Ba-dmp ba-dmp ba-dmp ba-dmp… In the sudden silence of the world in suspended animation, my heart beat echoed loudly in my ears. I felt a tremble in my elbows — Elaine was holding my hands still — and my breathing grew shallow. I felt light headed.
“Breath, Abigail,” Elaine reminded me. I sucked in a deeper breath. She nodded, and counted for me. “One.”
After three more, I could make out the sound of Elaine’s heartbeat, too. It was steady, and the more I focused on it the more my own seemed to fall into a similar pace. A moment later, and anyone else who could listen would have sworn — by my breathing and my heart, if not the clamminess of my hands and sheen of sweat on my skin — that I was perfectly normal.
That seemed to be good enough for Elaine, at least. She nodded again and started to let go of me.
I snatched her hand back like it was a life preserver. My heart rate thrummed to a faster beat as I panicked at the thought of being left alone in my own little bubble of time while she withdrew. Elaine hesitated, but even though I didn’t say anything I think she understood. That concerned look came back to her eyes, and she shifted her grip so that rather than me clinging to her, we were both clasping hands.
“Alright, Abigail,” Elaine said. “We’ll stay together; keep our times synced. You’ll have to come this way, though.”
I nodded, not trusting myself not to blurt out something profoundly stupid or cowardly if I let myself make noise — but I was just as deeply relieved that I wasn’t being abandoned to my own time stream now. Elaine scooted back and opened the driver’s side door with her free hand. I tried to follow, but ran into resistance when I ran into Mister Kallaher’s ghost, who had been sitting in between the two front seats of Elaine’s electric car.
I grimaced and tightened my grip on Elaine’s hand so she wouldn’t inadvertently pull free. “Just a second,” I risked saying. “I’m getting hung up on an aura.” I scowled at the ghost, who remained oblivious. Elaine hadn’t had a problem backing through him, so why was I?
Maybe it’s because Elaine isn’t really aware that he’s there? But why would perception alone matter? I’d smacked my aura into plenty of wards that I hadn’t been aware of before they’d ripped a chunk of my soul out, so why would awareness of a ghost be any different? I mean: At least a ward was actually there. Mister Kallaher wasn’t! He was in that in-between world that faeries sometimes hid in.
Although… Maybe that’s the difference? Maybe when I extend my awareness into that in between place, I’m literally putting part of my aura onto another plane of reality? Was that why I could interact with ghosts and things when I was aware of them? Like when I’d first fed from Pips, or pet Emma’s wolf — was it because making myself aware of them also meant some part of me was on the same level of existence as them?
In fact, maybe that could explain why I had been attacked by ghosts at the hospital yesterday, but not at the one that Megan had gone to the morning after Mister Salvatore burned down my apartment! But no: I didn’t extend my awareness at the second hospital until after one of them tried to possess me. So just not being aware of ghosts at the first one can’t be the reason nothing went after me then. Well, whatever: I was just thinking in circles to distract me from panicking over the fact that I was in frozen time and had to interact with someone else’s aura.
I took a deep breath and pulled my raised awareness back. Really, I was already caught on Mister Kallaher’s aura, so it was too late not to mix interacting with an aura and being in frozen time. What I was trying to do was make it so I wasn’t touching it — a circumstance that was much less dangerous than the current one, in my opinion.
Fortunately, whatever rules of magic were currently in effect decreed that once Mister Kallaher’s spectral form vanished and my perception was firmly grounded in one reality I was able to pass through the space that his existence had overlapped without getting stuck again. I stumbled through the space into the driver’s seat and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. My relief was briefly lived, though.
I guess that means I am putting part of my aura between worlds when I go nosing around that place, I thought. Somehow, that wasn’t a very comforting revelation.
Meanwhile, Elaine had slipped out of the car. She paused only to pull the trunk release and then to help me out of the vehicle, too.
“Are you going to be able to run in that?” Elaine asked as she led me to the back of the car.
I frowned and concentrated on my clothes — or rather, my illusion of clothes. After a very brief moment, my heels turned into flats. Success! And they didn’t pinch my toes anymore!
“Yes,” I said — perhaps a little smugly — and I found myself tugged to an unexpected halt when Elaine abruptly stopped. I glanced at her, and she was staring at my feet. “They’re glamours,” I explained. “Tied to my aura.” And a good thing, too: otherwise, forget about Mister Kallaher! I would’ve ended up being ‘stuck’ from running my aura into my own clothes!
Elaine realized she was staring and shook herself out of it with a chuckle. “I guess there are benefits to dating a faerie queen, huh?” She smiled wryly and continued back to the open trunk.
“We should be able to let go now,” Elaine continued once we reached the back of the car. “As long as we stay reasonably close together, our acceleration should remain synced up.” She gave my hand, which was still clutching hers, a fairly significant glance.
“Um. Right,” I mumbled. I reluctantly forced myself to let go of Elaine’s hand. I tried to focus on being relieved that my clothes hadn’t disappeared from Elaine’s disbelief as soon as I had revealed that they were glamours. That only sort of distracted me — and sort of led me to picture what would no doubt become a recurring nightmare: having a nightmare where my clothes disappeared in a public place, only to have it turn out not to be a nightmare because I’d gone out wearing nothing but glamours again and it had actually just happened.
Elaine reached into her trunk and pulled a small suitcase forward. She popped it open, oblivious to the way my face was heating up in mortification, and pulled out a pair of scuffed sneakers. Then she took off her own strappy high heels and tossed them into the trunk. She dropped the sneakers on the ground and wedged her feet into them while proceeding to lean forward and rummage deeper in the trunk.
Then it was my turn to gawk, as Elaine next pulled out a thick belt with a scabbarded sword and dagger adorning it. It wasn’t one of those super-thin swashbuckly swords, either. No: this one looked like it would have a broad, sturdy blade. In fact, it reminded me of Director Lewellyn’s, except that Elaine’s sword had more of a crossguard over it’s hilt. She straightened and cinched the belt about her waist.
And then she pulled out a shoulder holster with a black pistol and proceeded to strap that on over her dress. She even produced a couple of clips that she tucked into pouches that were clearly shaped specifically for them on the belt. Once armed, Elaine closed the trunk and turned toward me again.
When she saw my expression, Elaine laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said breezily. “If it comes down to fighting, I’ll handle it. I only want you to come with to help keep these guys from scattering if they try to run, and to help identify Linda’s remains. Alright, Abigail?”
“I… No, that’s not it,” I stammered. How could she not realize what was freaking me out right now?! “Swords are for vampires to kill vampires with,” I blurted. “You brought a sword to meet with me!” I accused. I stared at Elaine, but in my mind’s eye I saw Director Lewellyn, advancing on me in the street again: blade in hand. I felt a tremble work its way up my knees as the scene sped my breath up to shallow snatches.
Elaine looked down and sighed. Then she looked up at me and reached out a hand to touch my arm in reassurance. “I did,” she said. “But I didn’t wear it, and I wasn’t going to. The only things I was going to have on me for protection when I met you were the things that I took with me when I got out of my car in front of the fire.” I stared at Elaine — I didn’t comprehend what she was saying any more than I was really seeing her. Director Lewellyn filled my mind’s eye. I was almost back to the part where time… stopped…
“Here,” Elaine said, suddenly breaking into that nightmarish recollection. She had thrust her purse toward me. “Go ahead: take a look.”
If nothing else, I was very good at not giving away that I was starting a panic attack, and those instincts made me start moving. I snapped myself out of my reverie, and accepted the purse. It was open, and heavier than I would have expected for such a small bag. Even so, it took me a moment to figure out what I was looking at.
Stuffed in the bottom of the purse was about a third of a crumpled paper bag of salt. On top of that was some kind of bundle of cloth and feathers tied with a silvery chain and fastened with a broach. The… I guess it was a necklace? …tied around the bundle was adorned with crystals and translucent stones. And wedged in between that, the bag of salt, and the side of the purse was a phone. A phone that was on, and plugged into a microphone and a battery pack.
That last bit made me look up at Elaine in surprise. She shrugged and proceeded to explain all of it. “The charm is a pretty basic protection against compulsions,” she said. “The salt has about a million uses — almost all of them protective. And the phone was my safety net. I didn’t bring any donors with me, like I promised. But I did make sure that they could listen in. I didn’t know you, Abigail. I had no reason to think poorly of you, but at the same time: you had killed my husband. I’m not stupid. You might have had your faerie partner enthrall and geas John and Hans into advocating for you. So, as a precaution…” She nodded back at the handbag.
I swallowed and passed it back to her. “As a precaution you made sure that if I tried to give you weird orders,” I said for her, “someone who was very far away and probably very heavily warded would hear it and be able to tell Director Estevez. Or someone.”
Elaine nodded and accepted her handbag back. “Exactly,” she said. “I did not come here to hurt you. But I wasn’t going to be foolish about meeting a stranger alone — and I was active through enough of the last War that I always keep some weapons near to hand. Furthermore, a sword isn’t just for killing vampires. There are plenty of supernatural things and faerie manifestations that will laugh off bullets — and relatively few that don’t at least slow down after a beheading.” She smiled. “I’m not your enemy, Abigail, and I’ve no interest in becoming one.” She looked at me, searching my eyes to see if she was getting her point across. I stared back at her while my mind whirled. “I just had to take reasonable…”
“Can you show me how to do that phone thing?” I interrupted to blurt. It was heartfelt, though: I knew she wasn’t the one who’d torched Hans’ house and it wasn’t next Sunday yet, and if I’d thought to record any of my conversations with Lewellyn it would probably have been enough to get the Center off my back now! Why hadn’t I thought of that at the time?! Wearing a wire while the bad guy blathers about his plans is practically a trope!
Elaine sputtered, then started to laugh. “Sure,” she said. “But first things first. Ready to run?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t really paying attention anymore. Forget using that trick to catch badguys, I thought. If I set that up for my date with Emma, maybe Megan can swoop in and rescue me if I start pulling a ‘date with Hans’ on the evening!
Elaine pushed the trunk door closed, then reached over and took my hand again. “This is actually my favorite part of being undead,” she confessed while gently pulling me toward the road.
I blinked twice and tried to catch up to wherever the conversation had gone while I’d been thinking about tomorrow’s date. God, that was going to end badly, wasn’t it? “Chasing down murderous criminals?” I asked incredulously.
Elaine laughed again. “No,” she said. “Running through a city while accelerated,” she told me. “Letting loose and going all out while there are no mortal eyes quick enough to see; no one to worry about letting in on the big supernatural secret.”
I gave Elaine a dubious look, but she just grinned. “You’ll see,” she claimed, and then tugged me closer. The next thing I knew, I was swept up in an effortlessly executed bridal carry. Effortless? Of course: Elaine was superhumanly strong, after all. The same as I was.
“Hold on,” Elaine said — and I was still caught by surprise when she exploded forward.
I yelped, but the sound was left behind us in a rush of wind. When I’d ran to Megan’s apartment through frozen time, I’d settled on into a pace of long, loping steps that were more leap than anything else. Elaine’s first ‘step’ shot us down the street. At the height of it’s arc I could see over the houses around us! And then Elaine landed lightly on the sloped roof of a house at the end of the block, before immediately launching away again — hurtling us through the air as casually as anyone else might take another step.
“Time is still passing while we’re accelerated,” Elaine shouted over the wind created by our passage. “Just very slowly relative to us. Salvatores have always been particularly adept at accelerating themselves, though, so for us it’s much more like we’re stopping time for everyone else than that we’re just speeding it up for ourselves.”
I didn’t reply. I was too busy holding on for dear life as Elaine jogged through the air between rooftops, telephone poles, lamp posts and whatever else gave her a foothold and kept us elevated enough that she didn’t have to worry about weaving around obstacles. The only thing that kept me from breaking into an outright panic was that Elaine’s heartbeat remained metronome steady — I was intimately aware of it since I had squeezed my eyes shut and was clinging to her. She wasn’t at all worried: in fact, what I could see of her aura down our shared leyline was positively vibrant with joy and freedom. It was actually enough for me to try opening my eyes again. And then, as she continued to effortlessly skip through the air, I even started to see what she liked about running like this.
I mean: We were going from point A to point B faster than any car, without worrying about any other traffic — and since we weren’t really using the streets and Elaine’s car was parked by the side of the road far, far behind us there was very little chance we’d be responsible for running a vehicle into someone else’s. By the time we crossed the river — in a single step that launched us from the corner of an office building to the signpost of a shopping plaza — I was actually laughing! And not hysterically!
“Wait,” I gasped. “I can…” I wanted to tell her I could carry her for a while, but I remembered how close I’d come to tripping when I’d been carrying Emma and jumped down the ruined stairs at Hans’ house. “I need to practice this!” If I could get around without a car, I wouldn’t have to constantly inconvenience people by making them drive me places. At least: not at night. And I could finally go out and get some of those necessities that would be way to embarrassing to pick up while Hans was playing chauffeur. Like that copy of Bisexuality for Dummies I needed so badly. Or Lesbian Intercourse: A Newbie’s How To.
To my surprise, Elaine actually did stop when I asked her to. She stuck a perfect landing beside the steeple of an old church. “If you like we can practice another time,” she offered. “And I can give you some advice on how to pick your route. You don’t want to crash through a shoddy roof, or land with too much sheering force and take down a power line,” she pointed out with a chuckle that drained the blood from my face.
Oh. Oh crap, I’d been so excited about maybe finding a way of moving around the city that didn’t require a car that I’d forgotten to panic about it. Elaine had made it seem so easy! Now, though, I couldn’t stop seeing myself plowing through someone’s apartment window, being stripped of my humanity by crashing through their home’s threshold, and then going on a blood thirsty murder spree.
Yep, there was the panic.
Elaine chuckled again at my expression. “Breathe, Abigail,” she reminded me. “And don’t worry. We’ll start small. I practiced with fence posts around our farm. I’m sure we can set up something similar for you, until you’re more confident in your balance. But for now?” She indicated behind me — in front of her — with a nod of her head. “We’re here.”
I twisted around to look and immediately realized that the dull orange glow just past the next row of houses wasn’t coming from building lights. It was too uniformly spread out, and with my supernaturally accute vision I could see smoke against the night’s sky. “Oh, shit,” I breathed. We were too late.
Elaine snorted in agreement. She let herself slide down the incline of the steeple, then kicked off — out over the church yard — and landed lightly on the sidewalk below. Then she set me down.
“We’re going to have to split up,” Elaine said. My mouth went dry. “If they decided to torch the funeral home, then they probably mean for the fire to destroy the evidence of their misdeeds. You have to go in and determine if that includes Linda Fleisher’s remains, and retrieve them if it does — I don’t even know what she looks like, these days! I’ll see if I can chase down the people responsible for this and put a stop to their escape.”
Then Elaine caught my free hand and made me look at her. “It will be safer if you stay accelerated,” she said firmly. “The less time the building spends burning, the more stable it will be while you are in it. But you don’t need to, so do not push yourself into a panicked state. Fire can hurt us badly, but most mortals trapped in a fire die from the smoke — and you don’t have to breathe. Remember that, keep calm, be quick, and you’ll be fine.” She gave me a reassuring smile that did nothing to soothe the outbreak of anxiety in my gut — an outbreak that I instinctively did my absolute best to hide.
I nodded like I actually thought I could do what she was asking of me, and Elaine gave me a broad smile in response. “If you do run into the bad guy,” she added, “just shout. I’ll deal with him, I promise.” Then she let go of me and launched herself into the air — vanishing at superhuman speeds as the aura of accelerated time that she was maintaining shifted too far away to include me.
Immediately, the noise of the city — distant traffic, animals in alleyways, people shouting and talking despite the late hour — and the crackle of the fire slammed into me. I hadn’t realized just how isolated we had been in Elaine’s personal timestream. And yet, even though the world was now alive around me I couldn’t help but feel even more alone as I turned around. Elaine was gone. Who knew how far she’d traveled in the time it took me to pivot toward Mister Kallaher’s funeral home? I tried to make myself accelerate time again, but I couldn’t. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking and my palms felt like they had to be drenched in sweat already.
I was alone, and the part of me that worried about such things was demanding to know what the fuck I was thinking, planning on going into a burning funeral home owned by a dead warlock to rescue a witch’s ghost. What the fuck else was going to be in there, waiting for me? No, I couldn’t make myself stop time, even if that might have been safer for me.
In fact, it took absolutely everything I had just to break into a shaky, awkward run toward the burning building just one street over.