Shocked, I stared at the sneering corpse in front of me. But even though I was still struggling with an overwhelm of guilt — made all the worse for my aura being too drained for me to offset it with other emotions — it took only seconds for my paranoid side to figure out what was going on. Exactly as long as it took for my filterless autopilot to blurt it out, actually.
“You’re not Linda,” I accused. She couldn’t be: I had grabbed Linda’s ley line, and it hadn’t respond to the presences of this… person. My paranoia continued to scramble. Doppleganger? Ghost-possessed corpse? Glamoured witch? Homunculus? Simulacrum? Alien Clone?!
At least now that I’d realized this wasn’t Linda I had a better idea of how to get a read on her: I ignored the unresponsive leyline that I knew was my association with the real witch and started focusing on just the person in front of me, running mental fingers over all the leylines I had yet to identify to see which one responded to her.
For half a second, the thing in front of me looked surprised. Then she started to laugh, showing off rows of jagged ghoul teeth. “I should have known I wouldn’t be able to fool you,” she said. “Pity. It would have been so much more convenient if you’d been more gullible.” She tilted her head. “And yet, how did you recognize me, Abby?”
Recognize? I hadn’t recognized her at all: I’d just realized that she wasn’t who she was portraying herself to be. Should I have recognized her? Was she someone I knew?! Yes: I found the leyline that corresponded to her. The opening was as broad as Megan’s. No, broader. As soon as I focused on it it opened up until it wasn’t just some fiberoptic thread I could peer down — it was a literal portal, a window into the soul of the stranger in front of me. Even though I wasn’t dormant, I had absolutely no trouble looking through that opening and reading the essence on the other side as clearly as though the emotions it represented were my own.
I fell back in shock, then scrambled back further on my and pushed myself to my feet. The stranger that I knew too well stumbled back, too. What did Nietzsche say? “Beware when you look into the void, for the void may look back at you. I jerked my awareness away from the leyline and it spiraled shut again, but not before the person in Linda’s shape had felt it open, too.
Dopplinda jerked back at the same time as I did. “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” she breathed out. She stared at me. She looked scared. Almost immediately, the expression changed to anger. “How did you do that?!” She demanded. “Neither Vampires nor Humans can send their thoughts!”
Fuuuuuck! I mentally screamed. I had no idea what was going on, but of course that didn’t stop me from talking. “Humans can send their thoughts to their familiars,” I pointed out on autopilot. “And we have one hell of a leyline connection,” I added on top of that.
Dopplinda’s eyes narrowed. “I am not your familiar, you cheeky little brat. I am the daughter of a faerie king! I saved your life! If anything, you are indebted to me,” she snarled.
I had no idea what was going on, but at least now I knew who she was. “You’re Linda’s sister,” I blurted out. Daughter of a faerie king: That had to be Archarel. And she was capable of using magic that affected the physical world: she’d pushed back the flames and heat that would otherwise be plaguing us. That was something that changelings could do.
And I already knew that Mister Salvatore had lied about the faerie invasion. Fuck, the whole reason I’d wanted to talk to Linda’s ghost to begin with was to get to the bottom of that whole mess!
“Mister Salvatore lied about the faerie invasion,” I said. She saved my life?! WHAT?! “You were never destroyed,” I continued to ramble. I felt myself bristling with a combination of anger — no doubt because the buffer around my vampire side was so thin — and fear. I had been in Melvin’s debt, once. I had no desire to be under the geas of any other faerie, ever again. I didn’t even want to acknowledge Dopplinda’s claim. “What the hell really happened?,” I demanded instead.
Dopplinda’s face ran through half a dozen expressions — or rather, it want from shocked to angry to amused, and then continued to ripple as Linda’s face melted away and another formed in it’s place. When she was done, Dopplinda didn’t look like Linda anymore — but the family resemblance was painfully obvious.
“I can’t tell you that,” Dopplinda said matter of factly. “I promised not to tell anyone about the people involved or their history or their plans. Admittedly, I made that promise while pretending to be my Sister, in the hopes that it would get them to leave her alone — you’ll have to guess whether or not that failed,” she added while distastefully swirling a finger in the hole in her chest, causing it to fill in with smoky essence that solidified into flesh and a mended blouse. “But a promise is a promise, regardless.”
My eyes widened. I understood that if she’d made a promise then she was bound to it, but she’d still managed to tell me something I hadn’t known. “Linda is alive,” I said. If Dopplinda had taken her sister’s place, and then she’d been killed in Linda’s place, it stood to reason that the people who’d killed her hadn’t realized their mistake. Except… “Why weren’t you banished to faerie when you were killed?” I asked.
Dopplinda sniffed dismissively. “I’m a changeling, Abby. I belong to this world, not that one. Besides, if I’d given up the ruse then they would have kept looking for my Sister — and she was in no condition to protect herself.” Dopplinda gestured, and a seat swirled up from nothing behind her. She fell back into it with a loud sigh. “But yes, Linda is alive. And she’d damn well better appreciate my efforts on her behalf — what kind of jackass uses warded caskets?”
My gaze darted from Dopplinda to the casket and back. She’d been trapped? And I’d let her out. I mean: she would have gotten out when the casket burnt, but maybe that was why she’d decided to reveal herself while wearing a Linda-ghoul shape. She’d just wanted to be free sooner.
Or maybe, I thought, she just really thought my crying was so pathetic it needed to be commented on. I swallowed. I didn’t want to think about that. I tried to focus on something else, instead. “Where is she?” I asked. “I have things I need to ask her.” Maybe Dopplinda had promised not to tell me the things I wanted to know, but that didn’t mean that Linda couldn’t still answer my questions. And if she was somehow helpless — unable to defend herself — then she needed people to watch out for her. She was John’s and Hans’ friend. They wouldn’t be happy with me if I didn’t stand up for her, even if she didn’t like me.
Dopplinda’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe you need to know that, Abigail. Linda will contact you when she is able, if she so desires. And no sooner.”
I swallowed. When she is able? And Dopplinda had said that Linda couldn’t protect herself. Put together, it sounded like Linda wasn’t just defenceless — she was hurt, or imprisoned or any of a dozen other possibilities that immediately sprang to mind.
At a hobgoblin speed dating night probably wasn’t that likely, though.
“What happened to her?” I demanded. “Is she hurt?!”
Dopplinda scowled at me. “Not that it is any of your business, Abby, but yes: she broke a series of geases, and because she had chosen to spend so much of her hoarded essence trying to save one of her precious ‘students,’ she was forced to sacrifice a portion of her own soul to meet the price of it.” Her voice dripped with derision, and I got the impression that Dopplinda blamed me for Emma’s condition when she’d gone comatose, and the fact that it had required Linda’s intervention. That was fair, though: I agreed.
“I stitched her soul back together,” Dopplinda continued. “And I refilled her aura with my own essence, and I hid her, and I took her place to protect her. And I will not tolerate anyone else interfering with her recovery. When she is better, then you may see her; talk to her. If she so desires.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. I tried again and failed. My brain felt like it had been forced to suddenly skew sideways. I hadn’t heard a single thing Dopplinda had said after her first claim. I saved your life, echoed in my memories, followed by: I stitched her soul back together.
“You saved my life,” I heard myself say. “You’re the one who put those stitches in my soul.” I stared at her, but I was oblivious to everything around me. I was too busy running through my memories. “I don’t know you, but I do. The leyline between us is way too strong for anything else to be true — but I don’t know you.” Suddenly, my focus sharpened and I was aware of everything about her. Every aspect of her posture, every microexpression in her face. the leyline I’d refused to touch blossomed open again as I seized it, letting me see into her very soul — but I swept the the other end of it to the side, so that when she looked back she would only see an empty portion of mine.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What happened to me?!”
Dopplinda stared back at me. I saw flickers of confusion, anger and fear. Then her lips began to curve into a cruel smile. A structured thought draped itself across her side of our leyline like a shroud. I studied it: even if I couldn’t read her emotions through it, I could probably duplicate it when I was dormant and use it to protect myself better from Pips and Melvin.
“Well now,” Dopplinda said, “that is something I can tell you, actually.” Her eyes glittered in the light of the heatless flames she’d banished to the edges of the room. “And I will, provided you answer my questions first. How can you use leylines, Abigail? How can you send actual thoughts down them?!”
I didn’t even hesitate. Even though part of me screamed that I needed to be careful, that I needed to preserve any advantage I might have over her, I needed to know the truth about the stitches I’d found in my soul, more. “I’m a vampire,” I conceded. “But my first blood was faerie. A piece of faerie soul is the foundation of my curse, and since it is bound to my soul, it allows me to do some things that only faeries should be able to do.”
Dopplinda’s smile broadened. She gestured, and another chair appeared in front of her. “I see,” she said. She sounded relieved. “Good. I would never forgive myself if I had given you that sort of an advantage.”
I gawked at her. Almost despite myself I stepped forward and eased down into the chair. “What?”
Dopplinda smiled at me. “Oh, relax,” she said. “And sit down. Yes: I hated you,” she admitted, “And while I did save your life, that was only after I’d tried to end it. But after I fixed what I had done, I made a promise not to try to kill you again, so you’re safe enough. I just meant that it would have been a sad turn of events if I’d accidentally made you more than you would have been had I done nothing.”
I stared at her. I didn’t understand. But my brain was going in twenty different directions, spitting out theories based on the snippets of conflicting information she’d just doled out. With as little essence as I had available, my emotions couldn’t handle the possibilities: they coalesced into a mire of nauseous anxiety. “Stop it,” I said. “I don’t understand. Stop playing games with what your’e telling me about my past and just tell me what the hell happened!”
“Oh!” Dopplinda said in faux surprise. “I’m so sorry,” she said — but the weave didn’t react to her admission. Or rather, it did, but it just slid off of the borders of our leyline, instead of hooking into it. “Well then, let me start at the beginning, shall I?” She smiled, then laughed. “Actually, no. Let me start a little after that.”
Dopplinda settled back in her chair. She continued to smile at me, but there was no friendliness behind it, fake or otherwise. “After some things that I have promised not to talk about happened,” Dopplinda said, “I found myself free of my father’s kingdom. However, I was badly hurt — much as my Sister is, now. We faeries don’t leak like mortals do, though, so I was still conscious and capable — and very, very cognizant of my need to find a source of essence to heal myself. One from outside of my Father’s kingdom.”
I swallowed and did my best to read between the lines. Salvatore and Lewellyn and whoever they worked with had done something to free Dopplinda from Archarel. That had involved breaking geases — which of course it would: she was a faerie after all. But why? What the fuck had they been up to? And that had been, what… sixty years ago? I already knew that they had done something to free Linda from Archarel — and I needed to find out what for Orlina’s sake — but I had figured that was just to reward her for turning on her father and helping the werewolves stop his invasion. Now, though, I had no fucking idea what anyone had done or what any of their reasons had been.
But still: What did any of that have to do with me?!
“I fled the city,” Dopplinda continued, “taking what essence I could from the people around me, when I could. But I was weak, and could only siphon the strongest emotions; the greatest fears. It was agonizingly slow to recover — especially since I had to keep on the move, lest I be found in my reduced state by those hostile to the fae.” Dopplinda’s smile grew, and for the first time it showed a little warmth. “That was when I found the perfect source,” she said. “A woman who was so terrorized by her drunkard of a husband that she was willing to give up anything to escape him. I fed from her fears and nightmares until I was strong enough to influence them — and then I made her an offer. I would free her from her husband’s abuse and protect her boy, and all she had to do was let me take her place.”
I swallowed. I felt weirdly numb inside. For some reason, my brain had stopped throwing up speculations for my paranoia to consider. It was almost like I didn’t want to know whatever it was that my subconscious reasoning processes had decided on. “You became a doppelganger,” I said.
Dopplinda nodded. “Yes, exactly. She didn’t even believe in the deal, but she wanted it with all her heart. She accepted in jest, not thinking it was more than another dream, and that was enough. Her disbelief couldn’t prevent the weave from binding us both to the exchange because I was already a changeling — already too much a part of this world for mere disbelief to shake my magic.”
Dopplinda smiled wryly. “Those were good days,” she said. “My new life concealed me perfectly from… anyone I can’t talk to you about, and everyone else as well. I settled into my new life, and fed on the trauma that had afflicted her husband — but only enough that I could feed it back to him; amplify it. I had to turn him into a better source, you see. And growing his fears only served to make him more cruel and hateful — but that in turn gave me more to feed on because he terrified his son, and I fed on that. But, true to my promise, I protected the boy as well. I always made sure to redirect his father’s abuse onto myself in the end — or at least, to let them both believe I did.” She sneered. “The man was a brute. A simple glamour, a nudge or two to his fears and dreams — he believed he did far more to me than I ever allowed,” she said. “They both believed it, actually, since I always made certain to keep them separated when the father was at his worst. Which is when the most fascinating thing began to happen.”
I sat silently. I tried to tell myself I was just not rising to her bait — that I knew she would have to tell me what it was, since she had promised to explain how any of his had anything to do with me — but the truth was that I couldn’t make myself interrupt. My nausea and anxiety had coalesced into a formless dread.
Dopplinda laughed when I didn’t respond to her, and continued. “My boy was terrified of his father, but I always fed on that, afterward. Without that fear, he felt regret and guilt for his inability to act in the moment. He started trying to apologize to me for letting his father be like that. And then he started trying to stand up to his father to protect me.” Dopplinda’s voice had dropped to a hushed whisper with that last statement, but then she shook herself out of whatever memory it had brought up. “No one had ever done that for me before. Tried to protect me without the motive of personal gain. At first, I was just amused. Then, as my William’s bravery grew into a resolve that couldn’t be shaken even by having to put himself between me and his greatest fear, I found myself impressed. No, more than that. I started to develop a fondness for the child I had taken on in exchange for my new life.”
William. The dread turned into a leaden lump that sank to the depths of my guilt. Emotionally, I felt deadened. Physically, I started to feel nauseous; dizzy.
“Of course,” said Dopplinda, “I had promised to protect him. So, when he started actually standing between his father and myself, I was forced to take action.” She examined her fingernails. “He never knew that his father’s heart attack wasn’t natural, and neither did anyone else before you.” Dopplinda smiled at me. “I trust you’ll keep that to yourself? In any case, I was established enough that I no longer needed to feed off of my William — I had healed quite nicely, and there were plenty of others in the community that I could take the occasional nibble from. And besides… I truly had become fond of the boy. I kept him safe from others like me by keeping him ignorant of us. I manipulated the emotions of his peers and teachers and even his early bosses in order to ensure his success. He was my child, and he deserved it!”
Dopplinda ducked her eyes for a moment, and actually looked a little abashed. “And he really did. My manipulations ensured that our supposed poverty and his background didn’t keep him out of the best schools, but his dedication to his studies was his own — as was his determination to protect his patients. It was, I think, just as powerful as his determination to protect me had been.”
No. No, she had to be talking about a different man named William. Who took care of patients. Right?
Dopplinda looked up again, and now her smile was thin and her eyes clouded with emotion that I could not read. “Of course, any child must eventually leave the nest. Otherwise, they are smothered — no one knows that better than I, who would have been endlessly used by my own Father without regard for my desires or autonomy. So I let him go his way. Oh, I remained at home so he would always have one to come back to. But although I could have followed him between worlds to keep an eye on him, I didn’t. Mostly.”
“While he was in school I did check on him now and again,” Dopplinda admitted, “when he went too long without calling. And a few times when he first started to work, and I could feel how stressful the demands he placed on himself were. When they were too terrible, I even fed on him like I used to — consuming his fear of failure, of loosing a patient, so that he could keep calm and focused. But I couldn’t keep that essence. To abuse my own son like that… by then I could not help but feel it would have been wrong. So I used the essence I took to help him, instead. To hold together and anchor souls to their bodies so that his worst patients would not disperse spiritually while he mended them physically. But that part came after his schooling.
Dopplinda looked up. She caught my eyes with hers; watched me with the avid attention of a hawk… or perhaps of a cat with a cornered, tortured mouse. “And it was in school,” Dopplinda told me sweetly, savoring my expression as she confirmed the nameless idea my dread had formed around, “that my William met your mother, Abigail.”