The Board of Directors typically met once every six months. More frequent meetings were rarely necessary: of the twenty-six vampire Families in the United States of America, only eight had active Directors. There were a mere one hundred and sixty-two vampires active across the continental United States — and some of those also worked within the Canadian and Mexican Centers’ jurisdictions. With a population of over three hundred and sixteen million mundane humans and less powerful supernaturals to watch over, each individual vampire typically had enough autonomy — and distance from each other — that no one stepped on anyone else’s toes.
Or had time to waste in unnecessary meetings. Anyone old enough to claim the title of ‘Director,’ in particular, was expected to have the experience and resources necessary to deal with any emergency on their own.
It was far more frequent that a single Director would meet with a handful of younger vampires for a specific purpose. It might be to organize a concerted defense against the fae. It might be to mediate a dispute between vampires whose territories or interests did happen to come into conflict. Sometimes, if internal or external conflict threatened to destabilize a region to the benefit of the fae, a Director would be summoned to reinforce a population center while the local vampires dealt with whatever was otherwise occupying them. Directors could be, and were, mentors, advisers, generals, deterrents, and combatants — and sometimes a Director was discreetly summoned because no one else among the organized, civilized supernatural community could hope to police an entrenched vampire that had gone rogue, deliberately feral, corrupt, or traitor.
But a Director was always called in when a vampire died. Sometimes it was to recover the slain vampire’s corpse and bring it in for revival, or trial, or interment. Sometimes it was to avenge them and drive off or destroy whoever — or whatever — had dared strike out against The Center’s authority. Sometimes it was both.
And sometimes, Director Estevez thought, it is a true cluster fuck of reasons, like this. With a grimace he minimized the last report on his screen. Then he pulled up the conference call once more and un-muted his mic.
“I see,” Luis said. “Thank you for giving me that moment to catch up on the most recent reports — I’m afraid I don’t get up as early as I once did.” In Estevez’s opinion, spending more time awake during the day was rarely worth the price his donors paid for it. He looked over the list of usernames in the call: older vampires, all. The heads — or acting heads — of their families. Grenz, Fiore, Dolcet, Cullison, Salvatore, and Lewellan. The four families with territories closest to the point of contention, as well as one representative from each of the families that had lost a member to disanimation. “Tell me,” Luis finally said, “as those most familiar with the scions who sent most of these reports, what is your read of them?”
Gilbert Fiore spoke first. He was angry: it was obvious in how his accent became more distinct. “Isn’t it obvious? Salvatore let a faerie infiltrate his organization. No one is debating that. But why is everyone assuming that this ‘Megan’ is the only one? Look at the facts. What is more likely, gentlemen? That this ‘Abigail’ actually is some sort of strategic, tactical, and magical genius who turned vampire with no knowledge of the supernatural world and then proceeded to slay two Directors, a half-dozen ghouls and an unknown number of mortals before conquering a faerie kingdom? Or that this is a trick — a setup?!”
“Director Estevez,” the Fiore patriarch continued, “I will tell you what is going on in that city. There is a changeling, but she is not this ‘Megan.’ Megan is, at worst, a doppelganger being used to distract us from the real threat. She is a ruse and a sideshow, nothing more! Abigail is the real changeling. That is how she does these ‘impossible’ things. Because she is not a vampire, and never was. She isn’t even human!”
“That is a serious accusation,” Estevez observed without denying it himself.
Rebecca, the Cullison family matriarch, scoffed. “Particularly if it should happen to be false,” she interjected. “Even your own scion has admitted, Fiore — grudgingly enough, I’ll give you that — that Abigail appears to have only acted in self-defense. And that has always been one of the reasons for which we have allowed a mortal or supernatural’s assault on one of our own to pass unpunished. It is far too easy for our kind to wind up in a state where they need to be put down.”
Gilbert’s answering sneer was audible over the computer. “Our scions have been deceived,” he said. “And now they are being kept as insurance against our good behavior. Why else would she only eliminate the Directors — the vampires who were experienced enough to see through her charade and threaten her existence, had they been given the time? Faeries can enthrall people just as we can, given enough time to draw on their auras — and that is how Abigail is proceeding. Or do you honestly believe that the last heir of that city’s pack would just spontaneously decide to create a new werewolf clan? Do you really think that after decades without incident, in which he swore he would be the last of his cursed line, he would screw up now?”
Estevez kept his opinion of that logic to himself. He was all too aware of how easily a vampire could lose control and had no difficulty imagining a werewolf finding himself in the same situation, however long he’d managed without incident. And yet, by the same token: Estevez had been born in an era where holding the children of your enemies, rivals, and allies as glorified hostages in court had been a simple fact of politics. He doubted that any of the vampires present in the call were unaware of that aspect of the situation they’d allowed to brew on the borders of their territories — although other than Matteo Fiore, none of their scions had themselves indicated an awareness of that particular potential problem.
At least, not in any of the reports that the other vampires had chosen to share.
“Make no mistake, gentleman,” Gilbert continued. “This is a war. Only this time, the fae clearly mean to pit us against ourselves. ‘Abigail’ has werewolves at her command. She has vampires who have openly supported her, and the local covens appear to be in her pocket as well. Through the authority of our scions she even has the ability to exert control of the local mundane police, fire, medical and all other emergency response personnel. All this, done in a week. We are at war! And if you think we are not, then she is winning.”
Luis Estevez grimaced, grateful that the distances involved in these meetings meant no one was present to see his reaction. As much as he personally disliked the mentalities that produced militant personalities like those predominant in the Fiore family, without the paranoid vigilance of those vampires who saw faeries everywhere it was entirely too likely that the world would have fallen back into barbarism sometime before the information era.
Worse, the thought that this was some convoluted faerie scheme had occurred to Luis as well, and he’d hoped for some assurance that the scions involved were capable of seeing past that level of duplicity. An unnaturally powerful rogue vampire was problem enough: replace her with a malevolent, mind-controlling shape shifter that couldn’t be disbelieved and lacked a true vampire’s weaknesses but possessed a clear ambition for conquest and… Well, then the whole situation did indeed become much, much worse.
“It is unfortunate,” Viktor Grenz slowly spoke up, “but my youngest possessed little life experience before her first death. Although she is oldest among the scions present, she is in many ways too naive and idealistic.” The older Grenz sounded troubled: given the pride which most vampires took in their families, it must have been very difficult for him to speak against Valerie’s character. Worse, his assessment dashed what little hope Luis was cherishing that ‘Abigail’ was, in fact, a descendant of Salvatore’s that had simply never been introduced to The Center. It was rare, given the resources that membership in The Center granted, but occasionally a vampire would try to create a family that they could keep close — a family that didn’t consist of ghouls and mortals.
Often times, those family members were ‘overlooked’ by the rest of the vampire community who became aware of them for their first few decades and allowed to adapt to unlife without the added stress of preparing to stand against the fae — or having to leave the side of their progenitor in order to expand the coverage The Center could command in its war with the faerie realms. After all, there would be time enough for them to take on their proper responsibilities when they were older: that was one of the constants of immortality.
You are only young once, but you will be old forever.
“That may be,” Rebecca Cullison answered, “but my Thomas is not.” If she was annoyed that the Fiore patriarch had addressed himself to the men in the call rather than answering her own point, it didn’t show in her voice. “He was a reporter in his mortal life, and accustomed to seeking out the truths that other people wished to keep hidden. It is a talent we have tried to nurture in him, and his assessment of Director Lewellan’s behavior is damning. If he believes that Directors Salvatore and Lewellan were acting outside of their mandates as Directors — for whatever reason — then I will believe him until and unless other evidence is presented.”
Luis drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. For him, that was the real sticking point. Clearly there was something going on that was not by any stretch of any imagination ‘normal.’ But just because Salvatore and Lewellan had been up to something — and Directors conspiring together to the detriment of the mortal and supernatural communities was something that always disturbed Luis to witness just as much as it failed to surprise him — didn’t mean that their plots hadn’t been thrown into disarray by running afoul of a faerie scheme to take the city.
“And elder Dolcet?” Luis asked. “Your scion was the first to throw in with Abigail, was he not? What is your impression of his decision, given the context of your knowledge of his personality and history?”
For a moment there was silence. Then the laptop’s speakers crackled as Herman Dolcet spoke in an ancient, wheezing voice — of all of them, he had been the oldest when he’d died the first time. Other than Estevez himself, Herman was also the oldest vampire involved in the conference: he was a member of the third generation, those vampires that were created after the second united war against the fae. Luis, Salvatore, and Lewellan had all been members of the second generation — created after the first great war. In all of the Americas, there were only two vampires who could claim to be members of the first generation — those who had been turned before the supernatural world had managed to break free of the fae. One of them reigned over North America. The other watched over South.
“He was the first,” Herman admitted. Whether he approved or not wasn’t evident from his tone of voice. “But what you should read into Ben’s judgment — or any of our scions’,” Herman continued, “I cannot say. It has been a very, very long time since any of us were as young as they, and I doubt any of us can properly judge where the foibles of youth leave off and the rigidity of age onset. Personally, I am inclined to think Ben was not wrong to stand beside Abigail, whatever his reasons. Not when I look at the evidence as a whole. It is clear that Director Lewellan, at the very least, lied to us and our allies among the mortal and supernatural communities as to the extent — possibly even the existence — of her crimes. Whether or not he had reason to do so… I can only think that we will not know the answer to that until we revive his corpse and one of the first generation questions him directly.”
So essentially, Estevez mentally concluded, the truth could yet be anything. “Very well,” he said. “I will be in the region before the night has closed. Lewellan, Salvatore: have your own travel arrangements been made?”
“Yes,” answered Adam Lewellan — a third generation vampire who was acting as the head of their family with Director Lewellan’s disanimation. “I will be there before daybreak.”
“I shall be unavoidably delayed,” Elaine Salvatore then said. She was a fourth generation vampire, and the youngest of those in the call — but the rest of the Salvatore family remained overseas, which made Elaine their acting head on this continent. “An incident requiring my immediate attention has arisen. But I trust my husband’s corpse will keep. I should be able to join you tomorrow evening.”
“Then we will hold ourselves back for one more evening,” Estevez decided. If this Abigail was capable of killing off multiple Directors, then he had no intention of confronting her without an overwhelming advantage on his side — whether or not he needed to use it. “Adam and I will have some of our agents begin investigating while we await your arrival, but we will not actively confront Abigail until we have ascertained the actuality of events in that city and her participation within them. And if that is all, I must cut this short: I have other affairs to wrap up before I make my flight, myself.”
Gilbert Fiore’s participation cut off almost immediately. Estevez frowned and hoped that the militant vampire wouldn’t cause trouble — he would have to make a point to put Fiore’s people ‘on call’ for potential action when he arrived, just to ensure that he knew where they were and what they were doing. The other vampires exchanged a brief share of departing pleasantries, and then they signed out as well, leaving Estevez staring at his contacts list and the windowed copies of the reports he had been forwarded just prior to the meeting’s start.
Luis Estevez shook his head. “To be young again,” he said.
Estevez glanced over his shoulder. His assistant — a ghoul and his daughter by way of a woman he had loved fiercely some eighty years ago — was leaning against his office door. “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but going in there with a Lewellan and a Salvatore backing you up is really stupid.”
Luis chuckled. “Actually, I concur, Edna,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable: they have the right to oversee the transfer of their family members’ remains to The Center’s main facility. And if they’re going to be there, then they’re going to be there under my supervision — if only so that I can keep Abigail from making victims of two more of those families.” He turned back to his computer and double-checked one of the reports. Then he scrolled through his contacts list until he found a name. “But they won’t be my backup,” Luis assured his daughter. “I will simply be their babysitter.” Then he double-clicked Opal’s username.
The call went through almost immediately. When a Director called someone, it usually did. “Luis,” Opal Carmichael greeted him cheerfully. “How wonderful to hear from you again. However, I only have a moment before I am expecting Director Summers. I do hope you understand.”
“Of course,” Luis Estevez answered. Opal had been turned during the start of the second fae war. As such, she could easily be considered a second generation vampire — but she preferred to call herself a member of the third generation. Officially, she was adamant that it was out of vanity in regards to her age — but once, after she and Luis had been together for a few decades, she had admitted that it was simply that she did not wish to be ‘forced into early retirement’ and given a Directorship. Given the cunning and ferocity of the fae where she held her family seat, no one really debated with her on the matter: having an unofficial Director permanently stationed there was simply easier than having to cycle someone in to constantly keep the faeries at bay. It said something about the difficulty of her post that she still had Directors constantly consulting with her or on patrol through one of her cities — and frequently younger vampires were sent to her for tutelage, to ‘learn on the front lines’ before the next war broke out.
“Although,” Luis added, “if Summers is calling in regards to the issues you’ve recently had with the fae it may be better to include him in this call than for me to duck out at his arrival.”
Opal chuckled. “I will be sure to let him know you wish to speak to him as well,” she promised. “But I think you misunderstand. I have put in a summons for support, and Director Summers was near enough that he has offered to look over the matter in person. I am expecting him at this residence very soon, so that we can discuss those very issues.”
“I see,” Luis said. “Have matters escalated?”
“Matters have gotten strange,” Opal said. “The fae — and I have always had to chase them off, for the local lord is an ornery, vicious sort — have all but disappeared of their own volition. And if there is one thing I have learned about them in my decades of death, it is that when fae act strange, something very serious is afoot. With a Director nearby, it seemed only prudent that I request a more experienced hand than those scions currently under my wing, and to do so preemptively to whatever the fae plan to spring on me and my people.”
“Hmm,” Luis said. Well, that is interesting. Either it is evidence that the conspiracy Fiore suspects is broader than I would have expected, or it is evidence that Abigail and Megan are indeed what they have claimed to be: a vampire and her faerie prime. Or any of a dozen other possibilities that Luis’ mind tried to construct with the new information Opal had handed him.
“Luis,” Opal chided. “Are you going to tell me what that ‘hmm’ was about, or did you just call so you would have an excuse to be inscrutable and mysterious?”
Luis laughed aloud. “Ah,” he said. “I’m sorry, Opal. That wasn’t my intention at all. It’s just that you may have provided a piece in the puzzle that I am working on — or perhaps it is that I have the rest of the puzzle for the piece that you are worried about.”
“Luis,” Opal interrupted, “you’re being inscrutable again.”
Luis Estevez chuckled. “Right,” he said. “Then let me cut to it: I have been called to investigate a truly convoluted mess — and part of it involves the presence of a faerie changeling.”
Opal whistled, low and impressed. “Then I do not envy you,” she said. “I had hoped we wouldn’t be seeing another one of those for a few centuries yet. But how does that pertain to my situation?”
“It pertains,” Luis answered, “because according to the background checks that local agents have drawn up: the changeling in question — a young woman named Megan — originally moved to the area to attend college, and wound up staying after a falling out with her mortal family. Originally, however, she appears to be from your territory, Opal.”
For a long moment silence reigned. Then Opal spoke again. “I don’t know if I dodged a bullet with that, then, or if it only means that things are about to get far worse. A changeling? So soon after the last war? That could very well have caught me off guard, I must admit.”
“What it means,” Luis said dryly, “is that you dodged a bullet that is now aimed at me — and I am about to ask you to step in its path again. If your fae lord and his court have disappeared, I can only imagine it is because he wants his daughter back — or because he is already here, and has taken on a new name and appearance in the interests of abandoning the territory you have fought him for so that he can claim a new one where he may reign uncontested, posing as one of our own. So: if you have a family member that you would trust to attend to your affairs, I would greatly appreciate it if you and Director Summers would see fit to come join me. Two Directors have already been disanimated in this city, and if we are about to see an early breakout of the next fae war — or be caught in some sort of internal conflict of their own — then I would much rather face it with the two of you at my side than with a motley pack of other vampires beneath me.”