Getting things moving took a little while, mostly because we didn’t quite have enough transportation. Although Megan and Emma were being numerically replaced by Hans and Cassie, their vehicle was not. So in the end a couple of Valerie’s donors were left behind, and some people had to shuffle seats. I rode with Elaine again, but this time she was a passenger in one of Ben’s cars. The other people in the back seat with me were Shantaya, who continued to refuse to leave my side, and Cassie because I refused to leave hers. I felt like it was the least I could do after laying out how she’d been betrayed. Solidarity!
Oh, and instead of the ghost of Mister Kallaher — who hadn’t come to the apartment complex at all — we had an immaterial Thaddeus riding along with us.
Over the course of the drive I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Fortunately, the headache kept me from paying too much attention to road noise or anything else. My skull throbbed in time to my heartbeat, and when I told my heart to stop it just throbbed. I tried to do the awareness exercise Elaine had talked me through: measuring my breathing like Megan always told me to, and then trying to focus on just one body part at a time; keeping my awareness focused.
I started with my toes. Which led to my feet. So then I moved my awareness up to my ankles. Shins. Elbows, knees and toes. Knees and toes.
My head appreciated the reduced stimulus, but not enough to stop hurting. And between the pain and the eventual singsong, it became too much for me to keep my focus, so after that the exercise fell apart. I was stupid and tried just looking at my aura instead, which caused another flare of mental pain. So I snapped my eyes open to replace the mental image with a physical one — but not before I saw what I figured had to be the cause of my headache.
The “buffer” of essence that usually kept the curse of vamparism separate from my living soul had gone from being a smooth sphere — from essence being drawn in evenly like water pouring down a slow drain — into a crumpled mess, like a crushed tinfoil ball. The brief image freaked me out enough that I closed my eyes and looked at my soul again.
This time when the pain hit I didn’t look away. My “view” of my soul was a metaphorical mental image, a feeling as much as a perspective. And this time I gathered up some of my essence and shoved it toward the feeling of pain, filling in the crevasses and crinkles in my curse’s buffer. As they filled in the pain faded, but only a little. The entire surface of the shell that contained my curse was pocked and cracked, and the indents and chasms rippled across it like waves slashing around a sphere of water.
As I fed more and more of my available essence to my curse, the waves deformed and my buffer slowly calmed. The tranquility brought with it a blissful relief from pain that rapidly shifted to apathy: my buffer was intact, but by shoring it up I was using up my ability to have feelings. I was going to have to feed soon or I’d be thirsty. But for now the buffer was intact, so I wasn’t out of control.
I’m pretty sure any other vampire would lose their buffer at the same time as the rest of their aura, if they went that long without feeding. The whole apathetic depression thing was not a vampire stereotype. In fact, technically I probably was “thirsty” — my buffer was just still intact, so those instincts hadn’t taken over.
I am the weirdest vampire there is.
I stopped the repairs before I drained my aura completely. That was mostly because I still had a few emotional imperatives — like taking care of Emma and Megan — that I’d deliberately invested with the desire not to consume. Further relief of my headache made giving them up tempting, but I knew better. What I didn’t know was why my buffer had been messed up. I’d hurt myself using the faerie shard of my soul, not my….
Oh. With a thought I made the buffer translucent — it was just a mental image, after all — and on closer inspection I could see that the shard was subtly different. Larger, somehow. Less dense? Yes: Less dense. As though it had been stretched out when I’d overworked it, and hadn’t gone back to it’s original shape.
Now, deformed, it was pulling in essence to restore itself to its former density. However, since it was anchored to my soul by the vampire curse, when it “reached out” for essence it would snag a part of my curse. That part would be pulled into it, tearing away as the rest of the curse anchored itself to the newly exposed surface of the shard. And those tears caused the curse to rapidly draw in more essence in order to mend.
And of course the curse fed off of the buffer: that shell of essence was formed because of the drain of the curse trying to feed off my soul. But the unusual demands of doing internal repairs were not the constant and even drain that typically maintained my curse. As a result, the buffer was imploding inward wherever the faerie shard tore into my curse for sustenance.
So my psychic pain seemed to be directly related to the buffer becoming deformed — or, no: it was because the shard wasn’t consuming enough. Or maybe because the curse wasn’t large enough to cover the shard? No: my curse hadn’t been large enough to do that until after chewing on Lewellyn’s soul. So it had to be either the deformation of the buffer, or the way the shard was forced to feed slowly, unable to draw in more than a portion of my curse at a time. In any case, I was pretty sure that the only reason I could stand to look at my aura now was because some of the shard had filled back in by siphoning threads of essence off of my curse.
I couldn’t help but snarl softly: the longer I went without feeding anything into my buffer, the more my curse had to struggle against the shard’s attempts to repair itself — and the more my headache came back. I opened my eyes, no longer able to find the willpower to keep up the focus necessary to “look” at my aura. I’d probably fed it to my curse for a part of that temporary reprieve. But at least now I knew what was happening — and that there was an eventual end. Where the shard had “filled in” — returning to its original density by spinning consumed bits of my curse into threads of Faerie essence and weaving them into the stretched out structure of the shard — it stopped drawing in essence. So, logically: once the entire stretched out portion of the shard returned to its original density, all of the drain would stop and the pain would stop with it.
That would’ve been more of a relief if I were still able to care about whether or not I was in pain. And if I didn’t now have a mental image of my faerie shard eventually consuming my curse, my buffer, and the rest of my soul: effectively digesting me from the inside out. So although I couldn’t care about being in pain any more the ongoing damage to my buffer was enough to eventually expose my “survive at all costs” vampire instinct.
“Thaddeus,” I called calmly. “I need to feed. Now.”
Thaddeus appeared beside me. His eyes darted around as though looking for an escape. “Do you need me to fetch someone, or…”
I gave him a smile. It wasn’t a happy one. I had fed on Thaddeus before, and given my appetite I would probably be finishing him off. Which wouldn’t have bothered me, except for that nagging pocket of emotion I’d set up to remind me not to murder people. But a girl had to drink, and it wasn’t my fault that all that was available were leftovers. Thaddeus was just going to have to suck it up and….
Ignoring Thaddeus, I latched onto the idea I’d just had. It was triggered by a few of my emotional imperatives, as well as that last thought. Leftovers.
Could I pull it off?
I held up a finger to cut off Thaddeus’ rambling attempts at getting himself out of getting eaten and squeezed my eyes shut again. Focusing was hard. My psyche thrummed with pain: my faerie shard had already turned my buffer back into a roiling mass. But that was okay. Enough of the expanded shard had regained density that I thought my idea might work.
Hastily I spun together a thread of faerie essence. I fed my vehement desire to not kill people-in-general into my buffer so that I could focus enough to do so. After all, if this didn’t work, Thaddeus was done for anyway. I may as well not have to feel guilty about it while I consumed his soul, right?
And who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have to die, after all.
Even though my mental focus was shaky from what remained of the pain, I felt like my control was better than it had been — especially since I wasn’t dormant. Oh! That was a good point. I let myself go dormant, and while the pain intensified, my focus and control improved even more.
I ignored everyone in the car. I don’t think anyone other than Thaddeus realized what had just happened, thanks to my laid back posture. He seemed even more freaked out now that I was suddenly dead, but I ignored his attempts to send thoughts at me. I mean, I could answer or I could find something to eat other than the remnants of his soul. What did he want me to do, seriously?
I extended my thread of faerie essence along a path that I had explored not long ago: through the entrance to the leyline that connected me to Hans. I’d thought of Thaddeus as leftovers, but really that was a bad analogy. He was more like a fruit tree or something: eventually, if left alone, there’d be more that I could harvest from him. But that chunk of messed up essence in Hans’ leyline, and the pool of trapped essence beside it? That really was left over from when I’d fed on him.
Once I’d extended my awareness almost half way along the leyline, I was startled to find my way obstructed by a jagged construct of frozen essence. If I’d been capable of physical responces, I probably would’ve blinked in surprise. Apparently my earlier efforts had not been entirely wasted: I’d ripped out that obstruction in our shared leyline, and dragged it almost a third of the way along before dropping it.
Where it promptly went back to being an obstruction.
Hans’ leyline was already shifting: a new pool of essence forming in front of the moved obstruction. I dipped my thread of faerie essence into the pool and then waited a moment while concentrating on my new plan for dealing with the “I enthrall the people I feed on” and “I am desperately thirsty even if my buffer is too intact for me to really notice it” messes.
My perception of my aura was metaphorical, allegorical — flexible. Picturing a leyline as though it were a hallway made it easier for me to extend my awareness along one. Picturing my buffer as translucent let me see what my curse and faerie shard were doing on the other side of it. Imagining essence as something physical that I could direct let me direct it.
But sometimes my focus was too tight: I got too invested in a particular way of seeing things. Like seeing a leyline’s opening as the eye of a needle, instead of as a hallway. And this whole agonizing headache had reminded me of something important: My faerie shard and my vampire curse were bound together. Actually, all of my essence was “tainted” with my vampire curse. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had to worry about Emma potentially becoming a ghoul. Hell, the entire buffer/core/shard image I used to manipulate my essence was just that: an image. Everything was a lot more blended than that in reality. Probably.
In any case, now that I was looking for it I could see the shadow of my curse staining the thread of essence I was using to probe Hans’ leyline. So I focused on it more, letting it have the lion’s share of my attention. Letting it eclipse the faerie thread. I hadn’t extended a thread of faerie essence: I had extended a tendril of vampirism. Well, I’d done both. But for now I was only paying attention to the vampirism — and willing it to drink.
And it did.
The pool of essence in Hans’ ley line rapidly drained, flickering down the cursed thread almost as quickly as if I’d sunk my fangs into him. In seconds it was empty, except for the trickle of essence that continued to flow through the leyline and into the depression formed by that chunk of frozen soul.
But that was fine, too.
The small burst of essence restored some of my aura before being dragged into my buffer. But that was still enough for me to have a brief, giddy flash of delight. It had worked! Sort of. I was halfway there.
Because the pool wasn’t my objective: it had just been a snack. A light weight test. I flexed — I had to focus on the faerie aspect of the thread in order to move it again. I wrapped it around the obstruction in Hans’ aura. The chunks of essence that had been torn out of the membrane of his soul when I fed on him and froze together within our leyline. The reason he was enthralled and our relationship was doomed to be a hideous failure in morality. I anchored my thread to it once more, but this time I didn’t pull. I wasn’t going to put myself through that again!
This time, I fed.
It was like a chunk of ice had been wrapped in a wire, and then the wire was heated with a current. My curse melted into the obstruction. And why wouldn’t it? My curse could consume souls and the obstruction was just a bit of misplaced soul-stuff. Leftovers from the spiritual sloppiness of physical feeding. I slashed through it, melted it; drank it down like I was slurping through a long, bendy, psychically animated straw. The essence flushed through my aura, and I kept at it — hacking apart smaller and smaller bits of the leftover obstruction — until none was left. I even ventured further into the leyline, just to make sure nothing had formed back where the obstruction had originally been.
And then, when I was done, I withdrew.
“Lady Abigail?” Thaddeus’ thoughts greeted me. They were tinged with the fear that I was going to eat him alive, and was just fucking with him. As well as the impression that I wasn’t that sort of person — and the uncertainty that maybe, just maybe, I was.
“Huh? Yes. Oh, hi Thaddeus.” It took effort to get my thoughts straight: the frozen membrane I’d taken in was a bigger meal than I’d realized — probably because it was denser than “fluid” essence. Not like water, which expanded when it froze. But like a normal solid which became denser as it moved away from being a liquid or gas. “Right, I was going to feed on you. Don’t worry, I don’t think I need to do that right now after all.” I was still thirsty. My aura wasn’t full by any means, and a lot of what I had was getting pulled rapidly into my buffer to fuel repairs to my curse and the faerie shard beneath it. But I had other leftovers tucked away in leylines to other people. As long as I wasn’t stupid about how I cleared them out, I wouldn’t hurt myself feeding on them. Why hadn’t I thought of eating them to begin with?!
“Should I… um, should I warn anyone that you need blood, Lady Abigail?” came Thaddeus’ relieved reply.
“No,” I thought back. But on the heels of that thought came another. “Say, Thaddeus. How doe faeries become stronger? Like: I know that they have to consume essence to live, but what determines how much essence they can manipulate? And what happens to the essence they consume?”
I could feel Thaddeus putting thought into his reply. “I guess the easiest way to explain it would be to compare it to something human, right?” My mental reply was noncommital, but that seemed to be a rhetorical question on Thaddeus’ part. “It’s like eating food. There’s a survival aspect: you have to do it, or your body will wither and die. For us it’s like that, too. We have to eat, or we’ll self cannibalize. Eventually, a starving faerie will lose that which makes it an individual: its memories, personality, willpower. Of course, we won’t die from that, but someone could become a shell: too weak to manipulate the world around them or remember who they are until someone provides them essence again.”
I could feel his revulsion at the idea, but it wasn’t the end of his comparison. “Now, with humans, if they eat a lot of food they can exercise and build up muscle to become stronger. With us, it’s sort of similar: if we have more than what we need to just maintain ourselves a faerie can spread his soul out, freeing up room to weave more essence directly into it; making it sturdier and more able to manipulate the essence around it — but also requiring more essence to maintain. There’s always a balance of sorts, because of that: The faerie nobility are the strongest because they have so much essence available to them that they can continually build up their strength without starving. But they share with followers because more people can do more things at once — and us weaker fae swear to our lieges because they have the essence to spare, so that no one under their rule becomes too weak.”
Thaddeus’ explaination made me frown. On the one hand: Bingo. I’d accidentally put my faerie shard through some kind of metaphorical weight training. But on the other: I was not providing for my personal army. If anything, I was using them as blood bags — the exact opposite. Was that going to be a problem?
“We’ve sworn our oaths. The problem will be ours,” Thaddeus sent. Oops, I must have thought my question too loud. “But if you want your army to be worth anything in the future, then yes you may want to give us more leave to find essence for ourselves — or find another source of sustenance for yourself.”
Well, damn. But that was good to know, I guess. All the more reason to hope that Valerie and Megan worked something out to allow faeries to exist in the city. And all the more reason to expand my circle of donors.
There were so many things on my lists, they were a little overwhelming. And they’d only get more overwhelming as I fed enough to start obsessing about them. But, on the other hand: Keeping well fed was at the top of my “don’t fuck up” list, and “dammit, Abby, fix them” was the only thing on my people-to-enthrall list.
“That’s good to know,” I told Thaddeus since a polite ‘thank you’ would have been a mistake. “Um. You can go now. I’ve got the feeding thing under control.” I felt Thaddeus slip out of my circle of awareness — I was still dormant — but I’d already dismissed him from my thoughts, too. I checked over my aura and used some of the essence to reinforce my “I don’t want to kill people” pocket and steel my resolve. I was starting to get a headache again from all the focus that went into manipulating my aura, but I had things to do, essence to consume, and people to unenthrall.
So, course of action set, I then reached my awareness out to the leyline that connected me to Shantaya, and spun out another thread of faerie essence and vampire curse.