It took Elaine only a moment to spot her prey. It was night, and late at that: there were simply very few vehicles on the streets near the funeral home. The one she deemed most suspicious was a simple windowless van. She smirked and noted the locations of a car and a truck — just in case — and then let herself have a few seconds to enjoy the sensation of free fall.
The wind rushed around her, sending Elaine’s hair streaming upward and plastering her dress against her legs. Despite the height she had reached, Elaine felt only the thrill of falling — not fear. In many ways vampires, particularly young ones, were no more durable than regular humans. In others — especially while embracing their powers — they were far more. And although Elaine didn’t go out of her way to advertise it, she was fairly old. She’d lost any fear of heights long, long ago.
Elaine bled off momentum just before reaching the ground. She couldn’t describe how she did it any more than she could describe how she accelerated time. But it was the result that mattered: she landed lightly on her feet, with no more jarring than if she’d been riding an elevator.
It was Elaine’s private hope that with a few more decades of development, she’d have that particular ability strengthened to the point that she’d be able to actually fly.
Elaine spared a glance behind her. Poor Abigail was frozen in place, just a few steps away from where Elaine had landed. Would she be able to accelerate on her own? Probably not, Elaine reluctantly admitted to herself. She’d seen plenty of PTSD over the years, and it would take more than a grounding exercise or two to overcome. Time and support would be required — shoot, for that matter sometimes Elaine still had to run through her exercises, herself, and it had been decades since she’d burned to death.
Or rather: to dormancy. She had been revived, after all.
Elaine took a deep breath and held it, following her own advice. When she blew it out she consciously released the memories as well. Later, she promised herself, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to help dwelling on it now that it had come up. But at least by acknowledging that she was only putting it aside for the moment she would be spared the guilt of her subconscious accusing her of trying to ignore the reality of that night’s consequences.
One more steadying breath, and then Elaine started toward her target. She took a more sedate pace this time. There wasn’t as far to travel, and leaps made for predictable paths: If by some unlikely chance the vampire that had attacked Abigail was currently accelerating, Elaine didn’t want to risk coming arcing in to land on a ward — or set of spikes, or whatever — that he’d taken the time to set if he saw her coming.
Even at just a jog, though, it didn’t take Elaine long to move down the three streets to her quarry. When she reached the van she didn’t see anyone moving about inside it or around it — or even anyone standing about outside it, frozen or pretending to be frozen in time. Reasonably confident that she wasn’t about to be ambushed by an accelerating vampire Elaine approached the van for a closer look. Not that someone with supernatural eyesight really needed proximity to suss out visual details, but… there were more ways to assess a situation than just visually.
Regardless, Elaine started with just looking. The only visible person was the driver she’d glimpsed while airborne, but when she ducked down to check the vehicle’s suspension she could easily tell that it was loaded down. Whether that was from cargo or passengers Elaine couldn’t tell at a glance — so she went to the back loading doors and breathed in deeply through her nose.
Exhaust and oil were the strongest scents, followed closely by tar and asphalt. But closely after that? Smoke, and the same sort of chemical fire that had been overwhelmingly pungent at Salvatore’s house. A hint of gunpowder. Plastic and a different sort of oil. Hot metal. The faintest traces of rotten meat — as though someone had opened that door after laying dormant through the day. And, most damning of all, the scent that no vampire could ever mistake, or ever miss: blood. Blood that was devoid of essence, she could tell — but that had still been spilt within the past hour.
Elaine sighed and stepped back. There was absolutely no room for the benefit of the doubt now: This van held her prey. Even without their essence inhabiting it, she’d been able to tell that the blood had come from the werewolf and Scion Abigail had left behind at Salvatore’s.
For a second, Elaine considered breaking off and calling Director Estevez back — but it was an option she immediately discarded. She was confident in her ability to handle another vampire. And even if the van also contained the men who’d been stationed in the house across the street, what were they going to do? Their guns and explosives wouldn’t do them much good while she could accelerate, and as warlocks they’d been too weak to power their own curse without the aid of John’s friend Mitchell. No, she had this.
And besides: Elaine was basking in a small surge of adrenaline. Accelerating came easily to her — more so than for most — but she’d still expended enough of her donors’ life force on it that her predatory nature was getting close to the surface. She didn’t want to delay — or share — the climax of her hunt.
Elaine started by drawing her dagger. Although the blade was plated in silver its core was good, solid steel. She knelt beside the van and stabbed into its tire. The knife’s point pierced the outer rubber and then caught. It’s hilt twisted in her grip. Elaine wrenched it free and scowled. Armored tires? The small gash she’d managed to make revealed just a sliver of honeycombed blue metal. That’s annoying.
Unfortunately, it was also probably to be expected from Abigail’s attackers. They’d been kitted out in military gear and had seemed almost excessively prepared for their abduction of the dormant Directors. Abduction, or rescue. Elaine scowled angrily at the thought and walked around to the front of the van. So the tires were armored? Then she would just rip out the engine. That would bring them to an abrupt enough halt.
Elaine sheathed her dagger as she walked around to the front of the van. She glared at the driver, who stared forward blindly; motionless. Then she thrust her fingers under the lip of the hood.
And pain ripped through her.
Agony surged up her hands and arms like a current and burned her soul like sunlight. Her grasp of time faltered, and suddenly the van slammed into her at full speed. Her body jacknived forward; her face smashed into the hood. Fire washed away her awareness of the mundane pain of her face shattering. She could only process it because she’d lost the grounding that gave her control over her heightened senses: they drew in everything in perfect detail in their instinctive rush to isolate the source of her agony so that she could kill it.
Of course, the source was the van itself. It wasn’t just warded — had that been all, Elaine would have simply broken through the ward and been done. No, Elaine had only felt this sort of agony once before — and she knew it instantly, from a night decades and decades ago, when she had burned to death in a church.
The van was sanctified. It bore the protection of invested faith, of belief, and that invested essence had turned against her when she’d attempted to damage the vehicle.
The van plowed forward, throwing Elaine across the hood and into the windshield. She struck it hard, cracking the glass and sending another surge of fire ripping through her soul. She thought she was screaming. Someone was. The van skidded as the driver slammed on the breaks. Elaine was either flung or slid free: she struck the pavement and her body tumbled uncontrollably. But the flares of pain as her shoulder shattered and her limbs bruised and her flesh ripped across the asphalt were like a balm in that they corresponded to the sudden absence of the metaphorical flames assaulting her soul.
Elaine sucked in a breath that she didn’t really need and pushed herself up from the pavement. What kind of sick, paranoid fuck gets their car blessed? Her lesser injuries were already closing, but Elaine’s fingers and nose were still broken: in fact, every part of her that had battered against the sanctified vehicle was only mending at a crawl — as though it had been amputated entirely and needed to regrow, instead of just being broken or bruised.
Elaine hissed angrily around her fangs and stretched out for the ability to accelerate. She felt her own personal timestream snap into existence, even though her hold on it was far more tentative now. She straightened and shoved aside the ingrained fear that threatened the stability of her knees. She was Elaine Salvatore! Those fuckers who dared injure her with holy magic would pay. So their van was some sort of supernatural vault on wheels? Fine.
She stalked back toward the van, pulling her pistol as she did. Sure: she couldn’t touch it now that it’s protective essence was roused against her. But she didn’t need to touch it to start putting bullets through the occupants. Hell, she could pop in and out of acceleration as necessary to effectively swiss cheese the damned vehicle in a fucking instant!
Elaine aimed at the driver. She decelerated for just an instant to pull the trigger; his head snapped back against his headrest and bounced forward. In the same instant, the van’s side door abruptly snapped open. A blur shot out of it, and then Elaine was accelerating again, too.
The vampire! He must have started accelerating as soon as he could react to the van’s collision. Elaine ignored the other potential occupants of the van — without a driver they wouldn’t get anywhere before she came back to deal with them. Not while she was accelerating to deal with the fleeing vampire. Elaine ran in the direction his blur had vanished to.
Fortunately, as quick as the unknown vampire was, Elaine was faster. She had the Salvatore family talent for acceleration, and her own personal talents lent themselves toward that particular ability, as well. Despite her long run with Abigail, and despite Abigail not contributing toward the magic that had maintained their separate time stream, Elaine had actually lost more of her aura to the sanctification her opponent had laced his van’s engine compartment with.
Elaine caught up to her quarry as soon as she turned the corner to an alley. However, she hadn’t just overtaken him: he must have realized that fleeing was futile, because he’d turned around to face her. Elaine scowled when she saw this. He was standing perfectly still, but Elaine wasn’t stupid enough to think that he’d stopped accelerating. By waiting for her in perfect stillness he was just trying to mask his acceleration relative to hers, so that she would have no way of gauging how well he could perceive her movements before she closed on him and their time streams equalized.
Elaine was no novice to dueling opponents who could accelerate, herself. She froze, not moving an inch while she took the measure of her opponent. He was wearing the sort of mass produced pseudo-military garb preferred by the mortal members of the more militant families in The Center. Pockets covered his pants and vest. A black balaclava was wound around his head, obscuring his identity. He appeared young enough — which was meaningless — and fit, which was marginally less so. He had a thin build, but he was not particularly tall. Elaine doubted that he would have much reach on her — though he did carry a sword, and it was drawn.
Elaine held back the urge to smile. That was all the threat she needed to justify putting him down. He could always be revived and questioned later, after all.
Immediately, Elaine lunged at her opponent. He moved to meet her, but he was not accelerating as strongly as she was — as such, when their auras collided and their time streams snapped into equilibrium, Elaine had greater momentum amplifying her strength and speed.
Contrary to the theatrics of the stage, sword fights between unarmored foes were rarely drawn out contests. Moreover, Elaine was older and stronger than her opponent — although from the speed with which he moved, she knew the difference was not as much as she would have liked. Perhaps only a few decades of developing separated their curses.
The masked vampire managed to deflect Elaine’s lunge, but not fully. Her blade pierced his side and she stepped into the thrust, pinning his own weapon against his body before wrenching upward in a skewed arc that powered through bone and flesh. At the same time she caught the wrist of his sword arm and twisted. With her blade, Elaine hewed through his ribs, tore apart his fancy military vest, and ripped her sword out through his shoulder. Her opponent’s arm dropped to the ground almost in sync with his sword, which he dropped when she pulverised his wrist in her grip and twisted until the bones of his forearm splintered apart.
The vampire cried out in pain and stumbled back. Elaine raised her blade to end him before he could go feral, but stopped when his shout of pain turned into an intelligible plea.
“Wait,” the man cried, and Elaine hesitated despite herself. Unbelievably, he hadn’t gone feral. In fact, his arm was already beginning to regrow.
Elaine felt her eyes widen at the incredible display: whoever he was, he must have a fantastically deep aura! Deeper than her own: Elaine could only regenerate that kind of damage when she was fully fed, and even then she could not do so anywhere near as quickly. Or perhaps his family line had a particular talent for regeneration? But Elaine couldn’t think of a family in The Center that did.
Elaine’s blade snapped up and she backed him into the alley wall, pinning him with the point of her sword over his heart. “Who are you?” She demanded. It was the only question she intended to ask before putting him down: there was no reason to risk letting him recover, or go feral. If he gave her something, she would have it to share with Director Estevez, and the Director could get more after reviving him in more controlled circumstances. If he didn’t answer immediately, she would put him down anyway.
“Elaine,” he said calmly — his emaciated, regrown arm beginning to flesh out once more — “I am a friend of your husband’s. Isn’t that all you really need to know?”
Elaine snarled, fangs bared. But before she could stab through his heart and end him, she felt the impact of another aura being pulled into her time stream — and then the impact of someone tackling her.
Elaine cried out in surprise and — since her aura was dangerously thin — near animal fury. She twisted and thrashed to throw off this new assailant. Whoever he was, she was stronger than he — but he still managed to slice her repeatedly with a wicked combat knife before she pulverised his ribs and shoved him aside.
Elaine regained her feet only to feel another — and another — aura hijack her time stream. This time, despite her vampiric instincts, she just gasped in shock and staggered back. At the front of the alley she saw four more men in balaclavas and military gear, with the vampire she’d been pursuing at their head. What… how… Elaine forced her confusion aside and desperately ceased accelerating before the added strain of so many auras could overwhelm her own damaged aura and drain her completely of life essence.
As soon as normal time resumed, Elaine understood. In normal time, a breeze ran past the men — bringing with it their scent. Elaine knew how she had come to be cornered. Those four men with the vampire? She could smell the blood in their veins. And it was dead in a way that even a vampire’s was not. They were ghouls.
Ghouls who have fed recently enough to be able to accelerate, Elaine realized. That was why Mitchell Kallaher had been abducted. The coven that had attacked Abigail was undead. They weren’t weak. They simply could not generate essence on their own. But Elaine’s curse surged aggressively. Warlock or not, no mere ghoul was going to….
One of them shot her.
The shot was loud — muffled by the silencer on his weapon, but none the less defening to Elaine’s ears. She was hit with two more rounds, and then the vampire must have accelerated, pulling the ghouls into his time stream, because all of them blurred away in an instant. Even the one she had injured was gone.
Elaine stumbled to the side and against the alley wall. She had no thought of giving pursuit. She could hear their van start up again, but she forced herself to ignore it and dropped her sword instead. One of the three bullet wounds in her chest had closed. Only one. Elaine fumbled with her purse and withdrew her phone. She deliberately suppressed her regenerative ability in order to preserve what little essence — and sanity — she had. “I need blood,” she hissed into her phone’s still active call. Then she swiped her thumb and hung up on her donors.
They would be too far off to help, anyway. She had outsmarted herself in preparing to meet with Abigail.
Elaine forced her way through a grounding exercise, desperate to keep her vampiric side from taking over. Her hand trembled beside her gun, but the need to live prevented her from drawing it and putting an end to the threat she would become. Instead, she bent all of the willpower at her disposal to lift her phone again. “Call Estevez,” she told it.
The call connected almost instantly. Elaine didn’t wait for whoever was on the other end to speak: she knew she didn’t have the time for it. “I failed,” she said. “There is one vampire and four ghouls,” she continued despite the near overwhelming urge to rage and snarl. “They’ve escaped, and I am on the verge of turning feral.” More than the verge — her darker, animal instincts were fast taking over. She didn’t even know what she was doing now, anyway: the phone had disconnected, and the phone wouldn’t do anything about her thirst.
Elaine dropped the worthless device. She didn’t feel the pain of her wounds anymore. She felt only need. She raised her head, cocking it slightly to the side. Heartbeats — hundreds of them — thrummed in her awareness. Rational thought had given way to pure predatory instinct. She focused on the nearest cadence of ‘ba-bump, ba-bump’ and stalked from the alleyway.
Blood called. The hunt commenced.