Ben watched Abby beat a hasty retreat and wondered if he could get away with doing the same. Not that being abandoned with her other partners was intimidating or anything!
Then, almost as one, Megan and Emma swiveled their attention away from the door Abby had disappeared through and turned toward him. Abruptly Ben found himself giving the idea of ‘retreat’ some much more serious consideration. Ben had been in a few relationships since becoming undead, but even though it was fairly common for vampires to have multiple partners — often all from within their circle of donors — Ben had never permitted himself to get entangled in that sort of relationship web, personally.
As a result, Ben belatedly realized, being left alone with Megan and Emma like this actually was weirdly intimidating. Especially since he’d done so poorly at getting along with Hans… and because he had a pretty good idea of how Abby felt about Megan and Emma. It was bad enough that he and Hans were butting heads over werewolf possessiveness — but Ben was fully confident that if he managed to annoy all three of Abby’s other partners it wouldn’t be very long before he was out of her good graces, too. And that made making a good impression on Megan and Emma rather more of a big deal than it would’ve if the two women had just been Abby’s friends.
“She gets anxious about new people,” Megan explained in defense of Abby’s flight. The sudden excuse took the edge off of Ben’s nerves: Megan, at least, was more focused on watching out for Abby than on measuring a metaphorical dick like Hans had been.
Ben almost laughed from the relief — but managed to reign in what would’ve been an awkward sputter. “I know,” he said at the same time as Emma did. They looked at each other, startled by the accidental synchronicity. Then Emma started to grin, and just like that the awkward tension was broken.
“So,” Emma cheerfully drawled into the silence. Her eyes glinted mischievously, but her tone remained light and amused. “In your own words, Ben, how did you meet our Abby?”
And just like that the awkward was back.
“Um. Well. Yeah,” Ben stammered. Despite all of the myriad events that had taken place at that first meeting, the one that eclipsed all the others was the taste of Abigail’s blood. Ben fidgeted awkwardly and couldn’t help hearing Adam snicker. Ben gave his donor a glare, but they were old enough friends that Adam just grinned back. Kyle, who had been playing cardds with Adam, looked like he wanted to snicker, too.
God dammit, Ben though as he tried to rally. The guys are going to laugh about this more than they did when I decided to try out the punk scene, aren’t they?
Ben hastily looked away — hopefully before Megan or Emma could follow his gaze and see his own friends laughing at his expense. Ben was old enough that he liked to consider himself too mature to be embarrassed by being teased by his own people. In fact, more than once he’d told Valerie or Thomas that his casual relationship with his donors was beneficial: it kept him from getting too full of himself and developing the sort of aloof superiority complex he’d encountered in far too many older supernaturals. But still: Ben preferred it when they at least saved their laughter for the privacy of a warded room, rather than busting it out in front of people he needed to impress!
I should never have explained to them why I was so flustered after Abby left that parking lot, Ben thought glumly.
“I was one of the scions Director Lewellyn tasked with hunting Abby,” Ben finally explained. “In fact, I was the first on to catch up with her. Trying to catch her, however, turned into a spectacular failure.”
Ben opted to grin self deprecatingly as he continued his story. It wasn’t forced for long, though: he quickly started warming up to the tale: hamming up his recounting of that first encounter and turning what was objectively a terrifying and brutal experience into something he could laugh at along with Megan and Emma — even though he, as the villain with no idea how out of his league Abby was, turned out to be the butt of the story’s humor.
Ben hadn’t gotten far into his retelling, however, when his enhanced hearing caught a sudden exclamation from the basement.
“…including the fact that someone has wrapped this house up in a curse, and has been dumping power into it for three bloody hours,” Pips practically yelled.
For a fraction of a second Ben was frozen without reaction. That had been the most he’d heard out of Pips since corralling his faerie liaison into the basement to begin with, and it took that fraction of a second for Ben to realize who exactly was shouting.
But it only took a fraction of a second. Ben had never found a social niche he was comfortable in — that was why he periodically ‘tried’ a different subculture of humanity — but he did know how to recognize danger and take command of a situation that needed it.
“Everyone out of the house, now!” Benjamin roared without pausing for second thoughts. He grabbed Megan and Emma by their wrists and pulled them into motion, then released them once they were going so that he could pivot and throw open the front doors. Before he could take the three steps he needed to reach them, however, glass shattered as one of the room’s windows was blown open by a red blur.
Benjamin immediately reacted as any vampire would have been trained to: he accelerated as hard as he could — harder than he had ever managed before. Time seemed to freeze, though in actuality it continued to crawl. The red blur transformed into a red canister with an unpinned, broken trigger mechanism, drifting languidly through the air toward the back wall of the room.
Ben’s eyes widened. He recognized that type of canister. It was an incendiary grenade. And the fact that the trigger mechanism was broken meant that whoever had launched it had rigged it so that no one — like an accelerated vampire or ghoul — would be able to just catch it and re-pin it.
Shit. Without hesitation, Benjamin lunged for the grenade. He grabbed onto it with both hands and threw his weight into breaking its momentum. At first it refused to deviate from its course — and then, abruptly, it snapped out of the air as the force Benjamin exerted surpassed the force propelling it forward.
Unfortunately, the abrupt resistance to its forward momentum tripped the grenade’s impact trigger just as readily as colliding with the wall would have.
Heat began to flare up in the cannister as its thermite charge ignited. Benjamin’s teeth ground together as he suppressed a scream. The heat alone was enough to start melting the flesh from his hands, but he didn’t drop the device or lose control of his acceleration. And in accelerated time, Benjamin knew he could run far faster than anything he threw would travel, so he clutched the exploding grenade and dove out the broken window.
The remaining glass shattered. It blossomed around Benjamin: shoved outward by his passage, but without enough force to be visibly moving in the slowed down time stream once it was no longer being shoved aside by his physical passage.
Benjamin hit the ground running. One step. Two. The cannister started to splinter in his hands: rupturing from the reactions taking place within it. Benjamin could feel the heat of it on his face, but not his hands: they were ruined past being able to feel. He put everything he had into accelerating harder, even as hellishly bright light began to spill out of the fracturing grenade.
Benjamin made it one more step, then pivoted. He didn’t throw the canister aside so much as he shoved it with his destroyed hands: the heat had shriveled and scorched and burt everything almost all the way back to his elbows. The finger bones of his right hand — held together by nothing more than fused cartilage and his curse’s stubborn attempts to heal him — shattered from the force of his toss and fell away.
As soon as the grenade left his grasp, Benjamin threw himself backward, into the shadow of the house’s covered porch.
He almost made it.
A tiny, miniscule part of Benjamin was astonished that he’d managed to hold on to time for as long as he had. Then, as he surged backward into cover, the grenade burst apart.
Most of the superheated shrapnel scattered across the yard. A good third of it struck the house’s covered porch. And three pieces struck Ben — one in the left foot, and one in each leg — before he had made it entirely behind cover.
Benjamin lost his grasp on the flow of time. The porch burst into an inferno and flames swept up through the yard. He hit the ground close to the house hard, in the blast shadow afforded by the front porch being between him and the grenade, but he was screaming in pain before he even landed.
No. Not pain.
Benjamin scrambled to haul himself upright. His hands began to mend — but they were withered, fleshless things. The one piece of shrapnel that hadn’t punched through and through was forced out of his right leg by his body’s attempt to heal itself — and then his curse was without the means to continue its mending.
In fact, there was nothing left of Benjamin except thirst.
He rose: a monster operating on animal instinct and irresistible, incessant, malicious greed for the life’s blood of others. The animate shell that remained of Ben let out a keening wail as it raised its head to hunt. Heartbeats pounded in its ears. It could smell blood, still in the veins, and it was infuriatedd that so much of it was worthless.
Across the street: he was dead and she had been fed upon recently already. Within the house? Two more men on the ground floor who’s blood smelled anemic of life from a previous feeding. Another woman’s who’s blood stank of a tattered aura — too tattered to hold anything worth imbibing. And one more…
Ben’s living corpse breathed in through its nose. She was filled to the brim with life.
The corpse turned and flowed back through the window with unnatural, predatory grace. It snarled at the scattered, sleeping bodies in the room beyond. Worthless, all of them.
Ben’s remains, puppeted entirely by the need for life, was on her in an instant. Its fangs were too elongated for it to close its mouth fully, but it didn’t need to: Its jaws stretched wide before it bit down and an inch and a half of fang shredded through Megan’s clothes and into her thigh, opening her femoral artery. Blood spurted, flooding the corpse’s mouth and washing down its throat as it greedily swallowed.
The taste of Megan’s blood was beautiful. It was divinity. It was life.
It felt more vital than any Benjamin had ever consumed before. His curse remained in control while his body mended, but even after the curse receeded and he began to feel and think again — after his thirst was slaked — Ben was too overcome with the surging abundance to stop his feeding. He moaned, and it was only after his fangs withdrew and sympathetic healing kicked in, mending Megan’s flesh, that awareness of what he was doing could crash through Ben’s consciousness.
Ben jerked back from his crouch. He almost fell, but caught himself. His heart was racing and he was too fully alive to make it stop. Emotions that were his fought with emotions that weren’t, and lost. Ben turned away from Megan and scooped up Emma. She was unconscious: asleep. Everyone was, but Ben was frantic to save the woman he — through Megan’s aura — loved.
Ben dashed out of the building with Emma in a bridal carry. Across the street, he saw John firing a pistol into the house Abigail had asked him to investigate while Fumiko scrambled to her feet and rushed toward it.
They would have to act on their own for now, though. The grenade Ben had intercepted hadn’t been the only one. When Ben ran to a patch of untouched grass away rom the house he saw that every vehicle — his limo, his donor’s van; Fumiko’s car — was on fire. Worse, flames were licking up the inside of the kitchen window as well as consuming the immolated porch. Ben put Emma down gently and rushed back into the burning building.
This time he had subsumed enough of Megan’s life force to dictate his own actions. Adam and Kyle were closest to the front door, which was already showing signs of succumbing to the porch fire. He grabbed them, one under each arm, and ran them out of the house before the porch fire could spread into the front room. He had three more donors in the house, but they were upstairs: he’d been having them go through Director Salvatore’s papers, in the study adjacent to the master bedroom. Shit. That put them above the torched kitchen. Ben would have to get to them before the fire spread from there to the room above.
Ben deposited Adam and Kyle beside Emma, then accelerated while he went back for Megan. Once he had hauled her to safety as well, Ben accelerated again. This time, the flames had spread from the porch and into the foyer. Smoke poured out the window Ben had been using as a door, but it wasn’t the fastest route to the upstairs, anyway.
Benjamin dashed around to the gaping hole that remained in the side of the building from the previous night’s battle. Someone had set fires on this side of the house as well, but they hadn’t spread to the second story yet. One leap took Benjamin past the shattered stairs and into the upstairs hallway, where he ran to get his remaining people out.
Each trip through Salvatore’s room strained him, but Benjamin persevered: it only took two. Then, once everyone who was in immediate danger was out, he turned back toward the burning structure.
Abby. He’d hoped that, somehow, she might have maintained consciousness when no one else had — she’d done enough impossible things already! But if she had, she would’ve escaped by now. Ben had to face the fact that the sleeping curse had hit her, as well, and now she was most likely helpless, in the basement — the basement that the entire burning building might collapse into at any moment.
There was no hesitation in him, even though the darker part of Benjamin — reawoken by his aura being eaten away during his trips through Salvatore’s room — wanted to reinforce John and Fumiko; wanted to strike back at whoever had launched this assault. But the strain he had been put through by entering Salvatore’s personal sanctuary was not severe enough to give his curse control over his actions, even if it had stirred the monster from the slumber of having been slaked.
And this time, Ben’s sated emotions and the remains of Megan’s were in sync. Abigail was just as important to him as Emma, and if she couldn’t save herself then he would be damned if he didn’t come to the rescue.
And so Benjamin accelerated once more, despite his strained aura, and threw himself back into the burning building.