Book 6, Chapter 48

A fork.  A fork?

No: The fork that Sebastian had given me.  A piece of essence that I could manipulate.  Faerie essence, that I could manipulate.  Giddy with relief, I started to pull it toward myself.  Then I hesitated as the doubts crashed through my hasty plan.  One fork.  One faerie glamour with which to shore up a shard of essence that was stretching out like an inflating balloon.  Would one fork be enough?  Would it just be too little, too late?

It would.  Maybe it was the depression, or the paranoia, or an instinctive understanding of how these bits of my soul worked, but I knew consuming that essence wouldn’t be enough.  I needed more.  I needed to feed, but I needed that essence to bypass my curse.  I couldn’t feed like a vampire.

I needed to feed like a faerie.  To use what little remained intact at the center of my shard of Megan’s soul to pull essence to me.  But without any awareness of who was around me, how was I supposed to do that?  I was only aware of what the fork I’d grabbed was because it was already tied directly to my aura.  Without the strength to reach down ley lines, how was I supposed to find essence I could draw upon?

Depression rose through the pain of my curse gradually stretching the borders of my faerie crystal, saturating it.  Pain and despair.  I wanted to take that worthless fork and fling it away.

Isn’t it strange how sometimes hope comes out of despair?

I grabbed a hold of Sebastian’s gift.  Gripped it as solidly as I could with my enfeebled soul — and cast it away from me.

Without any perception of the real world to guide my aim, I had to rely on intention.  I wanted to throw my line toward the most frightened person near me.  Fear was supposed to be an easy emotion for faeries to feed from.  I had to hope that my intention and the weave’s response would guide the bit of aura I flung out from myself toward the someone who was terrified.  I mean: we’d been fighting ghost zombies for god’s sake!  I knew there were people who qualified as terrified near by.

But I was still gambling.  Literally gambling with my soul, since the fork was a part of it and the rest of it was what I stood to lose if my gamble failed.  And yet, it was a measured gamble.  When the fork had been a knife; when I’d used it to fight: my aura had stretched.  My focus had followed with it.  Maybe I could use it as a lifeline, to extend my reach.  To find someone I could pull essence from safely.

That was the plan, anyway.  As much as I’d been able to form one.

And it worked, sort of.  My awareness stretched in the direction of the toss — not that I was aware of anything beyond my soul stretching more.  And that was as far as it worked.  I lost my grip on the glamour as the effort strained the intact core of my shard anew.  I was still connected to it, but it was like I was simply laying a finger upon it.  I could feel it, but I couldn’t do anything to or with it.  My awareness ended at the psychic existence of the glamour.

I wished I had a body so I could cry: as it was, my wail of renewed despair was trapped in the confines of my own mind, echoing against the agony of a soul that was slowly pulling itself apart from the inside out.

I didn’t have the strength to reach for anyone.  Maybe my ‘plan’ had worked, and there was someone nearby — but I didn’t have the strength to reach out and draw from them.

It didn’t occur to me that they might have the strength to reach out for me before it was too late.

It started with a chill.  Then a sense of fear, panic; terror — only they weren’t mine.  I wasn’t afraid of being attacked.  At least, not right now.  I wasn’t angry about being betrayed.  I wasn’t…

The slithering chill sunk into my stretched out aura.  Pins and needles danced along my strained, tentative connection to Sebastian’s silverware, trying to pick it apart.  Trying to find a way in.

Ghost Zombie.

It was a ghost zombie.  I’d thrown out a last grasp for help, and it had turned into a lure for a fucking ghost zombie?!  Fuck!  I must have thrown my glamour back across the circle of wards, into the clearing.  No one else would even be aware of it, and there was no way in fuck anyone was going back in there and the goddamn ghosts were drawn to injured souls and….

I tried, instinctively, to pull away.  I didn’t have the strength for it.  What awareness I had flared with jabbing needles, all along my connection to Sebastian’s damn fork.  Only each needle was a maw: the ‘fuzzy’ auras of the ghosts were made up of bits of the weave that had been ripped away, and severed leylines seeking a connection.  The pinpricks were those bits of weave trying to bind to something and entangling themselves in my connection to the fork.  The needles were severed leylines, jabbing into me to draw essence for the ghosts.

I wanted to laugh.  It would have been the perfect expression of hysteria, but I didn’t have a functional body.

I could see the ghosts — they were interconnected, bound together by those same strands of ripped leylines and torn weave.  By attracting one I’d gotten the attention of all of them, just like at the hospital before.  And this time, there was no one else there to distract them; no one to intercede on my behalf.  All of them were bearing down on me.  Grasping onto whatever part of my soul had stretched into their domain.  Threads of their souls clawing at Sebastian’s glamour, trying to find a breach through which they could rip away what was left of my aura.

Only, it wasn’t working the way they intended, was it?  It wasn’t my aura that was exposed to them.  It wasn’t my reservoir of essence.  It was my soul.  Specifically, the faerie part of my soul that I used to control glamours.  And faerie souls were simply structured differently than mortal ones.  The tendrils of the weave that the ghosts had torn away would have anchored to a mortal’s soul by being frozen against its outer shell.  But where a mortal’s soul was best described as fluid, a faerie’s was a lattice work of threads.  And so the ghost’s tendrils slipped into the gaps in my lattice, only anchoring when they struck another cord.

Even the torn leylines — needles to the tendrils’ pinpricks — could only jab into my connection again and again without finding sustenance to drain.  It was like they were trying to use a needle to draw blood from a sponge: there just wasn’t enough surface for something that was meant to draw liquid to successfully pull anything out of that part of me. All they did was get stuck in pockets of ‘air.’

I could see the ghosts.  That realization sank through the pain somehow. I could only see them on a metaphorical level. It was like I could see into that ‘inbetween’ world of faeries, but couldn’t see the real world.

But I could see them because they were filling in that stretched out part of me; giving it back the structure it had lost when I’d over strained it.  Not… not exactly that structure, but giving it some structure.  I didn’t have the strength to pull essence from them, but that didn’t stop them from shoving it into me!

I just needed to be able to pull that essence back to my core.  I needed to be able to use it to shore up my faerie shard before my curse ripped it open.  The only problem, then, was that all those strands and leylines they were jabbing into me were still attached to them.  I didn’t have any kind of direct control over them.  Not any more than I had direct control over the emotions of someone else when I drank their blood.  At least, not without a strong enough faerie core to exert that control.

I almost succumbed to despair.  I was in pain.  I was being torn apart from the inside, and the arm I’d thrown out to grasp for help was being riddled with needles and impotent fangs.  Worse: fear and anger and hate were supposed to be the easiest emotions for a faerie to consume, but even though they were right there being shoved into an extension of me, I had no way to pull them back while they remained anchored to their owners.

I still only had a fucking….

…fork.

A fork.  A tool used for eating.  A tool that was directly tied to me; that I did have control over if only I had the strength to exert it.  But I didn’t have a choice except to find that strength.  I flexed the essence in my core, trying to draw enough together to do the deed.  My soul screamed in agony as part of the shard ripped away, too firmly anchored to my curse and too badly stretched already to withstand the strain.

Fork.  How I held onto that thought, I didn’t know.  But I had enough strength to pull it back.

The glamour snapped back into it’s intended place at my side.  I couldn’t see it move, but I felt it.  Maybe the weave helped it on its way, somehow supporting it in its execution of its true purpose: bringing food to the mouths of the hungry.  All of the essence that had been stabbed into it and my connection to it came with. But the ghosts were shorn away by the wards around the clearing.  Their cries of agony and despair and fear and hate and betrayal were cut off.  The essence left behind, sunk into my own, unraveled slightly, seeking new anchors for the freshly separated ends.

I grabbed those threads.

I could only manage one at a time — worse even than when I had been stitching up my soul, even though right now I was working entirely within the part of me that was defined as ‘faerie.’  But still, I did it.  I pulled first one, then another, and then another, into place: weaving supports along the outer edge of my shard.  Putting in enough strands to prevent the pull of my curse from being strong enough to shift the threads it was anchored to further away from the core.  Stopping the curse from pulling me apart.

I did that first.  Then I wove more into the center of my shard, so that it had the strength to manipulate those bits of ley lines I’d unceremoniously wrenched off of the ghost zombies.  They were thicker, stronger: made up of dozens of strands of fae essence already woven around a capillary of human soul stuff.  I used them as struts to fix the torn part of my shard in place; to keep it from being pulled away by my curse like some sort of flotsam seized by a flailing tentacle.  Then I focused on tying each ripped strand back together.

My curse grew while I worked.  It spread slowly over the newly reinforced faerie shard, then faster as its size grew and the remaining shard vanished under it.

Shard.  That wasn’t entirely accurate, anymore.  What I had now was more like a geode: a reinforced orb of interwoven strands making a crust thick enough to support the curse’s weight.  And inside that was an anemic mantle where I hadn’t had the essence available to do more than keep things connected with the occasional bursts of knotted together essence. Some had the beginnings of a crystalline structure, but most were more like a spurt of spider’s web — far more gap than structure.

And in the center of all of that was suspended a solid, hard working crystal.  That crystal was my core, now.  The core of my core, if that made any sense. It was what I’d used to do the repairs, reinforced further with the bits of essence that hadn’t been long enough for me to use anywhere else.

Technically, the whole sphere was interconnected.  In time, maybe the whole thing would become uniform again.  Even as I watched, the strands I’d woven in shifted subtly, merging into the structure; becoming mine and not just a patchwork jammed into place. But that didn’t fill them out further. Didn’t fill in the gaps where I’d had to pull out threads that threatened to snap so that I could splice them in elsewhere to relieve the pressure on another part of the structure.

So for now, that little crystal was the only part that I could use to manipulate essence. It was smaller than the shard had been when I’d first become aware of it, but maybe a little denser, too. And I could use it to manipulate essence while being safe with the knowledge that if it stretched out of shape it would still be safe in the cocoon I’d made of it’s outer surface. Safe from my own curse, until it could pull itself back together.

With that knowledge came relief. I still hurt, but not as much. New strain wasn’t being put on top of the damage I’d already done myself: I ached, but I wasn’t in agony. I didn’t know how long I’d spent working in the world of my soul, but I was ready to acknowledge that the rest of reality existed again. And yet, before I could put a tentative effort into turning my attention outward, my curse closed the last gap over my faerie sphere.

My soul snapped back into place in my body and my eyes shot open.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 47

The thought that I’d maybe died had a dreamlike quality to it, except you aren’t supposed to be able to feel pain when you’re in a dream. Are you? I was having trouble thinking clearly, but I did hurt. But thinking was more important. Maybe I could think of a way to make it stop hurting.

I knew that when I was dormant I didn’t think with my brain — I ‘thought’ with my faerie essence. And that shard was currently too overworked and exhausted to think clearly. It wasn’t even able to perceive clearly, because the world had collapsed into darkness.

I could think, though. After all: I was thinking about how I was thinking. I guess that meant my brain was intact? And that I was conscious enough to use it.

I forced myself to open my eyes.

That didn’t work.

Okay. Don’t freak out. Think this through.

I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t move. I hurt, but I couldn’t tell where. I couldn’t even tell that I had a body. But I couldn’t remember being injured, either. So maybe I was dormant? Like: Real vampire dormant, since I didn’t have the strength to look at the world the way a faerie normally would.

“Lady Abigail?” The thought wasn’t mine. It startled me: I immediately assumed I’d been possessed — why would I assume that? — and then I recognized the voice.

Thaddeus? The thought was a mental yelp. Part of that was surprise. A lot of that was because it hurt more to think that loud.

“Abigail! Thank goodness. I was afraid this wasn’t working.”

What was ‘this?’ I was so confused. And the sensory deprivation wasn’t helping. It was frightening.

What’s going on, Thaddeus? Again, when I projected my thought the pain in my mind flared. I hoped Thaddeus had a good answer, because I was not going to do that again any time soon.

“I’ve been pushing essence to you.” I could ‘hear’ Thaddeus a little more clearly. I focused on his voice desperately, hoping to use it as a distraction from hurting. It sort of worked. The voice sharpened; became more present. As though it were coming through a leyline that was coming into focus. Everything else was still dark, and I still hurt, though.

“I’ve given back everything I had left of what you’d given me from Archarel and then some,” Thaddeus continued. “You weren’t waking up, and I was starting to think it wasn’t going to be enough for you to recover. You haven’t moved since the collapse.”

I can’t see. Or hear or smell or feel! I’m scared, Thaddeus!

Ow! Fuck fuck fuck, that hurt. I’d forgotten I wasn’t supposed to do that.

“It’s okay,” came Thaddeus’ reassurance. “You can hear me, can’t you? And you can think. That means I was right and you’re recovering. It’s that human soul of yours, I figure.”

I barely managed to keep from turning my confusion into a painful ‘what?’

“I told you that fae who become too weak lose themselves, right? Until someone else gives them the essence to pull themselves back from starvation?

If I’d had a stomach I was aware of, it would’ve done a flop. Had I started eating my own soul?!

“No!” Thaddeus protest before I could get a serious freak out started. “You overstrained yourself. Maybe you ate into your essence: I’m not sure. But what I meant was: I couldn’t figure out how to push essence to that piece of Lady Megan’s soul you carry around within you. But your soul has that human shell, so everything I sent to you was contained. Eventually, some of it must have been pulled in to repair the damage you did to yourself.”

Lady Megan’s soul. How did you… OW!

Thaddeus’ thoughts had become relieved enough that he was amused by my partial question. “You do things that should be impossible for vampires all the time, Lady Abigail. And you were asking me about how the fae become stronger, earlier. Also, I was right there when you went dormant. I saw my leylines shifting. They tried to tell me you were Lady Megan, but I knew that she was back in her realm. Plus, it’s become rather common knowledge that she was your first blood. Which is apparently significant to vampires, somehow?”

Okay. Well, when he put it like that it did seem kind of obvious. Now I felt dumb for thinking it was supposed to be some big secret that would give me an edge over everyone.

“It sort of is, and does,” Thaddeus replied. “Your people know you have a faerie strain in your soul, but I doubt many realize how tightly it binds you to Lady Megan. I’ve never seen a leyline become indistinguishable from another person’s before. I won’t tell anyone.”

Unsaid was the worrying impression that if it came out, there would be trouble.

“Of course there would,” Thaddeus replied in surprise. “Sympathetic magic is the easiest, and if your enemies knew that they could attack Lady Megan directly through you — or vice versa — I am certain they would try to take advantage of it. If nothing else, Megan doesn’t have the reputation for being terrifying that you do. Someone could try to bind her so that they, by extension, control you.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that. Why hadn’t I thought about that? Don’t tell anyone, I told Thaddeus. Pushing the thought on purpose was exhausting. And it hurt like hell.

“Your secrets are safe with me,” he assured me. “I promise. Now: focus on recovering. On drawing in strength. If you can push thoughts, you should be able to actively put yourself together with all of this delicious essence I’ve provided for you, yes?”

Yes?

God, I hoped so. Why hadn’t he started the conversation with that? Putting myself back together probably meant not hurting.

I refocused. It was harder than I expected. I didn’t want to let go of Thaddeus — the only thing that I was aware of right now. I forced myself to, anyway. I tried to focus on the faerie shard at the core of my curse, instead. It was a part of me, and it was the most active part of me when I was dormant, right? It should be easier to focus on than Thaddeus had been.

And it was. I had to reorient my thoughts — I was used to thinking of the faerie shard as being inside the bubble of my curse. I tried to picture it by itself, instead. I saw it as a glowing, crystalline structure. It was denser than the woven threads that defined most faerie essence: dense enough and strong enough to manipulate those threads.

Except that I’d been over working it, and the crystal had stretched from the strain. Like… like it was a diamond that had somehow been wrenched out of shape and turned into coal. I studied it. Somehow, restraining my attention to just the shard — just the densest part of the shard — made the pain seem to fade.

The crystal of essence was slowly — agonizingly slowly! — recompressing. The process seemed to be uneven. It was like the center was solidifying by pulling mass away from the edges. But it seemed that was how I was able to perceive it now, and Thaddeus earlier: there was a little speck of a gem at the center of the deformed shard, and it was my current mental ‘eyes.’

But it was almost as if that speck in the center had solidified by pulling mass away from the edges: in fact, I saw the edges thin when I tried to pull it together more. Letting my attention wander into that part of the crystal made pain shoot through my mind. I lost my focus and everything went dark once more.

An uncertain eternity later, I risked looking again. This time I braced myself. I managed to look for… I don’t know how long. I didn’t have anything to measure time against. A couple of agonizing eternities, at least.

Yes, the crystal was thinner at the edges. And the edges were stretching outward, growing thinner still, while the shard at the center was pulling in, trying to build itself up. It was like there was a tug of war going on between the inside and the outside of the shard.

Somehow I could feel that wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Drifting in the darkness, I tried to figure it out. The crystal was trying to heal itself. That was why it was self-compacting. But for some reason it wasn’t able to just congeal back into its original shape. Something was surrounding the edges, pulling it out of shape. But what could….

My curse!

OW!

Fucking psychic migraines: they didn’t even have the decency to let me have a body so I could puke from the pain.

What had I been thinking?

Slowly now.

My curse.

That’s right: my curse was anchored to the faerie shard. Which meant the faerie shard was anchored to the curse.

And my curse grew along the shard — I’d seen it happen, when Lewellyn had attacked me with his geas. My curse had taken his essence and grown along the shard like, like a fungus.

And I just stretched my core all out of shape using it to do faerie things. Ow, fuckity fuck fuck ow. Which would have given the curse more area to grow over?

Fucking ow ow ow ow what was I think… oh. I slowly drew that line of thought back.

Funny how faerie thoughts were literally lines, right?

No. That was a distraction. I couldn’t parse that many threads at once. But as long as I didn’t concentrate on the important one too hard I wouldn’t pull on the thin part of my crystal. As long as I didn’t add strain there; as long as I didn’t focus there, the pain was manageable.

Alright. The thought. About why my core was made up?

Yes, it made sense: My curse would have grown along the shard. The shard was supposed to provide the anchor between my soul and my body, but if it was too stretched out of shape… did that mean my soul couldn’t reach my body right now? Because my shard had been stretched to the point that my curse wasn’t able to wrap around it? So my soul wasn’t properly connected to my body?

That would explain why I was dormant. Dormant-ish.

And why the crystal was thin around the edges: as the curse grew, it was anchoring the shard in place. Except, technically, the shard was out of place. And it was trying to pull itself back into place, except it couldn’t because it was too stretched out and flimsy to yank the curse around.

So there literally was a tug of war going on between the core of my conscious self and the framework of my curse. Because all the crystal had to work with to repair itself was itself, because the curse would be eating anything that Thaddeus tried to push to it, which would just make the curse grow more.

I needed Megan to be pushing me essence, because the shard was our leyline. Her essence would actually reinforce it.

Another glance.

Blazing pain.

Count through it. One eternity. Two eternity. Three…

Darkness again.

I couldn’t pant from exertion or sob in pain. But I could think once the pain faded.

And it was worse than I’d thought. My speck of coherent crystal wasn’t growing anymore. Maybe it hadn’t been to begin with? Whatever the case, it was clear now: as the curse grew in breadth, it grew in width. As it grew in width, its weight dragged at the structure supporting it.

But I was pretty sure the deformed shard of faerie essence couldn’t handle that weight. It was deforming worse from the pressure. Which just gave the curse more room to grow along. Which made the pressure worse.

Eventually, the curse was going to pull me apart. And then…

I wasn’t sure. Would there be anything left connecting me to my body? I didn’t think so. Would I become a ghost, or would the weave latch onto that tear and unravel my soul?

Was this why most vampires didn’t survive being turned? Because their curse was too strong for them to survive long enough to drink their first blood? Without something to anchor it, did the curse just grow and grow and grow, consuming all of the essence in the host’s until their soul burst open? Archarel had tried to flood my soul until it broke.

Too bad pushing essence wouldn’t solve anything right now. Not only was there too little of my faerie shard compact enough to do much, but straining it would knock me out again. If Thaddeus was still giving me blood, I might not come back from that.

I wouldn’t, if my curse grew faster than the crystal could recover.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry so bad, but that was a body thing. I didn’t have a body while I was like this. I needed something that would let me bridge the gap between my soul and my body. Something that I could feed to my faerie side without my curse eating it first. Something that innately connected to my faerie side.

I was going to die, wasn’t I? I couldn’t bring myself to look. I couldn’t stomach the pain again just to have more despair.

I wanted Megan. She could fix me. Or Emma. Or even Hans or Ben, if only so I could hold someone’s hand when I died. Was it ironic that after everything I’d been through, I’d managed to work myself to a permanent death?

There was Thaddeus, but I hadn’t been able to do more than hear him. And he didn’t have a body with a hand for me to hold, anyway. For that matter: I didn’t have a body with a hand to hold someone else’s, either.

I reached out for him anyway. Or rather, I reached out to anyone. It was like the first time I’d gone faerie hunting, when I’d just sought after the ‘closest’ connection I could find. I was dying, and I didn’t care who was with me — I just didn’t want to be alone.

Pain threatened to send me back into darkness. I fought through it, though. I knew that fighting would kill me faster, but I was desperate. For anything.  Anyone.

But all I caught a hold of was a fork.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 46

“Ghost Zombies!” I shrieked.

I didn’t know how else to respond. For the moment I was locked up in shock — and in that moment the other ghosts turned away from their scripted deaths. It was just like at the hospital: they were connected somehow, and once one of them woke up the awareness rippled out to the others until the whole horde had fixated on Elaine.

Worse, Elaine had cried out and hunched over. I almost threw up, remembering how it had felt when a zombie ghost had tried to worm its way into my soul.

“Thaddeus,” I screamed while I bolted forward. “Help!” Where the fuck was my army of faeries?! This was exactly the kind of time that they would be useful, dammit!

I reached Elaine while everyone else was still sort of looking around in confusion. Of course, they couldn’t see anything but that was no fucking excuse! Cassie was screaming at them that the ghosts were hostile and to get out of the clearing already. I grabbed a hold of Elaine — but I had no idea what to do about the ghost that was latched onto her opposite arm. Fortunately, Thaddeus dealt with the ghost: I had time to see him leap forward. His sword severed its arm and then he knocked it back with his staff.

I didn’t get to see what happened next because I had already turned toward the edge of the clearing and was dragging Elaine with me. She half resisted; half stumbled along.

I did get to see the flicker as the ghost Thaddeus had dispatched ‘restarted’ its death sequence. It appeared between us and the edge of the clearing, only it was clearly still ‘awake.’ Its eyes snapped into focus on us and it leapt past me to seize Elaine again.

“Fuck me!” I shouted. That was just unfucking fair. Fiore was ordering a retreat, and people seemed to be listening to him more than they had Cassie, but as I turned back to deal with the ghost on Elaine I saw that she wasn’t the only one beset anymore. Hans, Fumiko, and maybe a third of the scion’s donors were reduced to stumbling toward the edge of the clearing in retreat from enemies they couldn’t even see as ghosts clawed at their auras.

On the other hand, the other ghosts were being kept back by the pack’s wolves. Shantaya’s and Janiqua’s werewolf spirits were killing ghosts as fast as they could restart to come after the girls again, and Hans’ wolf was tearing through the clearing, crippling ghosts without a care for protecting his host human.

Which didn’t help me with the ghost attacking Elaine. All I could think was to get her outside the clearing: if we couldn’t even see them from the other side then maybe the wards served to confine the ghosts and not just hide them. But who knew how much damage was being done just in the time it was taking me to pull Elaine there? She was already starting to struggle against me.

Then Elaine ripped her arm out of my grasp at the same time as Benjamin snapped into existence next to me. Vampire speed. I didn’t have time to freak out about that. Couldn’t afford the time to freak out about that. Elaine’s eyes seemed glazed, and the ghost clinging to her was clearly stronger: less translucent.

I stared at them in horror, oblivious to Ben trying to get my attention. Was the ghost taking Elaine over, or was it feeding on her?

“Both,” I gasped in realization. It was pulling her essence into itself. Feeding on her. But it was still her essence: it was pulling the same mind-control whammy that vampires used when they fed.

“Ben, get Elaine out of the clearing,” I yelled at him. Outside, I could see where other people had escaped, and zombie ghosts no longer clung to them. Of course, that left more zombie ghosts to come after us, but whatever.

Some of Fiore’s solocks were darting back in to drag out the donors who had collapsed before reaching safety. Fiore was, too. Bonus points for him. So were Janiqua and Shantaya: in fact, they were surrounded by the golden nimbus of Benny’s wings, and between that and their wolves the few zombie ghosts that still went after them weren’t getting close to the rescue efforts.

That just left Elaine, Ben and I, since we were the furthest into the clearing, and Thaddeus and Hans’ wolf — who were doing their damndest to keep the remaining ghost zombies from swarming us.

Ben didn’t protest or argue or ask for an explanation. He bolted forward to grab Elaine. She slapped his hand aside with one arm and shattered his jaw with her other fist. Fuck, she was fast! I lunged for the zombie ghost.

Ben was just a step behind me: already bouncing back. And he was smart about it. He reached for Elaine, then danced back — forcing her to follow him a step closer to the edge of the clearing. He was luring her to where he might have a chance of getting her across the line of wards.

My methods were more straight forward. As soon as I was close enough to the ghost zombie I grabbed it and plunged the fork Sebas had given me into its eye.

The ghost howled. I wasn’t sure if it was in pain from being stabbed, or shocked that I could touch it, or just pissed. Whatever it was, though, Elaine was still in sync with its emotions. I had just enough time to think I should’ve turned that fork into something more lethal before my world twisted sideways and I slammed into the ground.

Elaine was on top of me. She got in one solid punch on my head — caving in my skull — before Benjamin tackled her.

My squished eye throbbed and coiled back into the socket. Bone skritched against bone as my skull popped back into the right shape. That bitch! I’d been planning to save her, but now I was just mad. With a snarl and a bit of focus, I shifted the shape of the glamour I was wielding. The only sword I could picture clearly was Lewellyn’s, but it was intended for hacking apart undead. I went with that.

I was on my feet and slashing before Elaine finished snapping Benjamin’s neck. Unfortunately for him, there was a ghost zombie between her and myself — the same ghost zombie that had started this whole mess. So Benjamin got thrown aside like a limp sack of flesh while I chopped the ghost into two surprised halves.

Which promptly flickered away and came back as one fully intact ghost. Fucking ghost zombies. But at least now I knew that my glamour could interact just as easily with the astral plane as the physical one.

I didn’t have time to contemplate that, though, because Elaine lunged toward me as soon as she was done with Benjamin. Maybe to attack me, or maybe to reunite with her spectral zombie leech. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I threw myself at her in a pissed off fury.

We collided. It was brutal. She had decades of experience with combat. I had fury and a sword she couldn’t take away because it was a fucking illusion.

Experience won. She caught my wrist and crushed it; with a thought I sent my sword to my other hand and tried to cut out her soul. She must have assumed I was just trying to stab her because she twisted aside and yanked me off balance, then shattered my knee with a quick kick. It almost looked more like a step, but it brought me low enough that she could punch my skull into the ground again.

Then Jockboy’s wolf bowled Elaine over. He’d acquired a leeching ghost zombie of his own, it looked like — but no, that was just the ghost of Jockboy, still clinging to their shared body. Elaine kicked the wolf aside, but then Benjamin was in its place. Benjamin did have a ghost leeching off of him now, but it hadn’t taken him over yet. Instead, it clawed at him while he — oblivious — struggled with the stronger, older vampire. Jockboy’s wolf came bounding back in to help him.

Unfortunately, this time I didn’t bounce back. Elaine had crushed my skull again and my awareness had ballooned out as my corpse went dormant. With my improved spectral perception, I could see that the ghost attacking Ben was actually clawing at the chinks in his soul where his curse had consumed aura to heal his body.

The haze around the ghost was made from thin, waving strands of essence, and not all of it was remnants of the weave trying to tear it apart. Some of them were the severed remains of leylines. Probably its leylines, I thought. That would explain how it could feed with them: it dug into an unsuspecting soul and slurped up whatever essence came in range of those threaded maws. That didn’t really help it, though: the thing was leaking through the other leylines almost as fast as it was drinking from Benjamin.

Cassie was right about shades: this thing was just the shell of a soul. Desperately trying to fill itself on instinct.

Being dormant had replaced my fury with calmness. My vampiric instincts weren’t driving me now — my emotions and my faerie shard were. And my emotions had been all but wiped out by the curse’s attempts at repairing my body, so I was mostly apathetic about Ben’s plight.

Benjamin wasn’t going to make it: Elaine was stronger. And the more damage she did, the more he healed. The more he healed, the more that ghost could drain out his essence. Even with an enthralled wolf trying to protect him, Ben was going to go feral soon. That was bad. I mean: I wouldn’t care, but he probably would, later.

Unless one of those zombie ghosts just ate his soul completely.

That thought jolted me out of my complacency. I still had little pockets of protected emotions in place, and one of them was an imperative to protect my friends. Ben might have pissed me off by feeding on Megan, but in this state I wasn’t angry. And Ben was still one of my friends. So was Elaine, for that matter.

I couldn’t let either of them be consumed by some rampaging zombie-spirits!

But what could I do?

Elaine broke Benjamin again, and his ghost leech sank a little deeper into his soul when his body mended itself.

No, I thought — but at the same time I reacted without thinking. My sword sliced through the air and separated the zombie ghost from its host.

Oh, I thought in mild surprise. Okay. So I can do that.

I’d never thought about it before, but what happened to my glamours when I went dormant? They stayed present, of course. But they were anchored to me, not my body. And it’s not like they were physical, so it wasn’t like the sword actually needed my body to lift and swing it.

I did feel a headache coming on, though. It intensified significantly when I psychically seized my other glamour and shifted it to protect Ben. My clothes vanished from my body and reappeared as armor around him. Well, if I could change a fork into a sword, why not a blouse and skirt into plate mail? I based it off of Prince Tanaka’s armor in volume four.

My soul throbbed with migraine level pain as I worked, but the armor did what I meant it to: the zombie ghost’s next attempt at sinking it’s claws into Ben’s aura was turned aside. My mental pain faded as I shoved the glamour into place around Ben’s soul, anchoring it in the ghost’s place. I also lost control of it as it pulled away from my soul, but that was okay for now. The relief of being back down to wielding just one glamour was worth it.

For his part, Ben stumbled back in surprise. I doubted he was aware of the ghost, but his new armor blunted one of Elaine’s punches, too. He rallied quickly, though, and caught her in a bear hug. Then he leapt.

The leap took him out of my circle of awareness, but I could still mentally project it against my memory of the clearing. Clever, I thought. Since Elaine couldn’t just casually break his arms anymore, he could actually hold onto her. And they would be outside the clearing before they hit the ground. That should keep the ghosts off of them.

Honestly, I was a little surprised Ben wasn’t feral already: he must’ve taken a lot from Megan.

It was also down to just me and the ghosts. And Thaddeus, and the werepups’ wolves, and Hans’ wolf, and Jockboy’s wolf. But the other humans and vampires had gotten away. That left Jockboy’s wolf as the only mortal, living thing in the clearing — and the ghosts seemed to know it.

They swarmed toward us. Jockboy’s wolf bit into my shoulder and started dragging my corpse away — toward the safety outside the circle. The ghost wolves came running, too. They were slowed only by their efforts to maim and cripple any ghosts they overtook. Thaddeus knocked back ghost zombies to clear the way for our escape, but he was just one faerie.

I sent my sword to help him. Funnily enough, my awareness seemed to stretch when I sent the sword away from me: my perception was still centered on my body, but it extended slightly in the direction of the blade.

I’d have to think about what, if anything, that meant later: for now I was too busy slicing apart the ghosts that Thaddeus couldn’t get to quickly enough. It was hard. My head throbbed, and after a few swings I started to feel weak. I cut down another ghost, and felt exhausted to the core of my very soul.

That shard of Megan’s soul: the poor, strained, overwhelmed shard, couldn’t keep up with the demands I was making of it. My thinking was already hazy; the migraine was back. But we were almost out of the clearing. I cut down another ghost, and then another, and then the first one again because it had ‘restarted’ right next to us.

After that, I was just too tired. And I hurt. I hurt so bad. It felt like when Lewellyn had slashed at my core with his geas, only I was doing it to myself by manipulating my glamour. I couldn’t keep it up. I let it go, and a fork plopped onto the ground in the sword’s place.

Then I think I passed out. Except I was already dormant.

So maybe I just died?

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6, Uncategorized

Book 6, Chapter 45

Of course, I yelped and stumbled back in shock. It was a quick way to get everyone’s attention, after all.

“Ghosts,” I said to answer the surprised expressions. Ironically, I wasn’t sure if I was answering them on purpose or auto pilot. ‘Ghosts’ was exactly something I would’ve made up to cover an outburst a week ago.

Only Cassie’s expression didn’t change. She’d looked back sympathetically before returning her gaze to the clearing.

“They’re shades, I think,” Cassie said. “Not quite the same. Ghosts are more substantial.”

I couldn’t see them one way or another — but when I stepped into the clearing they suddenly became visible again. I averted my eyes. To look for the wards that were keeping them hidden from outside the clearing. Not because they were all horribly torn up.

Yeah. That was why. Hans put a protective arm around my shoulders, and I didn’t even try to escape.

I didn’t really know what I was looking for when I turned away from the ghosts until I actually saw it: there were scars on the trunks of each of the trees ringing the clearing. Nearly identical scars where something had been carved.

Before I could point them out, though, Nora spoke up. “This was the focal point of the gate when it originally opened,” she said. “At least: that’s what we were told in the sorority.” While she was talking, I could hear Cassie quietly trying to get a ghost’s attention. “The fae could actually appear over a much wider area,” Nora continued, “but the local witches used their magic to push back the gate’s focus until it was just open where their changeling had broken through. Here. It was one of the graduated classes that shifted to the archives building, though.”

Hans’ hand tightened on my shoulder. I heard him swallow, but he didn’t say or do anything else. My chest tightened in response: I could only imagine what he was feeling. This was where his pack had died. I didn’t know if it was fighting faeries, or because of Salvatore, or what — but after seeing the state of the ghosts in the clearing, I had no doubt that death had been involved.

“Does your coven maintain the wards around here?” I asked. I still wasn’t looking at the ghosts — shades, Cassie had called them — but since I had insisted we all come out here I was determined to not just keep my mouth shut and let everyone else ask the questions and do the things.

“We… no? What wards?” was Nora’s answer.

My eyes widened. Before I could even blurt “on the trees” one of Fiore’s solocks had followed my eyes. He produced a high powered flashlight and lit up one of the trees. Another solock darted over for a closer look.

“They’re old,” he announced. “Anchored into the trees themselves. Probably from when the battle took place — or earlier. They’re still powered because they’re drawing on the trees. Maybe the whole forest, like to like. Otherwise I’d expect these trees to have died.”

I swallowed, vaguely remembering when I’d run through a park on frozen time. The trees themselves had pushed me back. I guess all living things have some kind of aura, I thought, but it was a distraction from more pertinent questions.

Elaine asked one of them for me. “Earlier?”

The solock shrugged. “They’re all facing this side of the clearing. It would’ve been hard to carve and imbue them while under assault. Even with a wolf pack guarding your back.”

“They’re hide the in-between stuff,” I said. “The wards are blocking the astral plane. Whoever put them there did it so no one could see or sense whatever was going on here from a distance.” My conclusion was made with the confidence I only have when I’ve blurted something out on autopilot as I’ve realized it. Good job, auto pilot.

“So, was it done by faeries or Salvatore?” Ben asked. “Or Linda?”

“Good questions,” Fiore growled. “Any answers yet?” he sarcastically asked Cassie. At least, I thought it was sarcastic. And directing his question toward her. She was the one talking to the ghosts, but for some reason he was glaring at me.

Although, come to think of it, he had the same hearing I did. So of course he knew Cassie’s questions hadn’t gotten past: “Hello? Can you hear me?”

The fucker was being sarcastic.

“No,” Cassie answered before I could chicken out on snapping at Fiore for being a dick. “I told you these are mostly shades. They’re at least as much impressions left behind by traumatized souls as distinct entities. Most of them are locked into repeating their deaths, there’s so little left. If I could jolt one of them past that it should ‘solidify’ as a ghost. But I don’t know if any of them even have enough self awareness for that, anymore.” She shivered, and I suppressed the urge to follow suit. I’d died enough to have a pretty good idea how awful it would be to get stuck endlessly repeating the process.

Despite myself I looked toward Cassie — and then scanned over the clearing. I squeezed my eyes closed and struggled to hold back my gorge almost immediately after, but eventually I opened them again and forced myself to look. I didn’t know if she saw the ghosts in the same way that I did, but I couldn’t just leave this nightmare entirely to Cassie.

Mutilated ghosts. There were about a dozen of them, although it seemed like there were more because they kept moving around. When I opened up my perception to them an echo of my headache throbbed. Not migraine level, but enough to hurt. It wasn’t helped by all the shouting and swearing taking place in the astral plane.

It took a moment for me to see what Cassie had meant about the ghosts repeating their deaths. The whole scene was a little blurry around the edges from my headache, but it became more obvious the longer I watched. Eventually — and it seemed that each one took a different amount of time than the others — each ghost would flicker toward the edge of the clearing and start creeping back in. Then they would ‘die.’

Someone in the real world started to say something. It wasn’t Cassie, so I told them to shut up. I didn’t need distractions; couldn’t handle distractions. I looked from one ghost to another, following them from the edge of the clearing in toward the center; trying to line up all the different time lines in my head. At least Shantaya’s and Hans ghost wolves helped by not getting mixed in with the shades. They stood in sharp relief at the edges of the clearing, growling but not approaching the endless reenactment. In fact, other than Cassie, no one ventured further into the clearing.

And that made it easier for me to study the ghosts, myself.

There was one who suddenly leapt forward, swinging a staff — only to be thrown back in chunks. His dismembered arm and leg melted into the ground before he flickered and reappeared, whole once more, to repeat the brief enactment.

Another spun in place, only for his head to snap backward and his body to lurch across the clearing as though thrown.

A third one threw her hand backward protectively. She swore — then screamed and ran toward the spot where the first ghost landed. Or rather, where he would have landed if their timelines had still been synched up. She didn’t make it there before skewing sideways, intestines spilling, and collapsing like a rag doll.

A fourth suddenly sprawled on the ground. He twisted, turned, shoved something off of himself and scrambled backward on his elbows. Bullet holes erupted from his chest. A few seconds later the ghost that had been flung across the clearing landed where he had first fallen. I mentally paired the two and adjusted their sequences to match where the first ghost would have collided with him just before he fell.

They were all like that. At least a dozen. At any given moment, six or so were dying in some horribly violent fashion. Half of those that remained were draped around the clearing wherever they’d fallen. The other half were creeping from the edge of the clearing, back toward their inevitable demises.

I was dizzy, nauseous, and blind to the real world by the time I worked out which one had died first.

He looked like he was the oldest. There was a gap on either side of him, where either someone hadn’t died or hadn’t left a shade of their own. A lot of the ghosts had similar ‘gaps’ in the ranks beside them. I suspected that whoever had flanked this one in reality had survived, though. Simply because this ghost’s narrative was different from the others.

It started the same. He crept forward, focused on the center of the clearing. But then he glanced to his side. His eyes widened and he straightened. “What are you–” he managed to say before bullet holes appeared in his torso. He danced like some macabre puppet from the three shots, then collapsed backward. I couldn’t be certain that he’d died first, but the fact that he’d said something to his murderer made me think that he had. The others had died violently enough that I didn’t think anyone would be surprised to be attacked if it was happening after one of them had gone.

“They were betrayed,” I said out loud. “Half of them were killed from behind.” I pointed at the first to die, even though no one except Cassie and Thaddeus could see him. “He was shot by someone standing next to him, and he was shocked when it happened even though he saw who did it.”

Ben cursed quietly, but not quietly enough for his “fuck,” to escape my ears. Hans let go of my shoulder with such exaggerated caution that I knew he’d almost dug his fingers into my flesh instead.

I regretted that loss of contact. I couldn’t blame him for it, because what I said was probably the nail in Salvatore’s metaphorical coffin — but I was sick from the gore and scared by the implications of treachery and wished I could lean into Hans instead of having him pull away. Especially because something was still bothering me about the whole scene. Something that I knew should be obvious, even though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“If Cassandra backs up your description,” Elaine said as she walked toward the ghost I pointed at, “then I think this is something we need to tell Director Estevez sooner rather than later. As in now, rather than tomorrow night.” Even though she couldn’t see the spirit, she stared at the spot where it had fallen. Of course, by then it had flickered back to the restart of it’s death, so Elaine was frowning at nothing.

I was vaguely aware of Valerie agreeing and someone’s phone beeping as they dialed a number. I was partially distracted by the ghost I was staring at: the one Elaine had failed to inspect. A lot of me was distracted by my stomach twisting into knots over the idea of the Director needing to get more involved in anything. And partially I was stuck coping with the over the numbing dread that I hadn’t found a reason for but knew was completely reasonable.

And then the reason for my dread clicked into place. My headache wasn’t that bad. The ghost wolves were perfectly visible: their presences were crystal clear. Or rather: translucent. But the point was that they were distinct. For that matter, so was Thaddeus. It was only the ghosts in the clearing that were blurry. That was weird. That was the disconnect that was making me so uneasy.

Well, that and the fact that I’d only ever seen ‘blurry’ ghosts once before.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make that connection until the ghost I was watching tried to step through Elaine. Tried, and stumbled instead of phasing through her.

I opened my mouth to shout at her to get back; to yell to everyone that we had to leave. But the ghost that had bumped into Elaine was already pivoting. It had grabbed onto her arm for support. It wasn’t repeating it’s death sequence. Elaine’s presence had “jolted it out” of the repetition. And the spirit wasn’t responding by just “solidifying” into a ghost.

Instead, the ghost zombie latched onto Elaine like it wanted to burrow into her soul.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 44

I looked around again while everyone was getting out of their vehicles, and sure enough: no ghosts. Some of the sorority girls looked a little pale and drawn, but I chalked that up to the late hour. Or maybe they’d heard about Linda getting shot, and had been crying earlier? A couple of them looked like that might’ve been the case.

Once we’d all gathered, Valerie stepped forward to greet the witches. “Miss Greene?” she asked while offering her hand.

One of the sorority girls that I didn’t recognize stepped forward. “Just Nora,” she said while shaking Valerie’s hand. “Is this everyone?”

Valerie glanced over the rest of us and nodded. “It is,” she said simply. “Thank you for your assistance. I know how much stress your coven has been put through recently.”

I wasn’t sure if Valerie meant the stress from taking care of Emma, or that Terry and the other two had dealt with when Lewellyn attacked the house, or when they’d backed us up at Katherine’s, or if Valerie had told them about Linda when Kallaher’s ghost had told us, before I’d found out she was probably still alive. Maybe all of it. I was kind of impressed: Nora, although her hair was unkempt, didn’t even look tired. Terry was probably the next most together of the group, and she had noticeable bags under her eyes. She caught me looking at her and met my gaze for just a second before I looked away.

I looked over our numbers again myself, pretending I’d just been glancing at everyone. We’d actually brought a big enough crowd on our ghost hunt for the sheer number of people to make me a little twitchy. I would definitely end up sputtering into autopilot if I tried to talk in front of this group. I was going to have to work to keep my mouth shut, and let Cassie tell everyone about whatever we found.

Cassie, Fumiko, and Elaine were by me. Valerie, Ben and Matteo rounded out the vampire presence. On top of that, three of Valerie’s partners, two of Ben’s donors, and four of Matteo’s solocks had come along, too. And there was Shantaya — who’d moved over to stand by her sister, as well as said sister and Benny. Hans hovered protectively by the werepups, though I caught him giving me a worried glance or two, too.

Jockboy was still in wolf form, and hanging out by Ben’s feet. He growled slightly at anyone who approached ‘his’ vampire, but Ben seemed to have him pretty firmly under control. Whenever Jockboy started to snarl at someone, Ben would casually flick his fingers in a sharp ‘stop’ gesture, and Jockboy’s fang-bearing rumble would turn into a close-mouthed whine, instead.

That left three wolves — spectral wolves — who did their best to circle the group protectively while not straying too far from ‘their’ respective people. Hans’ wolf went the furthest, coming over to nuzzle my shin before going on to patrol the far side of the group. Spectral Jockboy seemed to be insensate, and clung to his wolf like some kind of humanoid, transparent lamprey. Which left Thaddeus as our final immaterial member. He hovered near the talking, but carefully out of arm’s reach of any of the Scions.

While I’d been distracted, Valerie had introduced the other two Scions, followed by Elaine. “And this is the city’s new Sentinel, Abigail,” Valerie wrapped up. “And the medium Cassandra, who will be assisting us in this endeavour.”

I jerked to attention on hearing my name. Who? What? “Sentinel?”

“It’s a title,” Elaine said under her breath. Her lips didn’t even move, and if it weren’t for supernatural hearing I wouldn’t have noticed. “Typically there is only one vampire permanently assigned to protect a city — the city’s Sentinel. They hold sway over the supernatural elements and are charged by the Center with keeping the faeries at bay.”

Oh. Right. The Scions had come to compete for who would be in charge of the city. I’d sort of claimed that position when Lewellyn and I had been fighting — but I hadn’t thought anyone else had heard me. I certainly hadn’t thought anyone else was going to give it to me. But fuck me: if the alternative was letting another Director take up residence, I’d deal with it. I was already shadow queen of the faeries, so what was another title? It was probably ironic that I’d just be the face of this one — Megan or Valerie or someone would probably actually end up in charge of anything important. They knew better than to rely on me.

Fortunately, no one other than Elaine seemed to notice my surprise. Or rather, no one other than Elaine, Valerie, Ben and Matteo. Matteo’s smirk let me know he’d overheard, too, which meant Ben and Valerie had as well. I flushed, but the darkness covered it up. At least Ben and Valerie had the decency to pretend like they hadn’t noticed anything. And everyone else was actually more focused on Cassandra.

“Cassie,” Nora said. “You look well. Have you been….”

“I’m fine, Nora,” Cassie said a bit sharply. I gave her hand a squeeze without thinking about it. She closed her eyes and breathed out. “I’ve been fine,” Cassie started again — more calmly, this time. “And I’ll be fine.” She gave my hand a squeeze back and released it. “But it’s late. Where’s this battlefield I’m supposed to look over for ghosts?”

“Yeah,” one of the other witches — one I didn’t recognize — said. She sounded irritable; maybe even bitter. “Let’s get this over with.” I narrowed my eyes at her, not liking the glare she was throwing at Cassie. A glare that ended up focusing back at me in return, before she abruptly blanched and turned away. She started power walking toward the woods. Nora frowned, but gestured for everyone to follow. The witches quickly caught up to their angriest member, while the rest of us followed in a clump.

“Hey, are you going to be okay?” I heard Nora whisper.

“I didn’t know they were bringing her,” the irritable witch hissed back.

The hostility in her voice surprised me — as did the hostility I felt back. So far, Cassie had never been anything other than good, helpful, and gracious where I’d been able to see it. And we already knew Linda had lied to her. Cassie had told us someone had spread rumors about her! My fangs ached slightly from the urge to take a bite out of anyone who was nasty to one of my friends. It felt sort of like all those times Salvatore or Lewellyn had threatened Megan or Emma. I was always more protective of my friends than of myself.

“Well you’re just going to have to deal,” I heard Terry whisper from the other side of Miss Irritability. “After what she did, you’d have to be crazy to get pissy with her. And besides: It’s really not your place to be protective or possessive of Emma. Not anymore. ”

Wait. Was Cassie one of my friends now? I barely knew her! But I had kind of adopted her with the hugging and comfort, I gue…. Wait! What? That hadn’t sounded like they were talking about Cassie — it sounded like they were talking about me!

“She almost turned her into a ghoul,” Miss Irritability hissed angrily.

“No, she went into the Faerie lands, conquered a kingdom, and turned their queen into Emma’s familiar to save her from that psycho Director,” Terry shot back in a hushed whisper.

I felt my eyes widen. Was Miss Irritability Emma’s Ex? My jaw clenched, and I cut my lip on a fang. Fortunately, it regenerated immediately.

“That’s just a bullshit rumor,” snapped Miss Irri… no. Miss Dumbass Loser. Hell, she didn’t deserves ‘miss’ anymore. Just: Dumbass Loser. Where the hell did she get off, after how she’d abandoned Emma? I was glad I was too angry to remember her name offhand.

“I was there,” Terry contradicted. “I saw Abigail walk through a Gate like it was nothing.

“And we all saw how weak Emma was,” one of the sorority girls I didn’t know added. “When she came back through the Archives, her aura was overflowing.

“She deserves better than a corpse,” Dumbass Loser snapped — just above a whisper this time. And holy hell, I wanted to snap at her too. But instead I just felt a little sick at the reminder that I was dead. Emma did deserve better than that — but Emma had Megan, so that was covered. And Emma deserved way better than Dumbass Loser.

Without thinking about it I took a hasty step away from Cassie. A second later, I had caught up to the witches. The part of me that was just furious with Dumbass wanted to bite her head off. The rest of me just wanted the conversation to stop — all the other supernaturals, at least, could hear and I was mortified enough without having someone talking behind my back in front of my face, without having everyone be privy to it.

I leaned in to tell Dumbass to shut the fuck up and mind her own business — Which Emma wasn’t anymore. Instead, I tapped her on the shoulder. When she glanced back at me in surprise, my autopilot had already hijacked my vocal chords.

“Just so you know,” I said quietly, “Everyone back there with supernatural powers can hear you.”

The blood drained from Dumbass Loser’s face. I felt an accidental surge of sympathy. I knew from plenty of experience: Awkward social interactions were awkward. But, that didn’t stop me from thinking she was a Dumbass. And probably jealous. And should shut the fuck up.

“So shut the fuck up,” I added politely. I even managed to smile.

The Dumbass’ eyes went wide and she stumbled away from me, into Nora. Nora caught her before she fell over, but she looked a little shaken, as well. I stopped smiling and checked my teeth with my tongue.

Oops. Fangs. That probably hadn’t been as reassuring as I’d intended.

While I tried to figure out how to apologize — or if I even wanted to — for the unintended scare, the rest of the group caught up with us. I gestured forward to prompt the witches into walking again. “Shall we?” I asked.

Terry recovered first. Maybe because she sort of knew me? “Yes,” she said, diverting attention from the other two. “Sorry. This way.” She started leading the group while Nora got Dumbass turned back around and walking steadily. I felt weirdly exultant: usually I was the one who wanted to hide after speaking up in a group, but right now Dumbass was the one hovering at the edge of the group.

On the other hand, though, I had no desire to be the new center of attention and I could sort of feel the other vampires’ thinking about the conversation that had just occurred. I gestured for Cassie to join me, and we went up to the front by Terry. It was as close as I could figure out for a way to be at the edge of the group without blatantly hiding like Dumbass was, and I was not going to give her the satisfaction of letting her know she’d bothered me with that ‘corpse’ crack.

Besides, what had actually bothered me was what I knew about how Dumbass Loser had treated Emma. How she’d abandoned Emma to Mister Salvatore. That made me seethe inside. It kept me furious enough to not freak out at having a pack of vampires, werewolves, and warlocks hanging out behind me. Well, not much.

Okay, okay: so it bothered me a lot. In fact, I was pretty fucking wound up when we suddenly stepped out of the trees and into a clearing.

A clearing full of mutilated ghosts.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 43

After taking care of Hans, I also managed to unravel and consume the obstruction in my leyline to Shantaya. That was something of a relief on multiple levels. I wasn’t able to do the same with anyone else, though. The people who’s leylines I had easy access to — Emma, Megan; Fumiko — were already resistant to being enthralled and didn’t have anything for me to fix. Everyone else on my mental list of bite victims were people I just didn’t know well enough to have a wide enough leyline entrance for me to manipulate my awareness down.

I kind of suspected that I’d only been able to undo the damage I’d done when I’d fed on Shantaya because of the whole “physical proximity makes leylines more prominent” factor. Disheartened that I couldn’t unenthrall more people — and couldn’t refill my aura further — I eventually let my curse drag my faerie shard back into alignment with my body. At least I’d gotten to the point where my buffer was built up enough to keep my headache minimal for a while and my aura had enough left for me to be disheartened at all!

When I “woke up” from dormancy I opened my eyes and tilted my head side to side, popping my neck. Apparently it had started stiffening while I was dead. Whatever: I think I regenerated the stiffness there almost as fast as I’d tilted my head and I didn’t smell any self-rot. Then I glanced at Shantaya as though I’d be able to see a difference now that she wasn’t enthralled. In fact, I sort of could: she was looking at me with a wariness that hadn’t existed before. Like, before she’d been wary because of what I was capable of. Now she looked more personally concerned. Confirmation made, I thought. The rose colored glasses are off.

Actually, Shantaya looked like she wanted to say something but was holding herself back. Probably because I was some kind of undead night terror that was possibly casually racist and who had, as she’d just discovered by coming out of it, some kind of mental influence over her. That would’ve intimidated me, if I’d been in her shoes.

Actually, I had. And I’d tried to ruin all of Salvatore’s plans when I came out of it. And then I’d murdered him. -ish. I mean, Hans had shot him, but I’d already set the house on fire so he was a goner one way or the other. I was going to keep claiming responsibility for it, anyway.

“So,” I said to Shantaya. “When I fed on you before you were enthralled. Well, your wolf was. You were.” I scowled and made a frustrated noise. “You and your wolf were, because you were newly made a werewolf, I think, so ‘normal human’ rules were still in effect? Usually when I feed on a werewolf, it is the wolf that is enthralled — and only when I feed on the wolf is it the human that is affected.”

I shook myself out of my ramble. “Anyway,” I said, “that wasn’t on purpose. But I figured out how to undo it, so there you go. I don’t… I don’t like having that kind of control over people. It skeeves me out, frankly.” Wait, did that mean that I’d unbound the enthrallment over her wolf? Maybe I hadn’t thought this entirely through. Craaaaaaap, I hope the whole “accidentally psychically enslaved you” thing didn’t piss her off enough to make her wolf-out in the car.

Shantaya’s eyes flicked up and down me. On the other side of me, I could feel Cassie’s boring into me, too. Or maybe I was imagining that. But I knew that Cassie could listen in freely. “Are you doing this to everyone else, too?” Shantaya asked.

I swallowed. By ‘this’ did she mean the enthralling, or the removal of it? “Yeah,” I answered. “Anyone who hasn’t built up a resistance to it is vulnerable to a vampire’s bite. Well, to the feeding process, really. It’s…” I didn’t think she actually wanted me to wax on about leylines and corridors and frozen obstructions of twisted, broken soul bits. “…Magic,” I concluded lamely. “And also yeah: I’m going to fix it for the other people I’ve fed on. Except the ones where it’s the only thing keeping them from murdering me or stuff like that.” Basically: Not the faeries in my army. Or Lewellyn’s minions. “But all of your friends, yes, as soon as I can. The fact that you’re sitting next to me and we’ve been in proximity all night made it possible for me to take care of it for you. I might be able to do it for joc–Jacob. But since he’s still wolfed out at the moment it might be better to take care of it with him in the morning. And I don’t know if we can fix it if he’s enthralled to Ben, too.”

“Why not?” Shantaya asked sharply. “Don’t get me wrong: Jacob’s a jerk. But this enthrallment thing is… No one should have to deal with this.” She looked pretty nauseous about it, too. I was utterly sympathetic.

I shrugged awkwardly. “I’m kind of a special case, for a vampire. I can do more magic than most can, but it’s limited, too. I can unenthrall anyone I’ve enthralled, because I have access to the leyline that connects us. But if someone else has enthralled them, I don’t have access to that. And as far as I’m aware, other vampires can’t do the unenthrallment trick It’s….”

“You don’t?” Shantaya interrupted. “I thought leylines were like this grid of power lines for magic. That’s what it’s like in the books. Anyone can grab them.”

“Uh,” I said. I’d never asked about that.

“Those exist,” Cassie interjected. “But there are also smaller ones that interconnect people, places; things and ideas. Those ones are a lot more common.”

I turned to look at her, startled. I’d never heard her talk so much about magic — and I’d only known about the lines connecting people to people.

Cassie shrugged. “It’s why ghosts tend to be stuck at the place of their deaths, or to a person or a thing,” she said. “They’re tethered there. My teacher told me that the tethers were leylines: I can’t see them, and he couldn’t before he died. He said they fit a description of leylines he’d heard from a familiar once.”

“Huh,” I said eloquently. I was going to have to look for those, now. I’d never noticed anything like that — but then again, I’d never tried, either, and it had been tricky enough to find regular leylines the first few times. If it was true… I would never have to worry about losing my keys again, at least.

Or maybe I could do something useful with it. I’m sure there was something.

“Alright,” Shantaya said. “This is way over my head. But I’ll trust you — for now?” She frowned. “You are not what I would’ve expected from a vampire, Abigail,” she said. The implication was clear: If I had been your basic immortal, unperturbable, and ancient undead she would be assuming I was trying to manipulate her. Maybe she did, anyway, and I was the one being fooled. Eh. I’d take it.

I laughed weakly. “Yeah,” I said. “I get that. I’m not what I would have expected of a vampire, either, except when I’m thirsty. Um. Stay away from me when I’m thristy. But otherwise… I mean, you can do what you want and I genuinely didn’t want to have you enthralled or under my control in any way shape or form, but…” I swallowed. My tongue felt kind of thick and awkward.

“Thank-you-for-calling-me-out-earlier,” I blurted in a mangled rush. Oh, shit: that should’ve been an ‘I appreciated that’. Oops. I felt a slight tension tug at my aura as the weave lined our leyline with a strand of debt. “I mean, I appreciated that,” I hastily corrected — but the debt was already in place. Not that I really felt all that bad about it, because I did appreciate… I mean: I’m not a racist, but I hadn’t realized that I might sometimes be doing and thinking stuff that… I mean….

I closed my eyes. Fuck me, the urge to protest innocence and deny any wrongdoing and, actually, to get angry about the suggestion that maybe I wasn’t innocent and had been doing something wrong… it was almost overwhelming. So I took that urge and stuffed it directly into my buffer, because fuck that.

I wasn’t going to tell Shantaya that she was wrong when she told me how things I did affected her, especially since I could look through our leyline and see that she was telling the truth. And it didn’t matter what my intentions were. Plenty of people had perfectly fine intentions when they told me that there were no chopped up humans in the spaghetti, but the impact had always been a pretty clear yes there are, wink-wink. And most of the people who’d been male and terrifying had probably never actually intended to be. Maybe. Well, some of them probably hadn’t meant to be terrifying, I had to assume.

And I never intended to freak people out and look like a nutcase when I spoke in public, but then I spoke in public and freaked everyone out and looked like a nutcase. If anyone knew that impact matters more than intention, it was me.

I rebooted my attempt to express myself. “I appreciated you letting me know that I was being ignorant,” I managed to say before mentally stumbling over the urge to add but I’m not a bad person! to the end. I tried to stuff that in my buffer, too. And my autopilot took over while I was distracted.

“I’ll try to be more aware,” I said. “But given that I wasn’t aware that I wasn’t aware to begin with, I might miss things still. I’m worrying about that a lot, now. I mean: I’ve been worrying about it since we talked. And I don’t know if I’ll keep worrying about it, because I tend to get stuck in these obsessive cycles, but it’s important because, frankly, growing up I was always told that the worst thing a person could do was be a racist.”

I blinked in surprise at my own statement. Was that… yes, that was why I kept wanting to protest that I wasn’t a racist or a bad person or whatever. I could put together reasons that I wasn’t, but I wasn’t falling back on them: the knee-jerk emotional response was firmly founded on the desire to not be the worst thing ever, even out of ignorance or by accident.

“Yeah,” Shantaya agreed. Then she added: “Good. Get woke, girl.”

I did not know what that meant. “Yeah,” my autopilot agreed. Then it tried to change the subject before anyone could realize I didn’t even know what I was agreeing with. Great: something else to add to my I need to look things up on the internet list. “So,” I segued, “Valerie and Megan and I guess Prudence and maybe Jamie are trying to set something up to let some faeries live in this world. And I kind of think, in retrospect, we need more perspectives than just theirs on that. Would you be interested in helping set up that program?” Wait. She was in, like, highschool, wasn’t she? Was I asking a bit too much here?

“I don’t know what that means,” Shantaya said. “I mean: I’d like to help, but I don’t have the context here.”

I breathed out in relief. The segue had succeeded. “Oh,” I said. “It’s pretty straight forward. You see…” and then I launched into an explanation of faerie culture, as I understood it. Feeding practices, as I understood them. The whole secret shadow war and the center and how faeries were — at least the ones that got into this world — interested in fomenting discord and terror. And how some, like Prudence and Reid and Jamie, didn’t seem like that at all.

The best part was: it was all completely true, but it was outlandish enough that my autopilot didn’t have any trouble laying it out without embellishment. And I was so used to people looking at me like they were sure I was making shit up, that I wasn’t remotely phased by some of the faces Shantaya made in response.

By the time I’d gotten to the part where I was reiterating our plans to let some members of Megan’s kingdom move into the city without having the local supernatural community decide to hunt them down, we’d reached the campus and almost made it all the way back to the old Archives building. I guess that made as good a place to gather as anywhere.

Plus, the Archives building had to be reasonably close to wherever the battlefield we were looking for was, since technically it was within the radius of the Gate’s original focus. It also looked like Valerie or someone had been on the phone, because as we pulled up a group of girls came out of the building to meet us.

There were six of them. I recognized a couple from when Emma had been comatose, but the other four were strangers. It was still pretty obvious that they were from Linda’s sorority, though: they were all the right age and pretty. I bit my lips shut to keep from saying anything. Just being around them made me feel nervous: like I was the dork girl crashing a Greek function in college all over again. I almost didn’t notice when Shantaya said: “I’ll think about it,” before getting out of the car.

I tried to swallow my nerves while getting out of the car. My anxiety promptly offered me a consolatory thought: instead of being vaguely intimidated by the socially elite pretty girls with magic whose club I wasn’t in, I could freak out about the idea that they were there as our guides. It was a good thing, right: we wouldn’t be wandering aimlessly through the haunted woods. Instead we could go directly to the vengeful ghosts. The thought made me tense up and break out in a sweat despite the cool pre-dawn air.

Okay. So maybe — just for the sake of my own mental well being — I shouldn’t have refilled my aura quite so much before going on a ghost hunt.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 42

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.

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.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 41

It took me a second to process what Fumiko had just said. once I was pretty sure I hadn’t just misheard, I blurted it back out for confirmation.

“You got a date?”

Fumiko snorted. “Don’t act so surprised,” she told me. “You hooked us up.”

What? My eyes widened as I tried to figure out who she was talking about. Hans? It had to be. But hadn’t she said she wasn’t in to big, muscly guys? And when did she even get a chance to talk to him? He’s been a wolf almost all day!

Fumiko laughed at the expression on my face. “What, did you think I wouldn’t catch on? The order of events is pretty clear.” She held up a finger. “First you tried to hook me up with Hans,” she said. A second finger uncurled. “So I then explain that I like my beefcake on the bishounen side of pretty.”

Fumiko raised a third third finger. “So then you decide ‘for some reason’ to send John and I off alone together at Salvatore’s house?” Fumiko wiggled her fingers before lowering her hand again. “Come on, Abby. I’m not that dense. And I’ll admit: he does take after his dad for looks.”

I snapped my mouth shut before it became too obvious that it had fallen open in surprise. “Wait,” I said while wrapping my head around that. “You asked out John?” And she thought I’d set her up to do it?

Fumiko chuckled. “Yeah,” she said. “I figured we could at least hang out as friends for moral support. But he handled himself well when bullets started flying, so… Who knows? I always figured I would, but I’ve recently confirmed that I really like that in a guy. Plus, I’ve always been a fan of the whole ‘badass bishie’ vibe.”

I stared at Fumiko and started reassembling the bits of my blown mind. In retrospect, I could see it: John didn’t so much ‘take after’ his dad as he was a spitting image. And part of Mister Salvatore’s freakiness had always been that he was sickeningly handsome and he knew it. So, if Fumiko really did go for pretty boys… And as a ghoul, John was extra durable. Which had to be a bonus, given Fumiko’s proclivities….

Oh, great. Now I was picturing Fumiko and John having sex. Which was just… wrong. I mean: hot! But… Okay, John’s not really my brother. I know that.

But it was still weird.

Fortunately, the sudden reappearance of Jamie saved me from having to put together a reply. Fumiko’s familiar burst into existence, wobbled, and then sat on the ground so she could lean against the edge of the bench.

“Megan and Emma are fine,” Jammie announced. She looked — and sounded — exhausted. “They’ve transfered through the gate at the college and have all of Megan’s kingdom to draw from now.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding — which had become a lot more common since I’d stopped needing to breath. But still, that was a relief.

“What about you?” Fumiko asked. “You seem worn out.”

Jamie waved her hand. “No, I’m fine,” she said. “I gave a lot of essence away to help Megan before they reached the gate, like you told me to. But I still have some to burn before I have to worry about straining myself. I should be able to find some mortal emotions to recharge with before it becomes a serious problem.”

Fumiko frowned slightly. I did, too, but that was because my headache was making it hard to think and something Jamie had said was tickling my brain.

“That’s good,” Fumiko said, “but… Look, I didn’t mean for you to exhaust yourself. I don’t need you here right now, so if you want to go somewhere and… do whatever, that’s cool by me.”

“Really,” Jamie asked in surprise. She leveraged herself back to her feet. “That’s a lot of freedom to be giving a familiar,” she commented.

“Meh,” Fumiko said back. “You offered to be one out of gratitude. I don’t think I have to worry that letting you take care of yourself will change your willingness not to take advantage of my goodwill, do I?”

Jamie chuckled and shook her head. And then she disappeared in a swirl of darkness.

I scowled. Why couldn’t I have a faerie who didn’t need constant supervision? Although, I guess Reid wasn’t so bad. I should contact him. Maybe he’s had some luck figuring out what Mister Salvatore was up to during Archarel’s ‘invasion’ on his end. Maybe if my head didn’t hurt so much I would’ve thought to go with Megan and Emma so I could catch up with Reid and then rest.

Even if the headache hadn’t come until after they’d left. I was blaming it anyway because it fucking hurt.

“Let’s go inside,” I said.

Fumiko looked at me askance. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. I could probably have some Thaddeus contact Reid for me, since my head was still splitting. “I want to make sure someone remembers to throw that arm in the basement for Daniel.” And after that… “And then maybe we can see if someone can give us a ride to the campus gate. If you’re interested in girls night at Megan’s?” Honestly, all I wanted was to spend the rest of the night — the rest of the morning, probably by now — in a cuddle pile with Megan and Emma, like we had the last time I’d been in Megan’s kingdom.

I felt safe with Megan and Emma. Sometimes even aggressive. I was only ever scared when I was with Hans, or Ben, or… men. Did that make me sexist? Or a misandrist? But I liked Hans and Ben, too. Hell… was I only worrying about this because I’d been freaking out about maybe being a racist, earlier? Were there other -ists I hadn’t ever thought about that I needed to make sure I wasn’t being?! I was already a nudist, but that wasn’t my fault! And it wasn’t like anyone could tell, what with the illusionary clothes. Right?

Right?!

“Alright,” Fumiko agreed.

I breathed out in relief, momentarily thinking, Fumiko was agreeing with my internal monologue. For some reason my face started heating up anyway, though.

And it really started burning when I realized that Fumiko was actually agreeing to go spend time with Megan and Emma. I got up and started walking so Fumiko wouldn’t see, even though the dark was probably enough to ensure that on it’s own. Well, maybe we won’t have a cuddle pile exactly like last time if Fumiko is coming along.

But given that Megan’s realm was in perpetual daylight, going there myself was actually a really good idea. It would probably be safe from arsonist vampires. And Fumiko was right: Between Elaine and the Scions, there really wasn’t anything that I had to contribute to whatever The Center was doing about said arsonist.

I didn’t really want to think about that, just in case the answer happened to be “set Abigail on fire.”

What? That was their fucking answer last time. Or close enough. Besides: I’d had an idea, and it had turned into Dopplinda, instead. Dead freaking end.

I didn’t want to think about that, either. What was I going to tell Dad?

Since the ward still hadn’t been restored around Cassie’s house, I could hear the conversations coming from it well before we reached it. I tried to let that distract me. Enough of a crowd had apparently accumulated that I started to get antsy at the idea of going in to reach Thaddeus, or to remind Elaine about tossing that arm in the basement. If my head wasn’t under assault by gnomes trying to fight their way out with sledgehammers, I probably would’ve just called Thaddeus outside and then sent him back in with to deliver the reminder to Elaine for me.

Among all the other voices, it sounded like the werepups and maybe their friends had insisted on accompanying Valerie, too. I could hear Shantaya and a couple of others asking Hans questions. I could also hear Elaine bringing Valerie up to speed on her side of what had happened after we’d left Salvatore’s house. It was a jumble, so I tried doing my breathing exercises while we walked closer and to focus on just one thing at a time in hopes that it would lessen the anxiety spike. Maybe I could trick myself into thinking there were fewer people that way.

“That we’re ‘wild’ by nature is a stereotype, too,” Hans was explaining to someone. “Yes, there’s bleed over as the moon approaches fullness. But if we have sufficient sense of self we can manage that — and nothing prevents us from being completely civilized the rest of the time. You are still yourself, you just have an extra voice urging you on in the background.”

“So how are we supposed to tell the difference between our ideas and its ideas?” Someone else asked. Not Shantaya, so she had to be the other girl.

“You have to practice,” Hans said. “Regularly ask yourself: what am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling it? If you have to, set some daily alarms to build the habit. It doesn’t take long to develop if you keep at it, and the difference between your emotions and your wolf’s will become very apparent in time. They feel different, but at first the most obvious difference will be when you look for the reasons behind them. The instincts underlying the wolf’s emotions are very different than those you’ve developed in your life as a human.”

I blanched and abandoned focus on that conversation. Alarms? Multiple, daily alarms? All the more reason to fix whatever that blockage in Shantaya and Hans’ leylines were: I didn’t want a pack of beeping phones and watches following me around. No. Just: no.

That brought me to the door of the apartment, and my attention swinging to the other conversation. I was going to need to knock and be invited in, but I also didn’t want to be rude and interrupt — especially since it was Cassie’s house and she was speaking.

“That wasn’t a bad idea,” Cassie said, “but it wouldn’t have worked as well as she’d hoped. Most spirits aren’t tied to their body — either they’re free, or they’re shades that are bound to their place of death. But maybe a more experienced witch would have been able to use Linda’s remains to find her place of death?”

Oh. So: I’d had an idea, it had been a dead end — and stupid to boot. I was an idiot. Fiore was saying something in response, but I ignored him because he’s a jerk and my thoughts were spiraling inward under the pressure of my headache. I am an idiot. I’d been told so often enough, growing up. Was that true, or was it just Dopplinda’s influence? Of all the things to find in that damn casket. I would’ve had better luck if I’d….

“Oh my god I’m a fucking idiot!” I exclaimed.

Fumiko paused in the act of knocking on the door. She turned to look at me, but I didn’t look at her. My brow was furrowed with concentration, aggravating my headache as I tried to pull my scattered idea together. Was it an idea? A good one? Not another Dopplinda chase?

My thought had been horrifyingly simple. I would’ve had better luck if I’d gone to the Campus Gate and asked the ghosts of Hans’ pack wat the fuck had gone down that night.

Except I hadn’t seen any ghosts when I’d been at the Gate before, and I’d been looking between worlds because of Melvin. But no, no: that made sense because originally the Gate had been much larger, hadn’t it? Linda and Salvatore’s people had used wards to restrict it’s focus down to something they could guard, after the fact. The actual battle — or whatever the fuck had gone down — had taken place in the woods off campus.

But Linda and Salvatore were in on it. So, assuming duplicitous motives: Why contain the size of the gate and place it on campus? Sure, the campus location was convenient: but it also meant that anyone who had any kind of magical ability would have to be there to guard it, and not anywhere near the evidence.

I didn’t know what the evidence was, but I could make a guess as to what evidence would still remain. Ghosts. Bound to their place of death. Hans’ pack. The local wizards and witches who’d been fighting on their side.

“Abby?” Fumiko asked me, and I finally looked up at her.

“All of this — Lewellyn, the arsonist, all of it — seems to be connected to covering up what Mister Salvatore did the night that Hans’ pack died. What happened during the battle in the woods that Reid says didn’t even happen.” I didn’t want to just say it. “I thought we had to ask someone who was alive about it, but I couldn’t find anyone. So I thought: ghosts. We should ask Linda’s, since she would know, except that didn’t work out, so now everyone is here, twiddling their thumbs and not knowing what to do because no one knows what Lewellyn, the arsonist, or Mister Salvatore were up to, to begin with. We can’t even guess.”

Fumiko nodded in agreement. Her expression was worried. Worried for my sake, I had to guess. I probably sounded like I was a ranting undead nutcase. I didn’t really think ghosts would phase Fumiko. Probably not even ghost zombies, like the ones that had attacked me at the hospital. But how do you break the arms of a ghost zombie?

Fumiko probably would’ve figured it out.

“Don’t you see?” Somehow my voice was steady, but my mind was reeling with horror at the words that came out. I didn’t even blink when the door to Cassie’s apartment opened. Elaine was at the door; everyone else with supernatural hearing seemed to be somewhere behind her, listening in.

I swallowed. “Linda’s ghost was a dead end, but the idea itself wasn’t. We need to go to the woods outside the campus. Where it all went down to begin with.” Where Hans’ pack and all those people died. Some of them had to still be around. “And then we ask those ghosts what the fuck is going on.”

“Abby,” Elaine said quietly. “I think I have to disagree with you. You’re a genius. Cassandra, how likely is it that we would find ghosts at the scene of a battle?”

Cassie looked exhausted and more worried than enthusiastic. “I know there are some there,” she said. “I couldn’t join the other witches on campus, so I got most of my mentoring from a ghost I know on campus. He was the apprentice of one of the wizards who died in the woods. He told me the woods were haunted, because after he’d died he’d gone to see if his master had left behind a shade and he’d found the battlefield.”

I think everyone was staring at Cassie. “And?” Shantaya prompted.

“And he saw the shades there,” Cassie said, “but he didn’t get to talk to them. He couldn’t get past the old wards they’d set up to keep spiritual beings from moving — to keep the attacking faeries from just traveling through the spirit world to bypass them. And I… I never went into the woods to talk to them because I had no reason to, and because I’d been told….” She trailed off, and then looked up as though discovering a betrayal. “Because Linda had told me that some of the faeries and goblins and such that lived in the city were known to lurk there, trying to break through the wards her coven had placed to keep the Gate confined to the archival building’s basement.”

“I don’t think that was true,” I said. “I think she made that up to keep you from seeing anything she and Mister Salvatore didn’t want you to. In fact, I bet that’s why she didn’t let you into the coven, too. Your ability was too much of a risk, and you would’ve found out that the wards weren’t under attack, too.”

“But…” Cassie said weakly. “But I can’t see auras. Only ghosts. You need to be able to….”

“You don’t,” Valerie interrupted. Her voice was gentle. “Plenty of wizards and witches work off of feeling magic instead of seeing it. Some even just rely on their knowledge of symbolism and faith that their rituals will affect the magic flowing through the world. Being able to see it isn’t necessary at all.”

Exhausted from the long night, the news seemed too much. Cassie’s eyes batted back tears, and my heart broke for her. How rejected had she felt, being the one witch not allowed in the coven? It had been enough for her to seek mentor ship with a ghost. Her best friend seemed to be a werewolf and his ghost wolf. She’d even moved off camp….

“Hans,” I asked, “you said that these apartments used to be your pack’s. Who was in charge of them while you were gone?”

“Salvatore,” Hans answered grimly — I suspected he’d already concluded the same thing I had. “And it wouldn’t have been difficult for him and Linda to arrange some kind of special housing deal to ‘happen’ to fall in Cassandra’s lap, to keep her off campus.”

“I… I had problems with my roommates,” Cassie said. “They thought I was creepy, and people started talking… eventually my resident advisor told me about these apartments. It was kind of an ‘inside deal’ because they were supposed to be being renovated, but the owner was okay with a student living in one of the ones that was finished early. They told me it was because he was an alumni, and was planning on eventually opening them up as senior housing. I thought it was a little weird, but I couldn’t afford anything else and I couldn’t stay on campus with all the rumors that kept cropping up.”

“It was all bullshit, wasn’t it?” Cassie asked the floor. “Linda, or Director Salvatore, or someone dug all that up and spread it around to drive me out.”

I could hear the scowl when Fiore answered. “It’s speculation,” he said. “Why go through all that trouble to provide off campus housing for her? They could have just as easily gotten Cassandra kicked out of the college entirely.”

“Guilt,” I said flatly. “Yes, all of this shit has been because of whatever Linda, Salvatore and Lewellyn were up to back then. But it all started unraveling because Mister Salvatore couldn’t handle the guilt. He’d started deliberately starving himself to kill the emotions, and he lost control. That got him sent to The Center for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation that didn’t stick. Because it didn’t deal with the guilt. And that’s why he went out of his way to not fuck up Cassie’s future by just getting her kicked out of college. Because when he was human he was crushed by the guilt, and when he wasn’t he didn’t fucking care about what he’d done while he was.”

Fiore wasn’t the only vampire that looked uneasy at that. They all did. It made too much sense to them for my theory not to be discomforting.

“Cassie, come here,” I said. I hadn’t been invited in or I would’ve gone to her. As it was, I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. My head hurt. my soul hurt, and seeing someone trying to hold back tears the way I always did was too much on top of it. Or maybe I was just extra sympathetic because some psycho bitch had been manipulating the people around me, too.

Cassie shuffled past Elaine and through the door. I guess I was still thinking about being with Megan and Emma, because I wrapped her up in a hug the way they would have hugged me. “It’ll be alright,” I said. I said it low: meant it just for her, even if almost everyone else could hear, anyway. “Forget the bullshit they put you through. Let’s go to a haunted woods after midnight and find a supernatural battlefield so we can talk to some probably vengeful ghosts and expose all the lies the local Vampire Boss and campus Head Witch have been telling everyone.

I felt a little steel firm up in Cassie’s spine. “Vengeful?” she asked me.

I stepped back and let her go. “I figure I would be, if I were murdered and it was lied about and covered up and….” I trailed off. Okay, so that had sort of happened to me. But I was only vengeful when I was thirsty. -ish.

“Funny.” Cassie said. Her voice was cold and steady. When I looked at her face, there was still dampness on her cheeks but no more pooling from her eyes. “I’m not even dead, and I’m feeling pretty vengeful, too.” She spat the word like it might stab someone. Probably one of those people who’d spread whatever rumors she’d had to deal with. “Let’s go.”

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 40

Fumiko had followed my gaze to Benjamin. When she looked back and saw that it had landed on her, she gave me a sympathetic grimace. Or maybe it was a ‘fuck, I have to deal with her emotional shit again’ grimace.

Then Fumiko stepped forward, took my arm by the wrist, and pulled me away from the house. “Come on, Abby,” she cajoled when I resisted.

“What…” I started to ask, but after I got free of the brush beside the house Fumiko started walking away, still holding my wrist. “Where are we going” I asked dumbly as I stumbled along behind her.

“For another walk,” Fumiko answered. “You’re shaking still and it seemed to help earlier.”

I was? Well, yes: there was a bit of trembling going on. And I couldn’t tell if it was from guilt or anger, either.

“So, what’s going on here?” Fumiko asked. “I know you’re okay-ish because if you were thirsty you would have attacked me by now. But what were you two saying about Megan?”

“You didn’t hear?” I asked.

Fumiko spared me a glance over her shoulder. “Mortal ears,” she said. “And you were loud with the sobbing. I didn’t catch more than her name before you flipped out and slammed Benjamin into the wall. Is she alright?” That question seemed to worry Fumiko more than me going from despair to violent rage in an eyeblink… but then again, this was Fumiko I was talking to.

I swallowed a lump in my throat. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I think so….” She hadn’t seemed worried when she’d left, anyway. “But she’s weak, and I can’t check on her right now and I’m really worried.” If the very thought of using fae powers wasn’t making my head threaten to split apart again, I would’ve been reaching out to Megan in an instant. I’d let her convince me she was fine based on the premise that I’d been an unnecessary drain on her — not that she’d been fed on by two vampires tonight as well as constantly channeling essence to Emma.

Fumiko’s grip tightened slightly, but she didn’t say anything. Was that her way of letting me know that she was worrying too, now? I sped up a little to walk beside her, but her face wasn’t giving anything away. Jamie hovered to her other side: keeping up with us but not crowding the conversation. Her face was more expressive with concern, but she seemed to be focusing on Fumiko rather than worrying about Megan.

At least, that’s what I was guessing since I couldn’t verify it. Maybe Jamie was just paying attention to Fumiko because she was curious about our conversation but didn’t want to attract the attention of the psycho-vampire that had already tried to murder her once. Fuck if I knew. And how had I gotten so dependant on being able to check people’s emotions directly, anyway? I’d only been able to do it for a few days so far!

So, since I couldn’t take my mental speculations filling the silence, I started to explain about Megan to Fumiko. I started with freaking out over Hans, and how I’d drained Megan. How that obviously made things dangerous for Emma, and they had decided to leave and return to the faerie lands.

Except of course I didn’t stop there, because that had gotten me started on how Shantaya and Jacob were subservient to me, now, and how that was freaking me out. And those guys at Luminescence, too. And probably some of Lewellyn’s people, and some of Fiore’s still. Not to mention all of the fae and the wolves and…. Hans.

I felt sick from it. From the psychological extortion and manipulation inherent in it all — it made me feel like a bad person. Especially since I’d seen the very worst parts of myself unleashed a lot recently.

And yet, somehow it was becoming my new “normal.” Because I hadn’t been in ‘crazy vampire mode’ when I’d lashed out at Ben: I wasn’t starving for blood. Even though the fae part of me was in agony, the buffer around my curse was perfectly fine.

Hell, I was more directly upset about what Shantaya had said about racism than I was about re-realizing that I was a monster when Ben had basically ran away earlier — even though now I was re-re-realizing it, because the realization that I hadn’t been in monster mode when I’d casually broken a house with a person made me want to puke in horror.

Fumiko snorted at me when I got to that part.

“Being worried about Megan doesn’t make you a monster,” Fumiko said. “And neither does snapping at your boyfriend when you’re worried and hurting.”

I looked at her dubiously. I wasn’t sure she got what was upsetting me, or that breaking a house with someone could be considered ‘snapping’ at them.

Fumiko flashed a wry grin at me. “Come on, Jamie, back me up here.”

Jamie appeared next to us as though she — she was still being a she tonight — had taken a leyline to travel the distance. “I’ve seen worse reactions to getting bed news under less than ideal conditions,” she confirmed. I didn’t think it was actually that ringing of an endorsement, though.

“There,” Fumiko declared as though I’d been officially been certified a non-monstrosity. “See? And if Megan said she’d be fine then we should take her at her word. It’s not like finding out that Benjamin had fed on her has suddenly made her more exhausted than she was when she convinced you she would be alright in the first place.”

At that, Fumiko frowned slightly. “Although,” she said, “both you and she have a bad habit of taking on more than you really should and you’ve never been that good at reading her cues. Jamie, will you go check on Megan and make sure she and Emma get back to the faerie realm without trouble?”

“Certainly,” Jamie said — and just like that she vanished.

Fumiko let go of my wrist. We’d ended up next to a bench near the back of the complex, so she went ahead and sat down. “And that’s that, so you don’t have to worry about Megan right now, either. As for Shantaya and everyone else….”

I sat down next to her and tried to hide the knot that started twisting my stomach. From her tone I knew Fumiko was going to tell me something I didn’t really want to hear. Probably something about how it was perfectly fine to turn people into puppets in the name of self defense, and I should get used to it.

Fumiko sighed. “I wouldn’t call you racist,” she said — catching me completely off guard. “But you are sheltered, because you do isolate yourself from people. And you have pretty firm ‘Ideas’ about how things work — I mean, there’s reasons I didn’t tell you about my extracurriculars before you could see inside my head, and I bet some of them are the same as some of the reasons Megan didn’t come out to you.”

I recoiled, stung, but Fumiko held up a placating hand before I could start reading too much into her observation. “A lot of people are like that,” she said. “Anything out of their experience is typically out of their mind.”

Fumiko frowned. “Here, this is an example you can relate to better, I think: Megan took you to a full spectrum rainbow dance club and you didn’t pick up that she liked girls, right? So back then you wouldn’t have ever thought about homophobia except maybe as an abstract. And I bet you never really wondered if something you said or did was homophobic — let alone realized if you were participating in something that someone else had setup that was. Like how people keep saying ‘that’s gay’ when they mean something’s bad. That’s awfully rude to gay people, you know? And the same sort of thing would apply to race issues. Does that make sense?”

I… well, no, I never would have thought about those things — except now I couldn’t stop thinking about how Megan had told me she’d disowned her parents because of their prejudice against her aunt. Or how my mom had reacted to the news I was dating Emma. And yeah, I knew I’d repeated things my mom had told me, plenty of times, without thinking anything of it: they were just drilled into my head. But that was all stuff like ‘it’s rude to call someone after ten.’ It didn’t have anything to do with…

Oh fuck. Oh, fuck. With how I had reacted when I started questioning my own sexuality. The way I’d denied being in to girls, and insisted I was straight as though there was something wrong with me if I wasn’t and oh my god, am I….

My expression must have changed, because Fumiko laughed at it. “You aren’t a homophobe, Abby,” she said firmly. “It was just an example. But it applies to other things, too, including Shantaya’s experiences with racism. So: racist? No. Ignorant about the issue? Yeah. Otherwise I doubt it would be bothering you so much.” Fumiko paused to reflect on that for a moment. “At least, the question of whether or not you contribute to the problem wouldn’t worry you so much. The problem itself, though: well, I have a problem with that, and I think everyone should.”

My shoulders slumped. “I’d always been told that stuff like this wasn’t a problem anymore,” I confessed weakly. I still wanted to defend that belief. Or disbelief. Whatever. I mean: maybe Shantaya could have been wrong about that somehow, even though it was logically obvious that she would know more about it than I did.

“Pfffft,” Fumiko sputtered a held back laugh. “Well, it doesn’t exist so much for you,” she said. “But yeah, homophobia, racism, whatever. They’re there. I can’t speak for Shantaya’s experience, but I’m half-Japanese. I get fetishized for that more than I do for being a dominatrix because the ‘Asian women are exotic sex objects’ fetish has been built into society — and while I can put away the sexy leather clothes and Wartenberg wheel, I can’t ‘put away’ my ethnicity.”

She shrugged. “I’ve never dealt with anything like being pulled over for ‘driving while black,'” Fumiko said. “But I have heard kids repeating slurs they heard from their grandparents and parents about my mom. I’ve had some of them flung at me. It’s shitty and people like to pretend it’s not there, but that just makes it easier for the people who want to do that shit to get away with it. It’s pretty easy to pretend nothing’s wrong when it isn’t being hurled at you or someone you know simply because so many people want to believe it isn’t a problem. So they turn a blind eye, and their place in society lets them. They don’t have to care about it, so they don’t. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It is.”

I found myself staring at my feet. “That sucks,” I said. My head hurt too much and my emotions were too complex for me to sort out how I felt about Fumiko backing Shantaya up on her claims. Some brand of shitty, though, I was pretty sure.

Fumiko reached over and shoved my shoulder with her fist to get my attention. “Hey,” she said. “The point is that being sheltered doesn’t make you an innately bad person. And if it’s bothering you this much, feeling guilty about not being the target of it or whatever won’t help anyone the way finding out more about what’s really going on will. If only so you know you aren’t accidentally contributing to the problem, or so you can call out the people who are — whether they’re doing it by accident or not.”

I frowned at my shoes. On the one hand, it was hard for me to imagine someone being unintentionally racist. Just the word ‘racist’ brought to mind lynchings and people in white hoods and stuff that had given me nightmares when I’d read what little I had about it in history class. But on the other hand: If I’d ever freaked out on Megan about how I couldn’t like girls because I was supposed to be straight, how would that have made her feel about herself? So what the fuck did I know?

“Thanks,” I said quietly. “I think that’s something I’m going to have to do.” And not just because of Shantaya and Jeremy and anyone else who might happen to wind up under my influence; my responsibility. But because I had been raised to believe it was wrong, and I still believed that even if I was going to have to accept that it wasn’t ‘not a problem anymore.’

The question now, really, was how I could learn more about what was really going on with… ‘race issues.’ The internet, probably. I doubted that I’d be able to bring it up with Shantaya: not only was I a conversational disaster zone, but the idea of having a conversation about something like racism with someone who was magically compelled to be on my side — and came from a minority that I’d been taught had historically received the worst treatment from my ancestors — seemed like it was all kinds of wrong.

“Good,” said Fumiko. “So, that’s settled and you don’t have to worry about it right now, either. Plus, Benjamin, Valerie and Elaine are all here figuring out the supernatural stuff, so that’s off your plate, too. So for now? Tonight’s was supposed to be a break night, so try to let go a little. Seriously: you and Megan try to do too much at once, both of you.”

I sort of wanted to protest. I mean: who was the one who decided to go hand to hand with a werewolf while having no supernatural powers of her own? But I couldn’t. When I tried, I just… chuckled. After all: Fumiko hadn’t panicked about having to do it — and she had won.

Fumiko started to give me another, more playful, shove. But partway into it she hesitated and then turned it into an awkward hug.

“I know it’s been… scary,” Fumiko said. “I mean: Archarel. I… He almost…” I heard Fumiko’s teeth grind as her jaw clenched. “He kicked my ass,” she said. “And I can only imagine how rough it’s been on you, having to keep dealing with monsters like him, or that vampire Lewellyn, or Mister Salvatore. But you did, and you came out on top, and you learned a whole lot about the world, and yourself, in the process. Are you really surprised that there was more going on in the mundane side of reality than you’d realized, too? But even so, you deserve a moment to recover without beating yourself up over whatever the next thing you’re going to fixate on is.”

I chewed on my inner lip, unable to quite agree with all of that. Fumiko didn’t notice, though. She laughed, instead. “Frankly, we all learned a lot about the world,” Fumiko observed dryly. “And we’ll deal with whatever comes up next. So whatever that next thing is, whether it’s as mundane as institutionalized, ‘socially acceptable’ racism or as wild as an invasion of demonic zombie-dragons, you aren’t going to have to figure it out on your own.”

I glanced at her. Fumiko’s eyes were gleaming. Probably in anticipation of brutally dismembering a demonic zombie-dragon or something. It still made me feel a little better, weirdly enough.

“You think so?” I asked.

“Of course!” Fumiko declared. “We’re friends, and friends back each other up in the face of adversity, external or internal.” She gave me a grin. “I mean, heck: I even went and got myself a date so I can double with you and Emma tomorrow after all.”

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 39

Everything having to do with soul stuff was at least somewhat metaphorical. Including how I perceived it. So I decided to try to shift that. To… open myself up, and see if I could come to some better way of understanding what was going in my own head. Leylines were supposed to be the connections between people, right? Shouldn’t examining them tell you something about what that relationship was? Wasn’t that how things like geases and compulsions worked — by creating a faux leyline that enforced a particular relationship or injected a certain emotion or need?

Hadn’t Reid explained that things like being called “my lady” by my faerie army wouldn’t let them claim me like Melvin calling me his whatever had, because that claim was informed by the sort of relationship we had? And my faerie army calling me their lady reinforced that they had belonged to me.

I didn’t have eyes to close, but I did have a mind to blank. So I did that, and then tried visualizing my leyline to Shantaya in a way that would be more useful… a way that would let me look at the relationship itself, maybe. So: not as the narrow opening of a fiberoptic thread. Not even as a window, since the ‘thread’ imagery at least gave the leyline enough depth for me to look at it instead of only through it.

Instead, I pictured the leyline to Shantaya as a corridor, wide enough and tall enough for me to feed my perception into.

I’m pretty sure that if my perception hadn’t shifted, I would have been trying to thread a needle with my awareness. I tried not to think about that, though, because it was so much easier to walk my awareness into a corridor — and even doing that was giving me the psychic equivalent of a headache, without my having to keep it all from collapsing back into a thread, too.

It would have been easy to just push essence to Shantaya. That just meant piling it into my entrance of the leyline until the sheer weight of it forced it to flow down the path and into her aura. But instead, I had to keep my awareness tethered to myself as I slowly ventured it through the passage. It was a strain — a strain on my focus and a strain on my shard of faerie soul, as that was the anchor that any aura I manipulated was anchored to.

It was like the leyline was a path on a hill: heading away from myself was like moving uphill, and I could see how the leyline there was formed by my own soul being stretched and spun outwards. Moving along that part of the path forced me to push against the natural flow, which kept my aura from ‘leaking’ out into Shantaya. Presumably, once I crested the ‘hill’ I would have to keep my awareness from being pulled into her soul, as that stretch would be orientated toward keeping any ‘lose’ essence from leaking out of her soul and into mine.

Sure enough, the path abruptly leveled out. Here, the walls of the leyline were not so clearly made from my own aura. Here, briefly, my awareness was not being pushed in any particular direction. And at this point, the ‘crest’ of the hill, it looked like the walls of the corridor were made from faerie strands. I looked closer.

The weave, I realized. At this point in the leyline the weave was pulling on my soul and on Shantaya’s, both. Somehow — probably when we became close enough to meet and paid enough attention to each other to form a relationship — our souls had, for lack of a better concept, come ‘close’ enough together that at this point the weave had been pulling on both of them to the point that they were stitched together. After all, physical proximity, emotional investment, focused attention — these things made a soul easier to reach. Made the souls involved ‘closer.’ Right?

The theory made sense to me, anyway. That was how I triangulated people’s positions using leylines, after all.

I mentally frowned. Did that mean this part of the leyline — this part of how I related to Shantaya and how she related to me — was informed by societal expectations, prejudices, and traditions? The sorts of things that governed the behaviour of the weave? So, was this where I would look if I were afraid I were racist in general — or would it be back on my half of the ‘hill,’ where the relationship was based on my ingrained emotions and thoughts?

I wasn’t sure — and it’s not like I really knew what I was looking at. I couldn’t look at a strand of the weave and say: that’s what makes people not use Shantaya’s name. Well, what makes Jockboy not use Shantaya’s name. I used it. And what was up with him not doing that, anyway? Shantaya was a pretty name.

My name sounded like I was someone’s grandma. Or like I was destined to retire and spend my time answering an advice column for people who were obsessed with protocol. I could just see it: “Dear Abby. I’m a recently turned undead who keeps accidentally enthralling people. On the one hand having everyone be subservient makes unlife so much easier, but I can’t help thinking there’s some kind of moral issue with taking advantage of it. Is there, or can I just relax and accept this as the new normal? On a somewhat related note, do you have any advice for meeting the parents of a witch, werewolf, faerie or vampire? Or would it be okay if I just enthralled as many of them as I could, too, and didn’t worry about first impressions so much?”

Right. That was not what I was here to think about. I pressed on, expecting the slope of the ‘hill’ to reorient downwards. And I was right: It did at about the point that the strands of the weave which formed the basic structure of the leyline began to show signs of Shantaya’s soul flowing and freezing over them.

Except then, abruptly, it changed. I found myself in a sludge of unformed emotions — remnants of something that felt familiar. It was like there was a second dip in the curve for some reason, and somehow essence had gotten trapped in a little pool. I looked down the corridor, toward the other side of the pool, and saw that the slope of the corridor had been disrupted by… Well, it ‘looked’ like rubble. Like someone had torn out a chunk of something, which had forced the leyline to twist and shift around the damage. Like the pool of essence had caught on some sort of damage and frozen in a jagged blockade that the leyline corridor had to bend itself over in order to stay intact.

I pulled my awareness back, spooling it around my shard of Megan’s soul. That pool of essence wasn’t exactly an impediment, but it was weird. There hadn’t been anything like that on my half of the leyline. And the damage was alarming. It looked like it had stretched along the floor of the leyline all the way down and back up to where it connected to Shantaya’s soul.

I had a suspicion, but I didn’t know what I was looking at — not really. So I sent my awareness slowly down the corridor that led to Megan. And then the corridor that led to Emma, and then Fumiko, then — just because I couldn’t think of anyone else — James from work. Again and again I found the same thing: None of them had that second bump in the ‘hill’ between us. It wasn’t there on anyone who hadn’t been enthralled by me.

Emma’s corridor showed signs of similar damage to Shantaya’s, but it was all in the ceiling of the corridor, as though when our leyline had formed it had burrowed under some sort of existing scar. Fumiko’s end of her leyline had similar signs. James’ and Megan’s leylines had no such damage to them, at all. Two people who have never been under a vampire’s thrall have no damage. The two people who have been fed from in one way or another over a long enough time to be able to ‘resist’ being enthralled have leylines that are damaged differently than Shantaya’s. It wasn’t exactly a scientific sample size, but it also couldn’t just be coincidence, could it?

This time, after withdrawing my awareness from my leyline to James, I pushed it toward Hans. I’d been distracted by the question of whether or not I was the cause of the disruption in Shantaya’s leyline. Was that damage what kept her enthralled to me? Was the time it took to repair it ‘naturally’ the reason that someone who was enthralled would gradually come out of it, and be unable to be similarly enthralled in the future? Because the damage from previous feedings had forced their new leylines to form by burrowing ‘deeper’ into the weave between souls?

Fuck.

The second curve existed in Hans’ curve, too. There was a pool of essence there, as well. And this time I recognized it: it was some of Hans’ essence that had been being pulled into me when I fed on him. It had been reformed to match how I’d been feeling at the time. Worse, I could see Hans’ leyline more clearly than I had been able to see Shantaya’s. So I picked out more detail: the damage hadn’t just made a pool of your emotions must align with Abby’s in our shared leyline, it had shifted the entrance on his end of the corridor.

The ‘slope,’ for lack of a better description, wasn’t enough to keep his aura entirely from leaking anymore. Instead, every time the weave dug through the damage — and it was constantly pulling the floor of the corridor down, I could now see — a trickle of essence sloshed back and forth: diluting the pool with essence from Hans, and replacing the essence in Hans with the compulsion from the pool.

It’s like when I feed on him. I thought. His essence is being replaced with something like mine. But eventually that gets pushed out of his soul, because he’s mortal and his soul is always creating new essence and pushing the excess out into his ‘aura.’ And then, eventually, this pool is replaced with his own aura from the back and forth flow and he’s no longer being fed a constant trickle of you belong to Abby.

I had a sneaking suspicion that the process of draining that pool and tunneling ‘under’ the damaged chunks of the current leyline would take about a year, give or take.

Tentatively I reached out. This was my fault, but maybe I could do something to fix this? Maybe I could do something to ‘drain’ that pool, so that Hans could just deal with it all at once? His soul would keep making more essence and eventually flush the compelling emotions out of himself regardless of if it was doing it all at once or over the course of a year. I knew that because Emma had been in the process of doing the same with the essence I had pushed to her — she just needed Megan’s help because her soul had been badly damaged, on top of that. Right?

I already had the begenning of a psychic headache from all the focus I was expending, so it took me a moment to tangle my thread of aura around some of the damage that was diverting Hans’ leyline. Maybe it was a harebrained idea, but: could I pull it out of it’s current place and stitch it into the ceiling? Or, hell, could I even just make a narrow trench that was deep enough for the pool of essence to drain through by stacking the damage bits along the ‘walls’ of the leyline corridor?

I tugged at a the chunk of damage, even though that made my ‘headache’ throb. The blockage didn’t even shift, but it felt like it would if I pulled a little harder.

So I did.

The explosion of pain that resulted was so utterly out of proportion to the dull throb tugging had evoked. I’d thought there would be something — some strain commensurate with the effort. But what happened was so much more that I couldn’t possibly have expected it. It ripped through my being: a psychic migraine that made me reflexively jerk back in on myself.

It was exactly the wrong response. My consciousness still infused the tendril of aura that I’d extended down the leyline. That tendril was securely tangled around the broken shard of Hans’ soul that I was trying to move. The instinctive retreat made me pull harder, making the strain on the fae part of my soul rocket exponentially.

If I’d had lungs to scream with, I would have. I felt like my mind was supposed to be this big ball of taffy, but it had just been ripped in opposite directions to such an extreme that now it was just a strand and only instants away from snapping: A violin string that had been violently tightened beyond all reason or purpose except breaking it.

I tried to let go — or I would have, except that focusing through the agony was impossible. Even when the pain suddenly crested and broke, the aftershocks wracked me like some kind of mental whiplash, leaving me whimpering.

Or at least: wishing I could whimper.

I don’t know how long it took for me to recover. Somehow, despite part of me having been tied down in Hans’ half of the leyline, I’d managed to retreat my awareness. My fae shard had withdrawn behind the buffer of my curse by simple merit of having spooled that extension of awareness in around itself. My curse had wrapped around the shard, shrouding it from my ability to see and tying it back down to my body.

I was alive. That was how I was still conscious: my brain had taken over the thinking while my shard of faerie soul hid. I felt nauseous. Trying to focus on seeing auras was normally harder when I was alive; now just trying to look at my own left me reeling and dizzy with pain. The psychic migraine became a physical one when I tried to see how badly I’d hurt myself.

I’d only ever felt that sort of agony before when Lewellyn had tried to compel me while we fought, and his spell had ripped into my soul in its attempts to anchor itself to the core of my being. This time, like then, the only relief came when I let my curse sheath and obscure the fae shard — except, last time that had happened when the curse had grown. This time it felt more like my curse was stretched tight around it. Or maybe that was just the pain from trying to use the shard after overstraining it. I felt like I was stretched tight, psychically, any time I tried to look at my thoughts.

Had I damaged that shard of Megan’s soul? Something had snapped, at the end. It hadn’t been the strand of essence I’d used to reach out to Hans — which meant it had either been the blockage I’d been trying to move being tugged free, or the part of Megan’s soul I’d anchored that line with breaking away. The question left my heart pounding frantically. Maybe my curse felt stretched because it was binding broken parts of Megan’s shard together. I knew how a mortal soul ‘healed:’ it slowly closed gaps as leaking essence froze into a sort of membrane. But how did fae souls repair themselves? They didn’t flow like a mortal’s did, after all. If I had broken that shard, would it mend on its own if I just left it be?

I gulped down air. All of my ‘Abby is alive’ body functions seemed to be in overdrive. My heart hammered hard enough that blood rushing through my ears made them ring. I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. My eyes were wide and staring and even then I was so deep into a panic attack that it took me a moment to realize that I was being held.

Ben. At some point while my awareness had been absent from the real world Ben had arrived and found me. I clung to him and started sobbing into his shirt.

“Abby!” Ben exclaimed my name with some combination of worry and relief. “Abby, what happened? You were dormant, Abby.”

I started protesting before he even finished talking. “I’m bad,” I sobbed. For once I couldn’t distract myself from what I was saying by looking at my thoughts: my brain hurt too much for introspection. I was forced to hear my own words as they spilled out. “I’m horrible,” I sobbed. “Megan, she, she’s hurt and it’s my fault and….”

It took… I’m not sure how long it took, but at least I managed to explain. Sort of? Everything came out jumbled together and without order. I’d enthralled my boyfriend, Hans. Something about talking with Shantaya, but I still didn’t know how I felt about that other than defensive and confused and uncomfortable — which probably at least meant there was some thing wrong for me to be defensive about, right? And Megan. Oh, god: Megan. That was what I felt worst about; what I worried most about. She and Emma were rushing back to the faerie kingdom because I had freaked out and fed from Megan while she was still trying to support Emma’s soul.

Like I hadn’t cared about either of them.

“It’s not your fault,” Ben told me. “It’s not your fault,” he insisted even though I kept sobbing “it is, it is, it is,” over and over again.

“Abby,” Ben said. He hesitated. “I had to feed on Megan at the house,” he told me. It shocked me enough that I choked on a sob. The sensation made me gag and then gasp for air. I stared at him. “While she was unconcious,” Ben explained.

He seemed to gather courage in the face of my silence. Maybe he thought that it meant he was getting through to me. “I had gone feral,” Benjamin told me. “I couldn’t have stopped myself if I had wanted to — no more than you could’ve stopped yourself from pulling on her essence when you did. If she’s hurt then it is no more your fault than it is mine. This is simply a danger that we — and those close to us — have to be aware of and live with, Abigail.”

I stared at him. I’d heard each word with crystal clarity, as I hadn’t had anything to distract my thoughts except the roiling of my emotions — which settled as soon as Benjamin stopped talking.

“You did what?!” I screamed. It was pure agony on my head, but I did it anyway. And I leapt to my feet, grabbing Ben as I did. I twisted and slammed him into the side of the house we were next to. I did it hard enough to splinter the siding — and only then realized that I’d moved so fast by freezing time instinctively, for just a second.

I let go of Ben. He looked as shocked as I felt. Or maybe he was angry. Or maybe afraid. Maybe I was angry. Or maybe afraid.

“Go inside,” I told him flatly. I didn’t want to hear anything else he had to say and didn’t trust myself to say anything more than that. “I don’t want to hear your voice right now,” I hissed anyway. I was too worried to reign myself in.

I tried to check on Megan through our shared leyline, and was rewarded with a surge of fresh psychic pain for the effort. It made me grit my teeth and cringe in on myself at the same time as Ben pushed himself away from the house. He stalked past me, and I turned to watch him go. If I couldn’t check on Megan’s leyline I didn’t dare try to look at anyone else’s. Angry, I thought. He’s definitely angry.

Fine. So was I. I think.

Honestly, my head and my mind was hurting too much for me to know what I thought. Or even what I felt.

Nauseous. Nauseous and empty and somehow emotionally drained despite an aura that wasn’t as empty as it had been earlier this evening, before I’d pulled from Megan.

It was only as I turned to watch Ben go that I realized he hadn’t been alone. He gestured sharply and three other men — donors, I assumed — who’d been standing back followed him toward Cassie’s apartment. One of them kept a wary eye on me as they left. My social anxiety flared under the weight of that stare, and the sharp line of Ben’s profile as he walked away.

Eventually, he and his people reached Cassie’s apartment. They disappeared inside.

And that left me alone except for Fumiko and Jamie.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6