significant — special powers aside, my soul could contain more essence than Fiore’s. So probably Benjamin’s and Thomas’, too. Maybe Valerie’s — although she’d been studying magic, and I knew that had a tendency to make a person capable of holding more essence, so maybe not.
The solock’s surprise at seeing a vampire didn’t slow him down, though. “This one,” he called back. “Teenage male. Disemboweled, multiple bites, cracked skull. Unconscious and probably concussed.”
I ran to help, then blanched when I really took in the person who needed it. He was unconscious and lying on the ground, and he was big. He looked like — oh god — he looked like his stomach had been torn open, and his intestines had been yanked out and then stuffed back inside. He was maybe seventeen, eighteen years old? I couldn’t really tell. But I was somewhat taken aback: all the talk of a werewolf tearing apart a church youth group had left me expecting kid-kids. But really, what did I know? I’d figured “youth group” was where they put anyone who was too young to attend a regular service without fidgeting, so they could keep entertained making macaroni art of Jesus while the adults did the actual worshiping and stuff.
Not helpful thoughts, I told myself. I crouched down next to the big guy.
“He’s pretty damn lucky,” the solock attending him said. “Gut wound like that? I don’t know if he’s already contracted lycanthropy and developed some sort of minor internal regeneration, or is just damn tough — but he should have been a lot worse off than he was when we found him.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t really paying attention outside of my own thoughts. Silver lining to be on the fast track to ignition? If I were still full I’d probably be pretty worried about him grabbing me after I mend him. He looked a lot like the sort of guy who terrified me at frat parties. With my aura draining, that was less of a concern. Feeding was a greater one — but greater than that was the little bit of Hans and Curtis I was holding onto.
Help Jeremy. Don’t let the wolves hurt anyone. This is my responsibility.
“This church is wearing me down,” I said hastily. “If I start to lose myself, make sure I bite each of the victims before you shoot me in the head, alright? Then get my corpse outside. There are people there who can revive me and make sure I have enough essence to share through the bites that they heal.” I didn’t wait for the solock to reply to that. I sank my teeth into the young man’s neck, instead.
A wolf flowed into me with his blood. I closed my eyes and breathed out in ecstasy, then sank my fangs into his neck again: worrying them until blood resumed its flow. Fuck, kill, eat, the primal directives rippled out through my aura. But there was more. This wolf was still in the process of binding to its host, and with its emotional lens came a surge of the young man it was linked to.
The guy’s life force slammed me with the suddenness that only comes from feeding on someone completely normal. It was heady and wonderful and incredibly disorienting. The urge to tell people to fuck off, to assert my independence, washed over me. I had to rein it back before I acted on it — I wanted to just stand in the church foyer and taunt Fiore. If he thought he was so damn hot, he could come in here and take care of the ‘victims.’ I wasn’t going to be a victim, but they were fucking taking advantage of me. Psychotic vampire Director can’t get a date? Kill Abby. Psychopathic vampire Director doesn’t want to teach Abby how to be a vampire? Blame Abby for everything he does and try to get the city to kill her. Megalomaniacal faerie king? Throw Abby at him. Fucking werewolves running amok? Abby.
I was sick of it. I was so fucking sick of dealing with everyone else’s problems! Of being the scapegoat for all their shit. No fucking duh, The Center doesn’t trust me. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Not save Megan from Mister Salvatore? Not defend myself from Director Lewellan? Not call Fiore out for being an asshat? Fuck them! I was only the villain because they’d written me into the role, and now I didn’t have a fucking choice but to be a bitch in my own defense.
“Hey! Hey, get her off of him!” A frantic girl yelled somewhere in the background — one of the werewolf’s other victims, I guessed.
“Relax, kid,” I heard the solock next to me reply. I was too occupied with the emotions rushing through my head — the guy I was feeding from was, beneath his wolf, just a normal mortal, after all, and about as fucked up as I was starting to think everyone was. “She’s a vampire. The people they bite share in their powers — including regeneration. This will save him.”
“Yeah,” another solock — a more distant one — murmured in something between admiration and disbelief. “Though how in…” He cleared his throat. “Though how she got through this building’s wards…. Mister Fiore couldn’t break them, or you’d all be fine already and we wouldn’t have been waiting on an ambulance.”
“She’s a what?!” another younger voice yelped — male, this time. “But that is not Salvatore,” he protested.
I bit down in surprise, making my fangs shred through the side of my current juice box’s neck. Blood spurted over my face for a second before the wound closed — my sympathetic healing had set in. I pulled back with a gasp, then hastened to look for who had shouted. Down the aisle from me were three teenagers and two solocks. One of the teenagers was unconscious. One of the teens was another jock type. He gaped at me. Or maybe at my bloody face and fangs. Next to him, the third teen — the girl who’d protested before, I guessed — gasped in horror. The leg of her jeans had been torn off and in its place were a thick swath of wrapped bandages, over her knee and ankle. The guy didn’t appear hurt. He was watching me uncertainly, but he wasn’t as afraid as the conscious girl. That probably made him the dumber of the two, even if he did know about the supernatural world and she didn’t. Probably especially if he was in the know.
“You’re a…” The jock-boy stammered. “How did you…” His jaw clicked shut. “Will Jacob be alright?” he asked. Then, more quickly: “Can you help Shantaya? I did what I could, but I don’t have the ability to physically heal people.”
I stared back at him. Who is this guy? The girl next to him was staring like she was wondering the same thing. I figured that confirmed my guess that she’d been in the dark about the existence of vampires and werewolves and witches and faeries before tonight. He, on the other hand, must have known about the supernatural side of the world — that much was clear from his knowing who Mister Salvatore was. But he was out of touch with current events in it, or he’d know that Salvatore was dead. Dead-er. Whatever.
I rose to my feet and wobbled. Something was wrong. My aura was rapidly burning away under the onslaught of the church wards — more rapidly than feeding had replenished it. I only had moments to feed on the other two victims, and I was having trouble focusing on why I should care. My most recent meal did, that much I knew — he was unhealthily obsessed with living up to people’s opinions of him, frankly. But why should I give a shit? Hell, my most recent juice box despised them at least as much as he wanted to impress them.
I felt like I should at least care about the fact that one of Jeremy’s potential victims was in on the whole supernatural world thing — but I just didn’t. Neither did I really care about feeding on his friends, frankly. I just wanted to leave the detestable weight of these wards behind and enjoy a nice drink of faerie. I struggled with that for a moment and ended up feeding the negativity from my most recent victim into my curse first, letting it be subsumed so it would stop getting in my way. I tied off a little bit like I had the driving motivations I was keeping from Hans and Curtis — enough to keep the leyline between us open and to make sure I wasn’t cutting him off from my ability to heal, but the rest I dumped into my vampiric curse to be torn apart and subsumed into myself. I had shit to do, and being a petty, self-involved tyrant wasn’t going to get it done.
“I can try,” I said.
“Her next,” the solock who was crouched beside me said. He was pointing toward the unconscious one of the remaining teens: she was lying on her back alongside the pews. Now that I was standing again I could see that her throat had been chewed on. I also saw something sticking out of it. At first I thought it was bone or something, but it was too straight.
Oh, I realized. One of the solocks had given her a tracheotomy, in addition to what they’d done to stop any bleeding from her clawed torso. At least she hadn’t been disemboweled. Despite my growing ambivalence, I started going to help. But then I hesitated when I was halfway there. I was seized with an internal conflict. On the one hand: Don’t let the wolves hurt anyone. This is my responsibility. On the other? I was so much more interested in the girl who was still conscious. She looked terrified. She looked like prey, and since I was feeding most of my most recent victim’s essence into my curse, his wolf’s essence was free to run rampant through my aura.
I could totally pin her down and tear her throat out, too. It was a very appealing thought. Then the girls would make a matched set, the more sadistic part of me noted. Until she healed, anyway.
I wanted to chase her down and sink my fangs into her, too. Badly. And she knew it: I could tell from the expression on her face when I smiled at her.
“Benny,” she said anxiously. She clung to the jock-boy’s arm and his posture shifted protectively. “Don’t let her near ‘Taya. Don’t let her turn my sister into a vampire!”
Alright, so maybe she didn’t realize that I wanted to make her run. In fact, there was so much wrong with how she’d misunderstood my intentions and what she’d said that I didn’t know where to start contradicting her. Vampires weren’t made like that. Her sister was already going to be a werewolf. The one that was tripping my hunt, kill, eat instincts was her.
And then I realized that I actually knew exactly where to start. I was getting thirsty, and I didn’t have time to waste.
Help Jeremy. Don’t let the wolves hurt anyone. This is my responsibility, wrestled with hunt, kill, eat — which was reinforced by the far simpler and more direct demands of my curse insisting that I feed. “I don’t have time to debate,” I said bluntly. “A bite won’t infect your sister — she’d have to drink my blood for that. Now get out of my way or I will leave and she will just have to gamble on the paramedics getting here in time and being able to do anything if they do — because if I keep standing around pretty soon I won’t be able to leave. This church doesn’t want me here, and if I keep lingering in defiance of that it will kill me — or turn me into a true monster, trying.”
The guy next to her looked uncomfortable, but didn’t move to stop me when I started walking forward. Instead, he wrapped his arms around the girl — in comfort or restraint, I couldn’t tell. I took that to mean they weren’t going to get in my way — but I was mistaken.
“Oh hell no,” the frightened girl said. It broke my concentration, and my determination to help rather than hunt slipped. I took a step toward her in response. “No! Just leave! Get back!” She grabbed the solock beside her and tried to get him to stand up to me, since her guy wasn’t. “Keep her away,” she shrieked. “Keep that freaking monster away! She can’t have Shantaya!”
The words felt like a slap in the face, only far, far more violent. The girl who shouted them was a member of this church, and its wards reacted to her fear of me. I could feel psychic claws suddenly slash down at me with a malice that had previously been dormant. Before, the pressure of the wards’ presence alone had been devastating: my essence had been constantly drained just shoring up my soul against the weight of it, healing my skin from the urge to burn. But now the wards clawed at my aura actively. I wasn’t wanted here. No: I was actively unwanted here, and the wards over this place were responding, trying to remove me in the only way they could.
I swayed on my feet. She thought I was a monster? Fine. I could be a fucking monster. I bared my teeth in a snarl. I made sure to show off my fangs — they were longer than they’d been when I fed on the first guy — Jacob? Whatever. His name was officially Juice Box, now. My fangs were painfully extended, as the assault of the church’s wards was bleeding essence out of me — suddenly, the time that I could keep functioning had became drastically shorter. A rapidly shrinking part of me wanted to tell the girl off and save ‘Shantaya’ whether anyone else wanted me to or not. But that wasn’t what a monster would do, was it?
And why did I even care about these girls? These damn strangers. None of them would even be worth killing to feed on! In fact, I’d walked into this church with an aura bloated from feeding on Melvin. And now? Now, as my soul began to crumble under the assault of the church’s wards, my skin was starting to blister and crack. And her hostility had just made it worse.
“Fine,” I growled. The girl gasped and recoiled. I could guess why: one of the wards’ claws had struck and torn at the stitching holding my soul together. The smell of smoldering flesh reached my nose. After the last week I was already far too familiar with it, and it scared me. Even without the pathetic drive to panic that I experienced when I was ‘alive,’ I knew to be frightened when I smelled myself burning.
I turned away from the two girls and started to walk away. If they wanted to suffer, that was their business. I, on the other hand, had no such desire — and I doubted I could afford to either linger in the church or antagonize anyone into further turning its wards against me. Not when I was already losing feeling in my flesh as it withered.
I don’t like this place, I thought. I wanted desperately to feed, and I suspected that it was only because of the shard of Megan’s faerie soul providing an independent ability to reason that I was able to act with any rationality — I probably should’ve gone feral by now. Lewellan had implied that most vampires went completely out of control when they were far enough gone, before I’d killed him. And frankly, I wanted to kill everyone around me and feast on their blood, now. As it was, as soon as I left I was going to have a nice drink of Melvin.
And then I was going to come back and firebomb this building into such a charred wreckage that its wards broke. In fact: if those wards were soaked into every stone of the building like Fiore had implied, then I would damn well enthrall a construction crew to come in and shatter the wreckage, too!
Hell, I should have done that to begin with. Not only would employing a Molotov cocktail or two have gotten rid of this hideous trap of a building, but it also would’ve eliminated any concerns about Hans’ new werewolf, Jeremy’s victims, or any other survivers.
God, I needed a drink. I needed blood. I needed life. I needed to taste it, to feel it soothing my throat and spreading through my aura, restoring me. I needed to drink it all. From fucking everyone.
I was too cold — emotionally — to give a shit about all the people around me, now, but I wasn’t stupid. Feeding while in the church was a losing proposition: its ward was burning through my aura faster than I could draw in more essence from a mere mortal. But Melvin was outside. Melvin had blood that could restore me. If I could get to him. If not, then as soon as I was out and could feed without burning up while I did it, people were going to die.
But I only got to take three steps toward the door before I stopped. Not because I wanted to, but because Mister Fiore’s solocks — the one from the door, and the one from beside my first victim — were in my way.
“Move,” I snarled.
“Help her,” the male solock responded.
“The other one doesn’t want me to,” I shouted back, “and I don’t have time to fight her on it.” What did they not get about that? My skin was actively cracking apart and blackening already!
I really didn’t have time to loiter, but more to the point: with my body now crumbling as it burned up inside and my aura being slowly shredded by the constant pummeling of the church wards I didn’t think I had the ability to win if it came to a fight. I’d tried that before when I’d been physically damaged by my thirst and it had never worked out well — and I could already tell I was unbalanced. I could move, but I’d lost the ability to feel, and with it the ability to judge my movement. Hell, I’d already lost sight in one eye. What I could see of myself with the other was hideously ruined and covered in scorched blisters. The only reason smoke wasn’t rising up from my clothing, I figured, was because it was all a glamour, anyway. In fact, I was pretty sure it was only a matter of minutes before I would be too much of a briquette to move at all.
I groped at the glamour of my clothing with my mind — if I could draw it in, that might sustain me for a little longer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite seem to grasp it. It belongs to Megan, I realized belatedly. It isn’t tied to me to maintain itself. Was that why it hadn’t been blasted apart when I entered the church? I hadn’t thought about it then, but Megan was a much more spiritual person than I was. And she had been religious when she was younger — I knew that. It made a certain sense then that a church wouldn’t react to her like it did to me.
Maybe that meant that if I went dormant, the wards would see the shard of her soul and stop trying to kill me? I had no intention of letting things go that far, just in case they didn’t cease their assault when my body gave out, but it was a possibility that might save my life if it came to it.
The eyes of the solock that addressed me hardened. “That doesn’t really matter,” he said calmly. “She doesn’t understand what’s going on. She’s in shock, and her sister won’t make it without help. So help her.”
“I need to get out of here!” I snapped back. I was starting to panic. It felt like the church was burning me worse — burning through my essence faster! — as my aura dwindled, and these idiots weren’t letting me leave. Hadn’t I already said that I didn’t have time to debate? I mentally made a note to make sure that he died horribly. Possibly in a fire. “It’s this holy ground! It wants to destroy me and these kids are regular mortals; their blood isn’t enough.”
I grasped for an excuse that the solocks would buy. If I didn’t come up with something I was going to have to try to fight my way free — and that wouldn’t end well. Unfortunately, while Fiore might’ve been a rule bound idiot he still trained competent people. Two solocks had torn me apart once before, and between the two in front of me, the two with the girls, and the two by the other entrances to the room there were six of them here in the church sanctuary.
“Get out of my way,” I cried at him. I’d found my excuse: a bluff. “I have to get out of here before I get thirsty enough to start killing!”
Of course, the truth was: I was already past that point. I had already added them all onto my ‘murder these ones first’ list. I just knew that feeding on pathetic mortal lives while I was still in this church was a losing proposition, and I wanted to live. Going dormant — in a church! — was not a viable survival option. But if they thought I was capable of going berserk, of turning ruthless killer on them — if I could bluff them into thinking I was still stupid, bleeding heart ‘living’ Abby — then maybe they would let me go before I turned into the evil, vicious, ‘vampire Abby’ that terrorized everyone.
Suddenly, the solock who’d been watching the front of the sanctuary stepped forward. “Not a chance,” she declared. She looked frightened, but she didn’t back down. “These kids need healing. Badly. You know that. You asked us to do this.” She thrust her wrist toward me. “I’m a witch, not a mortal. Take it.”
I started to protest — not because I wouldn’t happily kill her, but because I didn’t think it would be enough. Despite what I’d said, the guy I’d fed on had been a werewolf, and he wasn’t enough. So there was no way in hell a witch would be more than a drop in the bucket of my need. But she stepped into my personal space before I could say anything.
I wonder if she did that to stop me from using a different time stream to go around them. Fuck! What had I been thinking? That’s what I should have done. At least, I should have if I’d been able to dispel or consume the clothes Megan made for me first. Dammit! Yes, I was definitely molotoving the fuck out of this place at my earliest opportunity.
“Every one of us joined Mr. Fiore knowing that our blood might be needed on the field of battle or in the event of an emergency.” The woman’s eyes were hard despite the fear that I could feel radiating off her leyline now that we were in such proximity. Her gaze might have been frightening if I’d been alive enough to be so easily intimidated — and if I wasn’t so scared of turning into a briquette instead. “This is an emergency. Your duty is to save these people. My duty is to make sure you can.” Her eyes narrowed and she thrust her wrist forward. “Take it, and then theirs.”
I swallowed. That wasn’t from nerves — it was from desire. I still didn’t think it would be enough, even if I killed her. It would just delay me by however long I spent drinking, and ultimately leave me weaker from standing around in the church’s aura when I was done. However, I also suspected she wouldn’t just accept that excuse and get out of my way.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. Thirst, and the delicate throb of the veins in her wrist, eclipsed the need to just escape and survive.
So I didn’t protest and I didn’t try to shove past her. I just grabbed her arm, leaned in and bit. My fangs sank through her skin and flesh and shredded the veins in her wrist.
The taste of blood, the feeling of life flowing into me again: it was sheer bliss. How could I have denied myself this, even knowing I had a faerie to devour outside? I couldn’t. Not in anything resembling good conscience.
Besides: with a solock enthralled — or dead, either way — I had that much better odds of getting free of this god forsaken sanctuary and its hellish wards. Not that I was really being that tactical in my consideration, but it was a good thought to see me through my meal. Maybe I could get a couple more solocks to volunteer their blood as well: that would really even the odds. And then I could just leave them all to kill each other while I left to tear another fangful of flesh and blood out of Melvin’s lips.
Yes, now that was a good thought.
And with those plans swirling to the top of my consciousness, I ignored the gashes being ripped out of my soul and fed with greedy, blissful abandon instead.