Book 6, Chapter 51

I ended up riding in one of the vans with Fiore. Well, he rode shotgun while one of his solocks drove. Cassie, along with Hans, Shantaya, and her sister rode in the back with me. Cassie was going to ride back to campus with us and pick up her car when I finally took the gate over to Megan’s kingdom. Jockboy in wolf mode continued to stick to Ben’s side like glue, and Benny wound up riding with them as well. That left Fiore’s solocks in a second van and Ben’s donors in another.

I strongly suspected Fiore was so willing to provide our transportation this time because he didn’t trust me to not be under his direct supervision, lest I casually do something impossible again.

I spent the ride trying to keep my nerves under control. The prospect of ‘answers’ was not actually a comforting one. Whatever Mister Salvatore had been up to, it hadn’t been good. But I needed to know. Hell, if people were going to go around trying to kill me — possibly killing my friends in the process — then dammit I was going to know why!

Not the least because it should help me put together a list of who I needed to kill first.

That was a disquieting thought. Was I really becoming so inured to violence? Or was it just that I wasn’t getting upset at the idea because my aura was too bloated to allow for mood swings? Or was it that my pocket of ‘protect your friends’ didn’t really have anything in it to care about the extremes that protection might take?

I worried at my lower lip and stared out the window while I considered that. It didn’t help my nerves any more than anticipating whatever we would find out from the ghosts at the hospital.

“Alright,” Cassie interrupted the silence after we’d parked. “Wish me luck?”

“Good luck,” Shantaya’s sister said. I nodded. That was close enough to echoing the sentiment, right? I didn’t want to jinx it by saying anything out loud, though.

Cassie opened the back of the van and hopped down to the paved lot. Behind her I had a clear view of the hospital, thanks to my supernatural night vision. Hope Community Hospital looked the same as it had the last time we’d been there. Well, except that the parking lot was less full. And it was night. And the big glass window over the front lobby had been boarded over with plywood.

I sort of felt guilty about that. Maybe I could arrange for some of my life insurance to pay for the window we’d broken? It wasn’t like I was going to need it to get an apartment, if I was still planning on staying with Megan. She had an entire kingdom, after all.

“I’ll bring Margaret and Doctor Lin back here,” Cassie said. “Don’t let anyone get too close to the hospital, okay? Especially without Abby or I to keep an eye out for, um, the zombie ghosts.” She closed the van doors behind her.

A hearbeat later, Fiore unbuckled. “I’m going to coordinate with Ben and get a guard set up out of our donors,” he said gruffly. “Wait here.”

I didn’t argue. Fiore left as well, leaving me behind with the werepups and Hans. It didn’t escape my notice that at least one of the solocks — the one who’d been driving us — didn’t seem to be involved in whatever patrols they were going to set up. He stayed in the front seat to keep an eye on us.

The silence in the back of the van stretched out awkwardly. Eventually, I couldn’t take it any more. “So,” I said. “Who all gave me blood back in the woods? I need to know so I can make sure to re-un-enthrall everyone who donated.”

In the front seat, the solock who was babysitting us started coughing on a choked off breath.

“I did,” Hans finally said. “And Shantaya. We wouldn’t let Ben — we didn’t need another hungry vampire on our hands. But one of his donors did in his place.”

I nodded. I didn’t like hearing that Hans had torn up his aura more on my behalf, but I wasn’t really surprised, either. “Okay,” I said. I started checking my leylines to see how much damage I’d have to undo. I figured I’d probably have to wait until tomorrow night… tonight? It was early enough to count as morning, but I still held to the belief that it didn’t really count as the next day until you went to sleep or the sun came up. So: hopefully by tomorrow night I’d have spooled enough faerie essence to start fixing things.

I didn’t get very far into my assessment before the back door of the van opened again.

It was Cassie, and two ghosts hovered behind her. I recognized the ‘younger’ one as Margaret. Which meant the other had to be Doctor Lin.

Doctor Lin was a small ghost. Short, and a little portly, he walked alongside Cassie while levitating slightly above the ground — enough to keep him at head height with her. He wore a lab coat over an old fashioned suit’s vest and shirt, and pinstripe trousers. Despite his dated clothes, the stethoscope that was looped around his neck and the little tonsil-light tucked in his breast pocket seemed almost modern. And of course, everything about him was slightly transparent.

Especially his opinion of me.

As soon as he saw me, his eyes widened. Horror and disgust distorted his features as he looked around the interior of the van, and then he hastily backpedaled. “No,” he said vehemently. “No, Miss Cassandra, I’m afraid we cannot help you. Margaret, we’re leaving. These are not people we wish to associate with.”

For a moment, I was too stunned to say or do anything. Cassie was startled enough to turn around. “What?” she asked of the doctor. “Wait!”

Doctor Lin was already stalking back toward the hospital, towing Margaret along with a firm grip. She protested, as Cassie did again. Cassandra abandoned the van and dashed after him: The doctor was zipping away with a speed that had nothing to do with how quick his legs could move.

In the back of the van, all eyes turned on me. Probably because I was the only one there, now, who could tell everyone else what had just happened. I think the wide-eyed confusion on my face adequately conveyed my incomprehension. Belatedly I pulled myself past the others and out the back of the van in pursuit of Cassie.

“Doctor, wait! We need your help,” Cassie was pleading when I got out of the van. Doctor Lin had stopped part way back to the hospital, where Margaret had apparently wrested herself free of his grip and given Cassie a chance to catch up.

Now Margaret was hovering behind Cassie and glaring at the doctor. “What on earth?!” Margaret exclaimed. “Doctor Lin, what has gotten into you?”

The spectral doctor jabbed a finger toward our vehicles. “There was a vampire in there,” he said hotly. “And werewolves, and there are men with guns throughout the lot. Margaret, you weren’t around the last time a vampire and his goons brought a troupe of werewolves to Hope, and you weren’t there to see the condition those poor bastards were in when they were taken away. I will not help one of those monsters. I don’t care how novel the experience of talking to a living person again is, I will not be party to that.

“Party to what?” I asked aloud.

Doctor Lin jerked as though my words had physically slapped him. He snapped his gaze to me, and the horror he’d shown when he first saw me turned to immediate fear at the realization that I could see, and hear, him. He bolted for the hospital.

I froze time. It was the only thing to do. Doctor Lin wasn’t running toward the hospital: he was flying at something akin to the speed of thought, and my thoughts were too jumbled a mess for me to get one in front of the other, let alone catch him without cheating.

‘You weren’t around the last time a vampire and his goons brought a troupe of werewolves to Hope.’ That was what had been bothering me at the clearing. Lin’s words gave me the context to put my nameless concern into words of my own: All those ripped apart ghosts had been human. There hadn’t been a wolf among them that hadn’t come with me.

I ran to the far end of the parking lot and put myself in front of Doctor Lin. What happened back then? I couldn’t keep up with my own speculation. Doctor Lin had called it a troupe of werewolves. Not one. So it couldn’t have been Hans. Which meant he had to be talking about Hans’ pack, right? There weren’t any other werewolves in the city, except for Curtis, and there wouldn’t even have been Curtis around before Hans’ pack had… But Hans’ pack hadn’t died. And they’d been hospitalized? Why didn’t anyone know about that? Why was that being covered up?

I didn’t think I wanted to know.

But I did know I needed to.

Because the other thing Doctor Lin had said before running wouldn’t stop using my brain for an echo chamber: You weren’t there to see the condition those poor bastards were in when they were taken away.

I reached out toward the doctor and let time flow again. I caught Doctor Lin by the collar before he could even react to my appearing in front of him. I seized him psychically, the same way I’d grabbed Pipsqueak when I’d first met him.

“Party to what?” I demanded of the shocked ghost. I wasn’t being diplomatic, but when am I ever? I could feel the sun approaching, and it had my nerves on edge — but not as on edge as the questions I didn’t have answers to did. “I’m not the vampire who was here before,” I told Doctor Lin, hoping to reassure him. I didn’t think I was succeeding. “If he’s who I think he was, he’s already murdered me once and his friends have been trying to do it again. But the werewolves in the van? They are my friends, and any werewolves in this city were probably their family. So don’t make me repeat my question,” I growled. “Party. To. What?”

“I don’t know,” Lin practically squeaked. “It was over fifty years ago! And they did something to the lower levels. I couldn’t follow them. But I could hear the screaming.”

Over fifty years. That put the event Lin was talking about right in line with when Dopplinda supposedly invaded the city. I didn’t want to think about it past that. Fifty years. I hadn’t given it much consideration, but that was my first real clue as to how old Hans was, wasn’t it? He’d been the youngest werewolf. And hadn’t John said he was older than Hans? And eighty something? That meant Hans had to be between fifty and eighty years old.

It was easier to think about Hans’ age than to think about werewolves screaming in a hospital basement.

“What condition were they in,” my autopilot ruthlessly asked for me, “when they were taken out?” Oh god. That had me thinking about them again. Had they been alive? Was Hans’ pack still alive?!

“Comatose,” Doctor Lin said. He was sweating ectoplasmic bullets. “They were unconscious, and in straight jackets and strapped down to dollies with silver chain.”

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god…. But that didn’t mean anything, necessarily. That could have been days after they were ambushed. There was no guarantee that any of them were still alive. And the trail could be decades on top of decades old. Oh god, Hans….

“When.” I barely managed to choke the word out. It wasn’t a question, it was a demand. I didn’t recognize my own voice. For once, my bloated aura didn’t seem to be helping me keep my emotions under control. Maybe it was because I’d burned a little off stopping time. Maybe it was because the anger that was infusing my soul wasn’t the product of a wildly seesawing emotion, but of a slow boil originating from the pocket of protect my friends that I always maintained. Any answer Lin had to give was going to devastate Hans.

And maybe it was because I was thinking about how long it had taken for Hans to come to grips with the loss of his pack — time in which they had been alive, but being hidden away by Salvatore for reasons nefarious. God, Mister Salvatore had become Hans’ mentor. So. Maybe it was because I was reeling emotionally at the completeness of the betrayal my boyfriend had suffered, but I was completely unprepared for the answer that Doctor Lin gave.

“Yesterday.”

End of Book 6

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 50

The first vampire I addressed was Elaine, even though she was trailing behind the other two. “You’re okay,” I observed in relief. “What happened?”

The question was almost rhetorical — from the way Nora clung to the older vampire I could guess who’d replaced the essence that the ghost had siphoned out of Elaine. The real question was: how? Had it been a willing donation? Only one of the other witches was still present that I could see and her face was white. She was standing alone — close to Cassie but apart — and she was watching us like a mouse, or any rational human being, watches a cat.

Elaine grimaced. “We’ve been trying to sort that out ourselves. Cassandra explained about the ghosts attacking. We don’t know what made them act like that, though.”

“Oh,” I said. My gaze cut between the two remaining witches and back to Elaine. “Is everyone okay?” I glanced at Nora again.

If I didn’t have supernatural hearing I wouldn’t have caught Elaine’s sigh. “Yes,” Elaine said. “Mister Dolcet pulled me off of one of Miss Grenz’s donors before I could kill him. Miss Greene provided the remainder I needed to regain my rationality. She will recover, and Mister Dolcet healed without yet needing to feed.”

Right. Because ‘Mister Dolcet’ had topped off earlier on my girlfriend. I was really going to have to figure out if I needed to keep being angry with him over that. All the running around, saving people’s lives made me wonder if I’d been too hard on him.

I’d have to talk to Megan about it.

“Some of the donors,” Elaine continued, “collapsed. They are being brought back to the campus. Miss Greene has called on her coven to gather and support their souls’ replenishment of essence. Now that you’ve rejoined us no one is physically injured who has not healed. The others should recover with time and care. The rest of us were determining what exactly this encounter had to tell us about those poor ghosts’ deaths while your people were working to revive you.”

This time my gaze slid to Cassie. “Did you see any ghosts we might be able to talk to, before the rest went zombie on our souls?”

Cassie shook her head in the negative. Although she hadn’t been attacked that I’d seen, she was pale and trembling. Maybe in shock from the violence. “They all turned on us,” she said. “When Missus Salvatore bumped that first one, they all turned violent.”

“It seems that we won’t be getting answers as easily as we’d hoped,” Valerie said. “We’ll have to rely on more conventional investigation methods to uncover what has been going on in this city. But for now, we all need rest. Sunrise is not far off. I’ve already called Thomas. He’ll remain awake in case anything else happens through the day. The rest of us can relieve some of the strain on our donors by going dormant while they recover.”

I nodded, but my brow was furrowed from thinking. I was already half checked out of the conversation. I had been so sure all of my questions about Salvatore and Lewellyn would finally be answered — but all I had were more puzzle pieces.”

“My donors will meet me at the hotel,” Elaine added. “I will also remain awake, since my lapses of essence were not paid for by them this evening.” She stepped forward and put a hand on my shoulder. “Will you join us, Abigail?”

I shook my head distractedly. “I think I’m going to spend the ‘day’ with Megan and Emma. It’s perpetual night in Megan’s kingdom” — it felt so weird to say that Megan had a ‘kingdom’ out loud — “and there will be plenty of essence available should I need it.” More to the point: I needed Emma and Megan. And Hans and the werepups would probably benefit from time to bond without me and my enthrallments and bloodlust and general purpose insanity distracting them.

Oh, shoot. I was going to have to go back and re-un-enthrall anyone who’d tried to contribute to reviving me, wasn’t I? Dammit. And I’d just finished unenthralling some of them, too.

“Then if we’re done with this waste of time and energy,” Fiore said, “We should go.”

I nodded absently. I didn’t have the essence in my faerie bubble to work on undoing enthrallments at the moment, so I was keeping distracted by trying to make sense of my new clues. Something about the ghosts was bothering me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

“I don’t think there’s more to be learned here,” I agreed at last. “But at least we’ve confirmed that those warlocks were ambushed by Mister Salvatore.” There was some kind of conspiracy going on. That was a horrifying thought, but it was also kind of a relief: it meant that Reid hadn’t been lying to me. And it meant that I while I was generally paranoid, I wasn’t just being paranoid.

“Ambushed?” Ben asked from behind me.

At the same time Elaine asked: “What?”

I started out of my thoughts and scrambled aside so that Ben wasn’t behind me anymore. “The ghost zombies,” I explained hastily. I looked between Ben and Elaine. “They were re-enacting their deaths before we jarred them out of it. And they were each attacked by surprise. And from the side or the back, not the front.”

I shivered, recalling the essence I’d consumed to revive myself. “And I tasted their fear and betrayal. They were betrayed. And whatever did that ripped their souls open.” That last detail was what threw me. I’d done enough repairs to my own soul to know that those tears weren’t from vampire bites. Maybe Lewellyn had been involved. his geas was meant to sever a soul from its body — or so he’d said. Could he have placed it on those warlocks and then just ripped it out to end things? Maybe, but somehow that didn’t feel right. When he’d used geases on me, they had been more of a spike. The holes they’d left in my soul had been just that: holes. Not massive tears. The only thing I knew of that could tear open a soul like that was….

The blood drained from my face. Faeries. Noble faeries. Archarel had threatened to flood my soul with essence until it burst. If I hadn’t found a way to bleed off the pressure he’d exerted, he might have succeeded — and my soul might’ve looked like those ghosts. And… and….

And Dopplinda had told me to my face that she’d ripped my soul open so that I would die from bleeding out essence. And supposedly this was where Dopplinda had come through into our world.

I swallowed and turned my attention back to Cassie. Suddenly — in the face of the suffering I’d tasted from the ghosts — my speculations felt like a pathetically secondary concern. I didn’t want to address them, anyway. “More importantly,” I said, “is there anything we can do for them? The ghosts, I mean. They’re suffering. I mean: they are suffering. That’s all that’s left.” I couldn’t stomach leaving them like that. Not if it was my dopplegrandma’s fault. “Please tell me you can help them… move on, or something.”

Fuck, I’d said please again. Oh well: I kind of felt like Cassie was friend material, if only because she’d been fucked around with by conspiracies just like I had. It gave us some common ground. Plus, it was worth being in her debt if it meant we could end those spirits’ pain.

But Cassandra shook her head. “I can only see them and interact some,” she said. “I’ve never managed to help one ‘move on,’ and I’ve had a few ask me to. It was something I had hoped I could learn.” Cassie’s eyes flicked to Nora, who was oblivious because of her enthrallment with Elaine. “But I didn’t,” Cassie concluded stiffly. “And even if I had, I don’t know if anything that applies to regular shades would here. I’ve only ever seen shades behave like this once before, and that was just….” Cassandra trailed off.

“The other day, when they attacked me at the hospital?” I finished the thought for her.

Cassandra nodded.

Shit, I thought. If I wasn’t totally turned around — and there was no guarantee there, but I didn’t think I was — Hope Community Hospital wasn’t that far away from campus.

And wait a minute: I’d gone to a hospital with a messed up aura before, when my apartment had first burned down and I’d followed Megan to the emergency room. And I hadn’t been assaulted by zombie ghosts there. But that had been a different hospital, on the other end of town, and….

“Any injured,” I said, “physically injured, would have been taken to Hope from here, wouldn’t they?”

I was a little surprised when Fiore answered for me. “Yes,” he said. “It’s the nearest emergency medical center.” He snorted at my expression. “My people are stationed here to watch the gate to Faerie,” he said dryly. “I make it a point to be aware of our options for emergency care when my people are potentially in harm’s way and I won’t necessarily be available to provide treatment myself.”

I ducked my head, inexplicably embarrassed. Ashamed that I would never have thought of Fiore as someone who would care about his donors? Maybe I was pigeonholing Matteo too much as ‘just’ a jackass. But it took only a moment for me to shake that thought away and look up again.

“Right,” I said. “So this wasn’t a waste of time. And Fiore, you might want to look into a different hospital for any of your people to use. Because there is no way that it’s just a coincidence that the ghosts here and the ghosts at that hospital have the same spiritual injuries. Not if someone who has been able to see ghosts her whole life,” I gestured at Cassie, “has only seen this kind twice. The ghosts at that hospital are connected to the ghosts here. Somehow.”

Fiore frowned thoughtfully. His brow set into a furrow and his lips thinned into an angry line. If I had to guess, he was realizing what would happen if any of his people had damaged auras were sent into a hospital full of ghosts that fed on damaged souls.

“That’s… worrisome,” Valerie said.

At the same time, my auto pilot said: “We need to go there next.”

Valerie looked at me, startled by my declaration. Actually, everyone was looking at me. I started to cringe on the inside. Bloated aura or no, I was not comfortable with this level of scrutiny.

“If the ghosts there are behaving in the same way as the ghosts here,” Ben said, “I don’t think we’ll get more answers out of them, Abby. Especially since anyone without a fully intact aura is in danger from them. We’ll have to investigate, but we specifically aren’t in any condition to. We’ll have to arrange for a coven to look into the facility.”

But I was already shaking my head. “No,” I said. “We can’t afford to wait. There’s a leak in The Center. So if we pass this on to anyone else, it’ll get to the people working with Lewellyn and Salvatore. The people who burned down Hans’ house to cover their tracks, and kidnapped and murdered Mister Kallaher in the processes, and did god knows what here. I’m not letting them get away with it. I’m not giving them a chance to wipe out the evidence again.

“Abigail, we still wouldn’t be able to get any answers out of the ghosts themselves,” Valerie pointed out. She sounded worried. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had a point, or if it was because I was starting to sound unhinged. “We can set a guard on the facility, but we’re going to have to wait for someone else to follow up on this.”

I was shaking my head again before she was even done talking. “No,” I said vehemently. “How long do we have before sunrise? An hour or two?” Long enough for us to get to the hospital, certainly. “And then anything can happen for the next day. But the ghost zombies only go after people who have an injured aura.” My thoughts were all over the place, jumping between tracks as I tried to figure out what I was even trying to figure out.

I looked at Cassie. The ghost zombies had never gone after her. She wasn’t anyone’s donor, and hadn’t been interacting with faeries. Her aura was as healthy as could be, as far as I could tell. I couldn’t go into the hospital, but Cassie could. “And the zombie ghosts,” I said, “aren’t the only ones in the hospital that we can talk to.”

Cassie was nodding before I’d finished speaking. “They’ve never attacked me,” she confirmed. “Not even when I was in the hospital before. And if there’s something out there that’s doing this to people… it’s wrong. I don’t care if Margaret and Doctor Lin are dead, they should be warned. What if whoever is doing this to spirits goes after them, as witnesses? Margaret said that Doctor Lin has been at that hospital since it opened.”

“Cassandra, don’t,” the witch — not Nora, but the other one — suddenly interjected. “This is dangerous!”

Cassie gave the coed witch a withering glare. “I’m going in there,” she said in a tone of voice that seemed to mean: ‘Like I would ever listen to one of you.’ “I’m warning Margaret and Doctor Lin. They’re full ghosts, not shades. Even if they don’t have the answers we need, they can at least get off the hospital campus and out of the line of fire of whoever is doing this.”

“I’m with Abby and Cassandra on this,” Ben interjected from beside me. His tone was thoughtful, as though he’d already reconsidered his previous point.  “I was there when they attacked the Salvatore house.” He met Fiore’s gaze. “They were disciplined, ruthless, and armed with military gear. They put an entire house of people to sleep and then set it on fire. In retrospect, I have to say that I really don’t think that guards or daylight or the fact that we’re investigating a mortal hospital would suffice to keep them at bay if they thought we were going to uncover something.”

I kind of expected Fiore to say something jackass-y, but he nodded in curt acceptance of Ben’s assessment. “I’ll come with as well,” he said. Although his tone was stiffly controlled, he sounded angry. “Since my base camp is at the college, it won’t take me long to get from the hospital to somewhere safe to rest — and I can set some of my people up as security until we can get others in place.”

I wanted to protest — I wasn’t sure if I trusted Fiore, and I knew I didn’t like him — but I didn’t want to waste the time it would take. Plus I was still going to need transportation, and if things took too long at the hospital I could rely on Fiore’s to have tinted windows. “Alright,” I agreed. “Valerie, Elaine: if you go back to the hotel and make arrangements for people to check out the hospital immediately, we’ll go there now. We’ll get the ghosts we know we can talk to out, and we’ll keep an eye on the place at least until your people can get there to lock it down and start digging stuff up. And if you’re staying awake, Elaine, I’ll make sure you’re kept in the loop on anything we find out.”

Elaine nodded. Valerie waited just long enough to say “Be careful,” to all of us before turning to her donors and getting them ready to go. Nora went with Elaine, and the remaining campus witch stuck with Nora.

I looked at the group I had been left with. One werewolf, three werepups in varying states of shapeshift, one seraphim, two vampires, one medium and a handful of solocks and donors. “Alright,” I said. I was tense from restraining nervous energy. “Figure out who’s taking what car on the way to campus. And let’s go get some answers.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

Book 6, Chapter 49

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes convinced me I was still unconscious. A real-life Prince Tanaka filled my field of vision. But for some reason his hair was slicked back in short, punky spikes. And he had an earring. Clearly my brain was in some weird fangirl dream.

“Prince… Spikey?” I asked in befuddlement.

His eyes widened slightly. “Abigail,” Ben exclaimed. “Oh, thank god.”

I blinked a couple of times. I could smell blood — enough of it that I couldn’t tell who all had spilt it. “What… you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” I told him. It was an unironic observation: as far as I was aware he didn’t have the ability to look into the astral world like I could. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I wanted to giggle at them. And what was up with that cosplay? I mean: alright, I was intrigued. But Fumiko was going to be upset if he hadnt asked for her input on the costu….

Oh no. I had turned my glamour into armor for him, hadn’t I?

I went as still as a corpse could.

Don’t look. Don’t look don’t look don’t look. If I didn’t look down at myself and didn’t move, maybe nothing would confirm that I was laying on my back in the woods after midnight, naked with a hot vampire leaning over me. My mouth felt dry, which was weird because it had the distinct taste of blood in it so I knew I’d been forced to drink recently. Still, my attention locked on Prince Spikey’s mouth instead of my own. I am not naked, I told myself firmly. My boyfriend is not standing in front of me wearing my underwear under my platemail. Except: Fuuuuuck. I could see fangs. That was like a face boner for vampires. I was definitely nude. Or he was thirsty. Thirsty and leaning over me like he was just seconds away from biting and dammit, now my fangs were starting to slip.

“I thought you might have become one,” Ben admitted. “You collapsed, but there were no injuries and blood wouldn’t revive you.” His voice became low: troubled and dangerous. “I don’t know what exactly happened in that circle, but don’t do it again.”

My eyes shied away from his. I was mortified by how much I wanted to celebrate that I was alive by yanking Ben down by the gorget and pulling his mouth to my neck. How fucked up was it that I wanted to celebrate surviving a near death experience by having an apex predator sink his teeth into me?

I shivered. I’d inadvertantly looked down, which only heightened my feeling embarrassment. Yes, I was naked. But at least someone had draped a long coat over me. “Right,” I said. “No more doing stripteases for you,” was my auto pilot’s glib responce. I wasn’t ready to admit how close that had been to being the end. “I promise to keep my clothes on when we’re attacked by ghost zombies in the future.” The weave would hold me to that, too. Which was good, since apparently I couldn’t be trusted not to get naked at inappropriate times without a magical compulsion to stop me.

God, was I really turning into a nudist?

My eyes darted to either side. Partially to identify the other people who were near me so I could judge just how freaked out I should be right now. Which should have defaulted to epically massively, except my aura was bloated enough at the moment that my emotions were surprisingly stable. I mean: Yeah, I was embarassed. But that’s a far cry from mortification.

Ben and Hans were next to me. Ben on one side; Hans crouched on the other. Thadeus was there, too, except he was in the astral plane. Hans looked like my waking up had yanked him out of some kind of panic attack: I could still hear his heart pounding. Ben looked like, well, like he’d seen a ghost. And Thaddeus looked like he was a ghost. He was extra transparent and seemed to be having trouble even keeping as close to our reality as he barely was.

The werepups were arrayed — as much as two people and one wolf were able — in a defencive wall behind Hans. Benny was with them, too. I guess he was an honorary werepup, or something. They were between us and everyone else, with their backs to us. Shantaya had glanced back when she heard my voice, but when I caught her eyes she snapped her gaze back forward, to the next semi-circle of people. Those seemed to be Ben’s donors. One of them wasn’t wearing a coat.

Somewhere past the donors I could hear other people still in the woods. Fiore and Valerie and Cassie and some others, talking about what had just happened. And what to do next.

“She woke up,” I heard Elaine interrupt the solock who was currently speaking.

“She what?” the solock in question — some guy who’s voice I didn’t recognize with a name — blurted in disbelief.

“Of course,” Fiore answered dryly. He didn’t even try to hide the annoyance in his tone. “This is Abigail. Why wouldn’t she be utterly unresponsive to being revived with blood only to spontaneously ‘wake up’ from being dormant?”

Whatever. He was probably just mad because he’d missed out on another chance to put my remains in a box, ship them to The Center’s morgue, and then live unlife pretending I’d never happened.

Plus ten jackass points for him, though.

That line of reaffirmation was interrupted, though, when I heard the people who had been talking safely ‘over there’ start moving toward us. My brain squeaked in mild panic. ‘Over here’ was not a safe place for them to be. Not safe for me for them to be. I was still lying on the ground naked over here!

I grabbed Ben by the gorget, but only yanked mentally — not physically. Armor was exactly what I needed right now, and we didn’t have time for a quick peck on the neck, let alone a bite and tussle.

I felt a psychic chill as the faerie bubble in my soul emptied of what little essence had been spooling inside. Thaddeus and the astral plane snapped out of view for a second as I leveraged that essence to strip Ben and clothe myself. But my aura was bloated from Thaddeus’ efforts — and those of whoever else had given me blood while I was dormant — so almost immediately the psychic brainfreeze faded as some of the essence in my buffer sifted down into the faerie bubble.

Even more importantly: the sphere I’d built did it’s job. It neither ripped apart nor collapsed in the brief instant I’d emptied it.

I laughed shakily. Partially because I only realized what I’d done after the fact. If my newly refurbished faerie core hadn’t done its job my panic could have killed me. And some of the laughter came from Ben’s startled expression. But mostly it was from relief that I was now covered by the best night time armor I could imagine.

Which was apparently still full-body, long sleeved, button up flannel pajamas.

“Sorry, Prince Spikey,” I said. It was a sympathetic apology: I too knew how disconcerting it could be for your underwear to magically disappear. But at least he was wearing another pair, dammit!

Probably, anyway.

My cheeks started to heat up. The weave grabbed my apology and tied an obligation from me to Ben. I baarely noticed because now I was too busy wondering if I should’ve let him keep the underwear. And why were my boyfriends all such kinky bastards?!

I looked away from Ben before my autopilot could wreak havoc by blurting any of those thoughts out, and pushed myself upright. The coat slid off me as I stood. I needed a distraction from my burning ears and cheeks and now rampant speculation about whether or not there was anything under Ben’s jeans other than his cock. I mean: I knew Hans went commando, but I was pretty sure that was more of a werewolf convenience thing than an under-clad pervert thing. And now my brain was taunting me with mental images of Ben sans pants. Dammit, Ben! Wasn’t I supposed to be mad at him over Megan, still? It was bad enough that I had to think about him biting me all the time, and now this?!

Fortunately, I had a distraction near at hand. A distraction other than Hans and a brand new fantasy about the two of them getting into an arguement about which of them could best seduce me pantsless, while pantsless. An arguement which of course had to be settled through competition, because that’s how testosterone driven, alpha-male types settle their differences without killing each other: on the field. Probably of heather, over the crags of Hans’ homeland and under the glimmering moon’s light. Because: Sports. And everyone knows “sports” are a thinly veiled metaphor for yaoi.

But that wasn’t my replacement distraction! My replacemennt distraction was the aproaching vampires and the row of werepups that seemed — if their growling ghost wolves (or growling wolf, in jock boy’s case) — determined to make sure no one bothered me while I was indisposed.

And also, there was the realization that I was going to have to replace Salvatore in my slash fic with Ben. Because Salvatore was creepy, and Hans deserved better. Ooo! Or maybe after Salvatore turns evil, Hans and Ben can hook up. Because sports and heartbreak. That would make a good plotline, right? Plus it would preserve Salvatore as the villainous, bitter ex who tries to ruin the future of the protagonsts’ budding relationship together in cruel and underhanded ways.

Wait… when had this thing started developing a plot?

I did my best to shove those thoughts aside and focus on more immediate things. Like what had happened to my flannels, and why was I in a nightie now? I squeezed my eyes shut and focused. At least it was easy to lengthen and opaquen the nightie into a proper-ish dress. Not that I often wore dresses, but it was actually probably a better option than pajamas if I wanted to be taken seriously. Or spare myself embarassment.

I found what loose threads I could see in the glamour and did my best to tie them in place. Hopefully that will keep it from shifting erratically for a while. As it was, I was already a little miffed with Hans and Ben for succeeding in getting me pantsless, after all. This was not an appropriate time for that! We were so going to have to sit down and have a conversation about proper decorum, later.

With that reesolution firmly set — and my clothes no longer in a state of emotionally reflective flux — I stepped toward my line of defenders. I paused to give a quick glare back and forth over my shoulder to let Ben and Hans know I had their number — and then I stepped past Shantaya and the others. My aura was sufficiently bloated from everyone’s misguided attempts to revive me that I really wasn’t freaking out to the extent that I really, really should be. And as much as I would’ve liked to just enjoy not falling apart over every little thing while I could, it made more sense to use it by dealing with the other vampires and the fallout of our ghost hunt, instead.

Damn, but being a rational, responsible, emotionally balanced vampire just sucks sometimes.

Midnight Moonlight, Book 6

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