Happy Ever After Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Okay, here we go on the last chapter. Grateful thanks to all of you who have read, reviewed and faved it – I really appreciate it. Thanks also to Peter for his many helpful suggestions.

I hope you enjoy it.

AAE

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Chapter 17

The silence was surprising. It hadn’t been what I’d expected as Mr Cataliades and I re-materialised somewhere inside the palace – I had no idea where. The light was a dim violet color, which suggested that the main power had shorted out and this was emergency lighting. I looked around and saw it was a bedroom; not as large and upscale as Eric’s and mine, but still nice. There was a briefcase on the table, and papers spread around it, and I wasn’t surprised when Mr C said, “I thought my bedroom would be the safest place to start from. We’re on the first floor, and I don’t think there’s any damage down here. Now, I think you need to dry off a little.”

He went to his bathroom and brought me out a towel. In all the excitement I’d forgotten how wet I was and I gratefully dried my hair, taking a few minutes to catch my breath after the intensity of the last hours. There was nothing I could do about my soggy clothes, but he offered me a zippered windcheater with elasticated cuffs, which I took into the bathroom. I stripped off my blouse and when I pulled the dry jacket on I found that if I pushed the sleeves up the elastic kept them from hanging over my hands, even if they bulged out like the sleeves of old historical costumes I’d seen on TV.

When I came out he nodded his approval, then said “Now, can you detect Mr Northman?”

I closed my eyes and put out every mental and emotional feeler I’d got, holding my breath, praying that Eric would still be there for me to find. C’mon Eric, c’mon …

There! Just at the edge of my awareness, a faint hint of our bond. He wasn’t mind-speaking, but I could definitely feel the bond, hot and pulsing and overlaid with worry, even though it was strangely muffled. My eyes flew open. “Got him! He’s there, but he’s hurting – I can feel it!”

“That’s hardly surprising after what the late Queen told us. If he attempted to attack her while she was wearing the reversus amulet, it would have rebounded on him, and I doubt if he held back in his attack, which means he would feel the full force of the backlash. Do you know if he was planning on using any particular weapon in his attack?”

I nodded guiltily. “Yeah, I gave him that dagger I showed you with the fancy name; The silver and bone one.”

The demon frowned. “Gae Bulga? Oh dear, that’s not good. It inflicts a particularly nasty injury.”

“But surely if he pulled it out he’d be healing wouldn’t he? He could do that – the handle’s wood, not silver.”

“That would be the case if it was a normal silver dagger, but it isn’t. Gae Bulga was designed to splinter into many shards, each of which anchors itself in the flesh of the victim, and each one has to be dug out individually. That’s probably what you’re feeling – the splinters being removed. But there is another possibility; we have to consider that he may be under … coercion of some sort.”

Oh Jeez. “You mean someone might be torturing him, don’t you?” He nodded solemnly, and I had a sudden brief memory of being in the hands of Fae torturers myself. Eric had been chained with silver at the same time and, although he could feel my pain, he wouldn’t allow me to feel his and had closed the bond down – something only the vampire of a bonded pair could do. I realised that must be what he was doing at the moment – the stupid, heroic Viking didn’t want me to feel whatever he was suffering, even though a little was leaking through.

I concentrated, and found that Eric’s pain was definitely coming in short bursts, but that didn’t help any – someone was working him over methodically, but whether friend or foe I couldn’t tell. “We’d better go find him.”

“Do you get any sense of where he is?”

I concentrated again. “Uh-huh. He’s up above us somewhere. But he’s in a lot of pain – we need to get to him. C’mon.” I started for the door, but the big demon kept hold of my arm.

“Allow me.” He went to the door, and paused before he opened it. I realised he was listening for minds, just as I did. It was strange to be with another telepath, but one who was infinitely more skilled than I was. He never seemed to show any sign of being overloaded by others’ mental voices, so his shields had to be awesome…

When he was satisfied, he opened the door and we crept out into the hallway. The lighting was the same dim color as in the bedroom, and it flickered slightly, with a faint hum. As we moved along the deserted passage I reached out with my extra sense, but there was no mind within range. The whole place felt eerily empty, and our footsteps sounded unexpectedly loud.

“Where do you think everyone is?” I couldn’t help lowering my voice a bit – it didn’t feel right to speak at normal volume, and Mr C’s tones were equally hushed as he answered me.

“I imagine the building was evacuated when the tornado hit; a lot of the staff are human, and wouldn’t be able to survive a storm of that ferocity. They wouldn’t know that Bertine was limiting it to the third floor.”

She’d done a pretty good job; there was no sign of damage as we crossed the marble foyer and moved towards the staircase – Mr C didn’t think using the elevator would be a good idea, in case of more power failures, and he didn’t want to teleport us up there, as we didn’t know what we would be facing.

I did notice a few signs of hasty departure as we passed along the hallways; doors left swinging open, giving glimpses into offices and meeting-rooms where papers were strewn across desks and tables; a computer left on with the screensaver rotating silently; a photocopier still churning out documents, paper overflowing onto the floor … I wondered if Amelia had left, or if she nice and warm and safe somewhere in the basement with her Were.

We moved up onto the second floor, and here we started to see some signs of mayhem – cracks in the ceiling, and in a few places chunks of plaster had broken from the walls, whitening the carpets with dust. It was also noisier and colder, as the wind from outside had made it down here and was blowing though the hallways, snatching at the pictures that still hung on the walls and rattling the doors on their hinges. I was glad of the windcheater.

At one corner it looked like a whole chunk of the level above us had come crashing down through the floor, filling the hallway and piling right up to ceiling, almost blocking the hole it had made. It was between us and the next set of stairs, so we had to pause while Mr C cleared us a path. I suggested he teleport us, but he pointed out that we couldn’t see what was round the next corner – the floor might have caved in for all we knew, and he didn’t want to take the risk.

He wouldn’t let me help, saying he could work more quickly if I wasn’t in the way, so I stood back and watched, keeping my mental ears wide open for anything at all, calling out to Eric periodically and sending him reassurance and strength. It was pretty difficult trying to broadcast to him, trawl for other minds and listen for any hint of his mindvoice all at the same time.

Even though he was a big man, I’d had no idea how strong Mr C was until I saw him lifting chunks of masonry the size of a washing-machine and moving them to the side with almost no effort. No wonder he’d been able to stop Freyda in her tracks …

I shied away from that memory and distracted myself by looking up at the jagged hole left in the ceiling, trying to see what conditions were like up above. I could just see bits of the sky round the edges of the wreckage, and it seemed to be clearing; although the wind was still pretty loud the clouds had mostly gone. Bertine must have called her pet storm off … I went back to scanning with my mind, and Mr C was just levering a long, mangled, fluorescent light-fitting out of our way when I got a mental blast that was so strong I gasped.

“Sookie! Sookie, can you hear me? For God’s sake, answer me!” It was Barry, and the note of panic was quite unmistakeable.

“Barry?” I said it out loud before I realised what I was doing, and Mr C looked up at once. I tried again, mentally. “What’s wrong?

“Everything! All hell’s broken loose here! I’m hurt – badly hurt. We were just sitting minding our own business and all of a sudden Queen Freyda’s men were everywhere, pushing and shoving and shouting, and they made us all go into the dining room and then wanted to take me away.”

Oh crap. “Did they say where?”

“No, but Billy-Rae wouldn’t let ’em take me anyway, and they staked him without even blinking!” I could feel his horror, even with everything he must have seen working for the vampires all this time. “Bruno went apeshit and ripped a guard’s arm off, one of ’em took a cut at him but hit me, the Louisiana vamps heard the shouting and came barrelling in, Stan and Joe have turned up and now there’s blood and bodies everywhere. Are you with Eric? Can he help us, because we really need it!”

“Where are you?”

“I’m hiding under the table, but I’m bleeding like a stuck pig; they’ll find me when the fighting stops – help me, Sookie – I don’t wanna die!”

“Hold on.” I looked up at Mr C who was standing in front of me, registering concern. He clearly couldn’t hear what was being said and I didn’t have time to try and get a handle on the ins-and-outs of three-way telepathic communication, but he must have seen from my face that something was wrong.

I blocked Barry’s frantic broadcast for a minute and filled the lawyer in. I could tell he was torn; he wanted to stay with me and see me safe, but he wanted to help Barry too. It was a horrible position for him to be in, but there was only one thing he could really do, and we both knew it.

“You’d better go to him. He needs you more than I do right now.”

“I’m not sure – Mr Northman would want me to stay with you in case of trouble.”

I was so tempted to cling to him and say, ‘yes, don’t leave me, keep me safe,’ but I couldn’t. It was the sensible thing to do, but it wasn’t the right thing to do. “There’s no-one here at the moment – everyone’s run away. And Barry’s your family. Go on, you can teleport him out of there and see to his injury, then come back when he’s safe. I’ll take it from here – I can probably get through the gap you’ve already made anyways, if I breathe in a little.”

“Do you really think …” it wasn’t like him to be so uncertain, but his duty to me was warring with his duty to his family. I knew how much his relatives meant to him; he’d been truly grieved when his niece Gladiola had been killed and anyone could have seen how badly he’d been affected when he thought Bertine was in danger.

I manned up and said, “yes, I do. I’m gonna head straight on up and find Eric. I’ll keep a careful watch out for any minds, but I think I’ll be okay.” The only person I really had to worry about was Bill, and I was pretty certain Pam would have dealt with him. Yes, he was technically a little older and stronger than she was, but I doubted if that would count for much. She was an Eric-trained fighter, he was a coward; you do the math …

“Well, if you’re sure…”

“I’m sure. Give me a minute to let him know you’re coming – we don’t want him freaking out if you suddenly appear next to him.”

“A good thought.”

I called Barry and told him, and his gratitude was almost as strong as his fear. I shut him off and turned to Mr C. “We’re good. You can go get him.” A thought struck me. “But you’ll need to reassure him – he sounds a mite panicky. And you’ll probably have to get him to a hospital pretty quick.”

He raised an eyebrow, as though mildly offended. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him. He is my great-great-great grandson, after all. ”

“Yeah, well, you might want to consider telling him that at some point. I’m not sure how long I can keep it a secret from him, and anyway, it’s not right that I know and he doesn’t.”

He looked a little startled, as though this had never occurred to him, but then he nodded to me and vanished from sight, leaving me on my own. I sighed, cast out my sixth sense just to check that I really was alone, then pushed back my sleeves and started shifting chunks of rubble.

I’d been right – the opening he’d cleared was very nearly big enough for me, and I didn’t have to move too much before I could lie on my side and wriggle my way between the wall and the wreckage. I clambered back down into the hallway beyond and dusted myself off before locating the next flight of stairs, which led to the top floor.

The stairs were a little creaky, but I kept right to the edges, holding on to the handrails and skirting the pieces of debris that had fallen into the stairwell. I felt, on consideration, it was just as well that Mr Cataliades wasn’t with me – his weight might have brought the stairs down …

The wind was dropping a little now, but it was still whipping my damp hair across my face. I hunkered down near the top and took a minute to make a quick ponytail with an elastic from my pants pocket before reaching out for Eric again. The bond was stronger this time, although he was definitely trying to block it. I guessed it was only because he was pretty weak that he was allowing anything to leak through.

I stuck my head out and stared around at the top floor. Or what was left of it. Hell, Bertine had not been fooling around up here; it was a scene of total devastation. I’d thought the cave-in on the second floor was bad enough but my jaw dropped as I saw the wreck the little professor had made of Freyda’s palace. It reminded me of the pictures of bombed buildings I’d seen from World War Two – mostly just the outer walls still standing, with the open space in between filled with all the broken masonry and drywall and pipework and rooftiles…

I looked up at the sky and saw the moon just breaking free from thinning clouds, which were beginning to draw off in long, silvery-grey columns towards the horizon. They looked strangely disciplined and I wondered where Bertine was, and if she was controlling them. Then I oriented myself as best I could, bearing in mind that the stairs I’d just come up were roughly in the centre of the building, before turning in a slow circle, trying to get a fix on where Eric was. There was no point in calling out loud, the wind was still too strong for me to be heard more than a few yards away.

There! I couldn’t make out much between the heaps of rubble and broken beams but I got the general direction and as far as I could tell, he was at the far end, roughly where the Royal Apartments had been. That made sense and I started to make my way in that direction.

It was slow, careful going. The only light was a mixture of orange from the city lights below and silver from the half moon, and it threw very deceptive shadows. I had to slow my pace right down, as I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet half the time, and the air was thick with swirls of dust, which got in my eyes.

As I avoided holes, splashed into puddles left by broken water-pipes, fell on my ass more times than I could count, and tried to find a way through the ruins without dislodging an avalanche, it began to dawn on me just how big Freyda’s palace had been. Because I couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction I began to feel as though I was in a never-ending maze, surrounded by heaps of bricks and tiles

As I went, I called out to Eric over and over again, and I almost sobbed with relief when I finally got a voice in my head.

Sookie? Are you alright? The welcome tones were overlaid with anxiety, and I hurried to reassure him, pouring my relief and thankfulness into the bond.

Eric! Oh thank God! Yes, I’m fine, what about you? I can feel your pain. What’s happening? Who’s with you?

Relief. Don’t worry, dear one, it’s Pam … I summoned her when … I regained consciousness and she’s … removing … the dagger … I will heal as soon … as she’s finished.

There were curious breaks in his thoughts, which coincided with spikes of pain in the bond. I figured that was Pam trying to remove the shards of the dagger. Jeez, just how many were there?

He sounded very worried as he said are you sure you’re alright?

I am now I know you’re going to be okay. Freyda told me you were dead, but I knew you weren’t. I knew she couldn’t kill you.

She nearly did – she’s very fast, and she dodged as I … struck for her heart, so I ended up hitting … her shoulder and that damned amulet … turned the blow straight back … on to me. I didn’t hold back … so of course I took the full … force of the rebound. Freyda enjoyed that … she stood over me and laughed … as she told me how clever she had been …

I could practically hear him grinding his teeth in annoyance, and was glad to be able to tell him the good news. Well she’s not laughing now, Eric. She’s dead; gone for good.

Fierce exultation mixed with pride. Excellent. How did you … do it?

Unsuccessful attempt at indignation. Why do you assume it was me?

Amusement. Because I know your track record, lover.

Pouting. I haven’t killed that many vampires.

You have killed more supes … than any human I have ever known … including that idiot Van Helsing … How did you kill her?

I let the drained vampires out of the refuge, and they tore her to pieces.

Wince. How long did she … take to die?

I shuddered at the memories of screaming and beckoning fingers … Way too long. But I left before they’d finished and came to find you.

Where … are you now?

I’m on the top floor of the palace, but there’s a whole lot of crap between you and me. I’ll be a little while yet.

I’ll send Pam to help you.

No, I want her to help you first. You’re injured.

There was a pause, and from the frustration coming through the bond I figured he was arguing with Pam. This was confirmed when a particularly sharp stab of pain came through and then his mindvoice again, laced with a faint trace of humour.

Apparently Pam agrees with you. She’s … ow … insisting on helping me first …

Good. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I started out towards where I knew he had to be, cheered by the conversation but it was still frustratingly slow going.

The wind had been steadily dropping, which is why I was able to hear what sounded like a faint groan as I was scrambling past a heap of what looked like brick mixed with a tangle of pipes and wires. I couldn’t be sure, so I stopped and reached out with my other sense and found a vampire mind. It was underneath the pile next to me, and I paused, debating what to do. While I hesitated a whisper reached me. “Is somebody there? … help me … please …”

I took a step nearer. “Who are you?”

The whisper was fainter than ever. “… Erasmus … work for Queen Freyda … storm … badly injured … need help …”

I took a careful peek and made out a single shoe sticking out from under the debris at a nasty angle and winced at the thought of the pain the wearer must be in. “I’m not sure what I can do for you …” I nearly mentioned that I was only a human, but then decided against it – no point in advertising the nearness of a blood source to an injured vampire, even if he couldn’t smell it. “Hang on and I’ll call for help as soon as I can.”

I turned to continue making my way towards Eric and Pam, but something snagged my ankle and I fell forward, grazing my palms badly on the rough surfaces all around me. I cussed in a way that would have had Gran reaching for the soap and tried to get to my feet, but my foot was trapped by whatever it was, so I twisted round to free myself. I reached for my shoe, and then squealed in shock as the mound of rubble heaved, slid, broke apart and a figure emerged. It was covered in dust, but I recognised it instantly.

Recognised and despised it.

William Compton. William Erasmus Compton.

Cursing myself for having forgotten that tiny detail, I jerked my foot back but his grip on my ankle didn’t relax. He snatched at my other foot and then lifted them both into the air which left me on my back, completely helpless, looking up at him. He smiled. “That won’t be necessary. I really don’t need any help to deal with you.”

“Bill! What do you want? Let me go!”

“I don’t think so. You and I have some unfinished business.” He laughed. “I knew your soft, human heart would never be able to resist helping someone who was injured.” He shook his head in mock reproof. “How many times have I told you that vampires often turn on those who trust them? But you wouldn’t listen, would you?”

“Eric will gut you for this – he’s on his way here right now.” I hoped and prayed that my bluff would be fact before too long – I didn’t like the look in Bill’s eyes, dark and hard as ebony. He transferred both my ankles to one hand, gripping them painfully as he dusted himself down with the other one and laughed softly.

“Nice try, Sookie; I heard what Queen Freyda told you, remember? I don’t know how you got away from her, but Eric won’t be helping you ever again.”

So he didn’t know she was dead. I wasn’t going to enlighten him – who knew what he’d do if he thought he had a free hand? I sent Eric the strongest message I could. Bill’s here – he’s got me trapped. Help me!

Instant glacial rage. Where are you?

I looked round me, hunting for a landmark that would guide him to me. I can see a broken chimney, leaning inward, and there’s a burst pipe below it, with water gushing out. Hurry, Eric!

I’m coming …

Bill was saying, “I’m sure she’ll be very grateful to me when I return you to her … in a little while.” Oh crap. I needed to distract him, or at least stall for as long as I could. I didn’t know how weakened Eric was, but I knew he’d come even if he had to drag himself the full length of the palace.

I stared at Bill, and even in the half light I could see that his skin had a strange dark look, which I’d seen before. It meant he’d taken a beating from someone, and it didn’t take an Einstein to figure out who.

“So, Pam kicked your sorry ass, huh?”

Bill frowned. “She hit me from behind.” His tone was petulant, as though he expected vampires to fight fair. “But I would have beaten her if she hadn’t run away.”

That must have been when Eric summoned her. Nothing would keep her from her maker, but she must have been so frustrated at having to leave Bill still walking the earth. I snorted in derision. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Bill. I’m sure you had her right where she wanted you.”

His eyes narrowed, and his fangs emerged. “You never did know when to keep that mouth shut, did you, Sookie? Well, it’s about time you learned, and I’m going to teach you.”

Oh hell. I kicked furiously, and managed to slip one foot out of my sneaker, but he quickly caught it again. I said, “Freyda won’t want you hurting me – she wants me for herself.” He’d been well out of earshot when she’d announced her decision to kill me and co-opt Barry.

Now he grinned humourlessly. “Oh I’ll leave you functional. She won’t mind the odd mark or two. And she’ll understand completely when she sees how badly hurt I am. Everybody knows vampires can’t control themselves when they’ve been injured. I seem to recall explaining that to you once before, in Jackson, but clearly you need a reminder.” And with that he let go of my ankles, but before I could move he fell on me and began ripping at my clothes.

Oh God. It was just like when we were trapped in the car trunk in Jackson and he’d hurt me so very badly. I nearly gave up right then, remembering in too-vivid detail exactly what had happened. I’d tried so hard to put the horror out of my mind; subconsciously I knew that if I’d ever given what he’d done its correct name, even in the privacy of my own head, I would have come to pieces and so I’d made excuses and refused to face the truth.

But this time was different, for all sorts of reasons. Then, I’d been in love with Bill, or so I’d thought; now, I saw him for what he truly was. Then, I’d been lacking in confidence and experience; now, I had more experience than I could ever have wanted. Then, I’d been recently staked and was freezing cold, cramped and suffocating from lack of air; now, I was in good health and had the full use of my lungs and consequently, my voice.

I screamed as loudly as I could, while I buried both hands in his hair and yanked on it with all my Viking-blood-enhanced strength. He hissed viciously but it was enough to keep his fangs off my neck, for a few moments at least. I wriggled and squirmed and fought to get a knee into his balls, but his weight was crushing me and I knew I couldn’t keep it up for long.

He got a hand to my throat and began squeezing, as his right hand tore at my jacket and his knees forced my thighs apart. I let go his hair and began clawing at the strong fingers, but their grip tightened and he chuckled. “I’ve waited a long time for you to come to your senses and return to me, Sookie. But if you won’t do it willingly, then you’ll just have to be brought to heel, like a good pet. Freyda’s very good at training her humans – I doubt you’ll remain stubborn for long.”

I wouldn’t give up, but I couldn’t scream any more, and the pressure was building in my skull. I cast out one last desperate thought, hurry, Eric! Hurry! as the edges of my vision began to go black.

There was a buzzing in my ears and I heard his hateful voice as if from a distance. “And if she goes back on her word and keeps you to herself, then at least I’ll have given you this to remember me by.” I felt the jacket shred and the cold night air on my skin, and gave one last, despairing heave, but Bill’s weight was like a mountain on top of me and I was buried underneath it, trapped …

Suddenly there was a roar of rage, followed by a scream that nearly shattered my ear-drums and the pressure round my throat was gone. Then the weight that had pinned me down vanished and a familiar, beloved voice snarled, “you piece of shit! I will crucify you for this! Pam – hold him!” and then I felt a hand on my cheek, and a shadow fell across my face. Eric …

“Sookie?” I tried to turn my head towards the gentle caress, but it was too painful, so I gave up and lay motionless, ignoring Bill’s screams and concentrating on the simple but extremely difficult task of dragging blessed air deep into my lungs. It was agony and ecstasy as it burned past my bruised throat and I whimpered with the pain. Then I heard a familiar faint crunch and Eric said, “open, dear one. Let me heal you.”

I forced my lips apart and the thick drops of his blood fell between them, sweet and tangy at the same time. Swallowing was an exquisite torment, but I persevered and gradually the world came back into focus and the throbbing in my head began to fade. The screams had stopped too, which was a relief. Not that I minded Bill screaming, but the noise was an unwanted irritant.

I shivered, and Eric said, “Pam, your jacket.” There was a pause and I felt fabric being placed across my bare body, shielding me from the night air, and then he raised me gently, drawing me to lean back against his chest. I flinched as he laid a hand over my bruised throat, but the coolness of his fingers soothed the burning there and I relaxed back against him, listening to the soothing whispers of his mind as he told me how proud of me he was, and how much he loved me, and that we were safe and nothing would separate us again …

I felt as though I could rest forever, cradled in Eric’s strong arms, but I knew there was something that had to be attended to. I found it hard to remember exactly what, but as the vampire blood went to work my mind cleared and my eyes flew open.

Bill! That rapist pig had to be dealt with! I struggled to sit up, and Eric helped me. Rage rolled through my veins as powerfully as the vampire blood, and with pretty much the same sort of effect. I set Pam’s jacket aside and looked around, and sure enough there was Bill, on his belly, motionless, with a gag stuffed in his mouth. His left wrist was at a strange angle – I guessed Eric must have broken it when he’d plucked him off me, which would explain the scream.

Pam was kneeling next to him, but I was surprised that she was controlling him so easily; she only had a single hand on his back. No, not on his back – I looked a little closer and realised I couldn’t actually see her hand …

“Eric? What’s she …?” My voice was hardly more than a croak, but he heard me and smiled, his fangs flashing white. “It’s a technique I taught her for restraining vampires. She’s pushed her fingers and thumb through the flesh of his back and has her fist clenched round his spine. It’s very effective.”

Dear God, he wasn’t kidding! No wonder Bill was lying so immobile – one twitch and she could rip his backbone clean out!

“Help me up, please.”

“Are you sure, dear one?” I nodded, which was a lot less painful than before. He looked closely at my throat and seemed satisfied. “The redness has almost faded. My blood is taking effect.” He rose to his feet, taking me with him, and set me down, making sure I was steady before letting me go. Then he picked up my sneaker and knelt to put it on for me before we walked over to where Pam held her prisoner.

She nodded to me. “Sookie. Eric tells me you’ve killed Freyda.”

I shuddered at the memory. “Well, technically it was the other vampires, but I suppose you could say …”

She smiled. “You did well. I would much rather be your friend than your enemy; they don’t seem to live long. And now what do you want to do with this offal?”

She looked at Eric, who said, “turn him over.”

I frowned. “Why?”

“I want to see his face as he dies.” His detached tone was chilling.

Pam pulled her hand out of Bill’s back with a gross squelching sound and wiped it clean on his pants before flipping him over. He didn’t move for several long minutes, while Eric asked me mentally to bring him up to date. I told him everything that had happened since he’d left with Freyda, including exactly what Bill had said and done, and then I thanked him for arriving in the nick of time.

My pleasure, lover.

But what about you? Did Pam get all the bits of dagger out?

Eventually. He squirmed slightly, as though uncomfortable at the memory, then shrugged it into the past. He was very good at this; I suppose after ten lifetimes of memories he had learned how to discard those he didn’t want to keep. I wished I had the same ability, but I didn’t have his mental discipline; I was stuck with a past that came creeping out of the dark corners of my room at night, when I lay alone in bed and had nothing to stop me remembering. So many evil memories …

Bill groaned as Pam pulled the gag from his mouth, but didn’t open his eyes. He must have figured that the longer he played possum, the longer he’d live. Eventually Eric lost patience and kicked him in the side. “Look at me, you filth.”

“Mercy.” His voice was hoarse

Eric shook his head. “Not a word I’m familiar with. Now open your eyes or I’ll have Pam pop them clean out of your skull and step on them.”

“No … please …” Bill whined in fear as Pam tutted disgustedly.

“Why do I have to step on them?” she said. “I don’t want eyeball jelly on my Blahniks – it’s a bitch to remove. Couldn’t we just feed them to him?”

“That’s a good idea,” Eric said thoughtfully. “Or maybe we’ll just take one of them. That way he can watch himself die with the other one.”

Pam agreed enthusiastically while Bill began begging frantically. “I’m sorry … please … I was wounded … I couldn’t control myself … I thought you were dead – I would never have touched Sookie otherwise, but she came on to me … she betrayed you, Eric… you didn’t hear what she was saying about you … it was her idea …”

I made a noise of disgust. As though Eric would ever believe that. Of course, Bill hadn’t heard our mental conversation, so didn’t know that Eric was in full possession of the true facts. I folded my arms and glared at Bill, who was still begging pathetically, although he didn’t dare move with Pam standing over him, her fangs on full display.

As I listened to him trying to throw me under the bus to save his own skin, the last of the scales fell from my eyes, and I knew what needed to be done. What I needed to do. “Can we just finish him, please? I don’t want to waste any more time and energy on him – We’ve got better things to do.”

He frowned. “Are you sure? Dawn is a long way off – we have plenty of time to torture him if it would give you pleasure.”

“I know, and I really appreciate the thought, but the Louisiana and Texas vampires could probably use some help right now – who knows what’s going down over there?”

“You have a point. Very well.” He turned away for a minute, scanning the ground, then found what he was looking for – a length of wood half-buried in the wreckage. He yanked it free and snapped it in two, studying both pieces before discarding one and coming back to me with the other. “This will do,” he said. “Pam, hold him.”

Bill squealed as Pam smiled and pinned him by his left arm and leg. Eric knelt on his other side, one huge hand resting on Bill’s right shoulder. Bill’s babbling for mercy ran down, and he licked his lips, seeing his death reflected in the cold eyes looking down at him. But that didn’t seem right, somehow.

“Eric?”

He didn’t take his eyes from the snivelling vampire on the ground. “Yes, lover?”

“Can I do it?”

His head came round and he looked at me in astonishment. “You want to do it?”

I nodded. “Uh-huh. I know I’ve … uh … killed a lot of supes one way or another, but they’ve pretty much all been accidents or self-defence. This one I want to do with my eyes open.”

“Why?” He didn’t seem to have a problem with the suggestion – he was just curious.

“Closure.” That was Pam. “I’ve read about this – humans like to have something called closure. It’s their way of declaring something finished and moving on from it.”

Eric considered this for a minute. “So it’s another word for vengeance?”

Pam nodded. “It can be. Although it doesn’t involve death very often.”

“Then how can it be true vengeance?”

She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. Maybe they think some offences don’t deserve death.”

Eric snorted. “Humans. They never know how to do things properly.” He glanced round at me. “Present company excepted, of course. You seem to have a very good grasp of the important things in life.” He held out the improvised stake to me. “Come, dear one; come and take your … closure.”

I stepped forward and took it from his hand. Except for the jagged tip, it was smooth and polished, so had probably come from a real expensive item of furniture. It felt good in my hand as I hefted it thoughtfully and looked down at the supine vampire. “Show me the right spot, please, Eric,” I said, and he smiled and yanked Bill’s shirt open, showing me the exact point of entry.

I knelt and he helped me adjust the stake to the perfect angle. Bill’s eyes widened. “Sookie …” he whispered. “Don’t do this, please … remember how you loved me – how you still love me. I was only joking, I would never really hurt you. It was Freyda, she wanted me to do it. She told me to do it. Please, you know how much I love you. I love you more than Eric ever could … Sookie …”

I shook my head and tsked, leaning into the stake just a little. I’d never really realised quite how much the way he said my name irritated me. He fell silent, feeling the sharp point against his skin. “Well, Bill, I knew you were a lying, cheating, disloyal, rapist piece of shit, but I used to think you had some redeeming qualities and maybe weren’t a complete pig. Apparently, I was wrong; you’re bacon to the bone, Bill. Goodbye.”

“No …!” he howled and convulsed against the hands holding him down, but I took a deep breath, raised the stake slightly and then jammed it into his body with all my renewed strength. It was the same feeling as the last time I’d done this – all the times I’d done this; the slight resistance followed by the sickeningly smooth slide into flesh. Bill’s despairing cry was lost in the disgusting noise as his blood gushed out and coated my hands and arms. I shied back, revolted, and watched as he disintegrated in front of me, like Christopher Lee in a Hammer horror movie. But this was way more realistic – James Cameron-quality CGI realistic …

Eric’s arm slipped round my shoulders as I forced myself to keep looking, breathing through my mouth, until it was over and there was nothing left. Just a black stain marking the site of the death of my first suitor, my first love, my first betrayer. And now my first execution.

Pam nodded in approval and Eric said, “beautifully done, lover. How do you … feel?” I could tell the question was a slightly uncomfortable one for him – he wasn’t used to thinking about others’ feelings, but for me he tried. That was another difference between him and the late unlamented Bill Compton; Eric was willing to change for my sake. Bill never had – he’d always expected me to change for him.

“Pretty good, actually. Pretty damn good.”

Closure. At last.

I smiled and got to my feet and went to the nearest puddle to rinse the last of Bill off me. There was quite a lot of it. Pam came with me and helped me out of the remains of Mr C’s windcheater before handing me her jacket again. I did the buttons up and smoothed my hair back into its ponytail as best I could, using the puddle as a mirror, then we went back to Eric. He held out a hand and pulled me to him. He placed a finger under my chin and tilted my face up. “You have some blood on your chin,” he said, and he bent his head and gently licked it off. The licking morphed into a gentle kiss, which steadily grew into a passionate sharing of emotion and longing and relief, and our bond burned brightly between us, saying all the things we couldn’t put into words…

A cough broke us apart and we looked round to see Mr Cataliades standing watching, with a benevolent smile on his round face.

“Oh, hey Mr Cataliades. How’s Barry?”

“Recovering nicely, thank you, Miss Stackhouse. He wasn’t too badly injured, after all, but I have important matters that need attending to, and I didn’t want him left unprotected so I took him to Bertine. He couldn’t be safer than with her – she knows his relationship to me, and she’ll take care of him. Incidentally, I feel you were correct, earlier; it is time I spoke with him about his heritage and I’ll do so shortly.”

“Where is Bertine?” I glanced around. “She did a pretty stellar job with the tornado, by the way.”

He smiled. “She went back to the basement to continue her research. She plans on moving the entire collection somewhere where scholars of all species can access it, and was talking about asking Durion for assistance. She has a lot of respect for him.”

I asked a question that had been puzzling me for some time. “Mr C, how come the Vlakas wards on that cell didn’t work on Bertine? Freyda seemed sure they would.”

He chuckled. “Sloppy research. Bertine is of Greek descent, and Freyda thought she was a member of a very ancient species originally called ouff. This was twisted over the centuries into oaf, which is the literal meaning of the word Vlakas, sometimes translated as stupid. So, Freyda thought the wards would be the appropriate ones to use, but Bertine is not an ouff – she’s a Telchine, originally from Rhodes, which is why she can control the weather – all her family can. But how are you?”

“Oh, I’m good, thanks. We’ve just dealt with Bill Compton – he won’t be troubling us again.”

He glanced at the stake which Pam had picked up and was hefting in a very professional manner, and raised an eyebrow. “I’m very glad to hear it. Is there anyone else who needs to be … dealt with?”

Eric considered for a moment, and said, “I don’t think so. Freyda, Felipe and Bill were the only real danger to us, and they’re all gone. How did you leave things in the annexe?”

“They were still fighting when I removed Barry. I didn’t linger, but I think someone in authority needs to take control.”

Eric frowned. “Stan outranks me – he should take charge if he’s fit to do so.”

“Ah – that’s a sensible suggestion. By all means, let him deal with the situation, but I do feel your presence would be welcomed by your own followers; they’re understandably anxious about your fate. I’ll come and inform Freyda’s people of her death, and deal with the vampires in the basement, but I think Texas would be grateful for your support.”

“Very well. You go ahead and we’ll join you shortly.”

Mr C vanished and Eric told Pam to meet him at the door to the annexe. She nodded and turned away, disappearing between the piles of rubble.

Eric put his arms round me, and was about to fly us both down to the ground, when I said, “do we have to do this? I really don’t want to go back there …”

“Why not? You will be quite safe with me – nothing will harm you.”

“It’s not that …. but that’s where Freyda died, and … and it was horrible, Eric. I’m trying hard to forget about it, but it’s real difficult and going back over there will just remind me.” I could feel his puzzlement and tried to explain better. “I know you think I’m all tough and some sort of warrior-shieldmaiden type, but I’m not really. I do what I have to, when I have to, but I don’t enjoy it and I really don’t enjoy the memories I get left with. Please, honey, can you go and I’ll just stay here ’til you come back. Or I could go down to the basement and see if Amelia’s okay; I don’t mind, honestly.”

He looked at me closely, knowing I was sincere in this.

“So it’s the memories that trouble you?”

“Yeah. I’ve got so many bad ones now, I don’t want any more.”

“You realise that we can do something about this?”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you once before that if I could glamour your pain away, I would. Well, now I can. If you would trust me to do so, I could remove all your bad memories for you.”

I clutched his arm, hope almost choking me. “Really?”

He smiled. “Yes, really. I’m quite skilled at this – I’ve had a lot of practice over the centuries. We’d need to talk about what you wanted to lose and what you needed to keep – it wouldn’t be sensible to remove all your memories of bad times, because memories of danger can keep you alive, but we can deal with the really unpleasant ones if we’re careful.”

“So I could forget about … Freyda’s death? And Lorena’s? And Adabelle Yancy’s?” That had been a particularly nasty one…

“Of course. And Neave and Lochlan if you wish.” Oh, that would be such a blessing … He continued, “you can lose Bill’s death too, if you want.”

I shook my head. “No. That one I want to keep.”

His smile widened in approval. “Good. So you like the idea?”

Oh God, to have a clean memory again. Well, cleaner … “Yes. I love the idea.”

“Then we’ll do it as soon as we have more time. Meanwhile, now that you know the memories will soon be gone for ever, do you think you’d be able to face coming with me? I don’t want you away from me.”

I nodded. “And I don’t want you away from me. Ever.”

“Then we’re of one mind. Let’s go and get this over with.” Then he lifted me in his arms and we floated gently over the parapet and down to the leaf-strewn lawn. He put me down and we walked towards the annexe, but before we got there, he paused under one of the trees and turned to me.

“Speaking of memories, I have a very vivid recollection of the time I lost mine and you took me into your home and protected me. On the night of the battle with the witches, I suggested that you and I should go away together and you said it sounded like a marriage. Do you remember?”

I smiled. “Yes, I never want to lose that memory – it’s one of my better ones. You were so sweet and sincere, and it was so hard to refuse you, but I think it was the right thing to do while you had amnesia. Why?”

“Because although we didn’t marry then, we did pledge with the knife later, when I recovered my wits. I know that you struggled with that, even though it was for your own safety.”

I was uncomfortable with the memory of the way he’d tricked me; I didn’t know why he was bringing it up and tried to walk on, but he took my arm. “Wait. Please. That pledging was dissolved when we signed the divorce papers. Which gives us the perfect opportunity for a … do over? Is that the correct expression?”

I nodded slowly, unable to speak as my heart fluttered inside me. He continued, “we have already been married according to vampire custom, so this time I wish to follow the human ritual.” And with that he knelt in front of me, took my hands and looked up at me, his blue eyes vivid in his pale face.

“Sookie, dearest one, I no longer have amnesia; I am in full possession of my mental faculties. So I hope this time you will not refuse me when I say that I love you and wish to stay with you. I want us to know each other’s bodies in every way, night after night. You will never be poor again – I will work for you and you will have everything you ever wanted. Will you marry me, according to the human tradition this time, in a church if you wish it?”

His face blurred a little as tears filled my eyes. “Eric, I loved you then, even if I didn’t know it, and that’s why I refused you. I love you now, and I do know it, so I would be happy and honoured to marry you, in a church or any other way you’ll have me.”

He rose to his feet, towering over me, his eyes alight, his beautiful slow smile doing strange things to my insides. God, how I loved this vampire! He was everything I ever wanted in a man; strong, protective, sweet, honourable, and all mine …

As he took me in his arms the memory of Bill Compton faded away as though it had never been, and I found myself looking forward to creating new and happy memories with my Viking for the rest of my life …

* * *

Well, there we have it. Unlike Sookie, we can’t have our bad memories erased, but I hope this story has in some small way helped to heal the anguish caused by she-who-must-not-be-encouraged, and that you will be able to forget the carcrash that was DEA.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.

Until the next time, I wish you all a fabulous Christmas, and a Happy Ever After.

AAE

PS As usual, if anyone has any ideas for a new storyline, please PM me …

Thx.

AAE&

Happy Ever After Chapter 16

Chapter 16

A/N

I know I said this would be the last chapter, but I found I didn’t have enough time to do the final wrap-up justice in one week – RL has been truly hectic, I’ve not been too well, (which might explain why I accidentally posted chapter 12 again last week, instead of chapter 15 *blushes* – thanks to those of you who alerted me.) and I simply couldn’t say everything I wanted to say in the time available.

Rather than leave you with nothing for this weekend, I decided it would be best to split the final chapter and post a short-ish piece, as being better than nothing, and continue to work on tying up all the loose ends. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d much rather take my time and get it right than rush it and leave you (and me) feeling dissatisfied. After all, we’ve had enough of rushed, poorly thought-out endings, haven’t we? *cough DEA cough*

So, I hope you like what I have managed to produce. Apologies if it’s a bit rougher than usual – I’ve not felt up to much this week.

AAE

* * *

Chapter 16

What? My heart sank as I stared at the bitch open-mouthed before my commonsense kicked in. Eric couldn’t be dead – I’d have felt the bond disappear, the same way he’d felt it go when I’d severed it magically. But I wasn’t getting anything through it and that could only mean one of two things – either he’d closed it down for some reason, or he was unconscious. I hoped desperately it wasn’t the second option, but meanwhile I had to focus on the danger in front of me.

“What have you done to him?” I backed slowly away from her. There was no other exit to the room, but I didn’t want to be any closer to her than I had to. I was still hoping Pam would arrive.

Freyda smiled smugly. “It’s more what he’s done to himself. He was stupid enough to try to stab me while I was wearing my amulet, and it rebounded on him. Literally.”

I couldn’t avoid a glance at her clothes – she was dressed in a smart pant suit in deep crimson, with a high-necked blouse, showing no trace of her run-in with Stan and Joe, or her recent argument with a couple of walls. But she wasn’t wearing the pendant now, so that meant … she saw the direction of my eyes and she snorted. “Eric thought he was so clever, persuading me to remove my jewels, but I don’t recall ever saying that the amulet was in the form of a pendant. Did I?”

I thought back, but she was right – she’d never mentioned it. We’d just made an assumption, and it had been a wrong one. She continued. “He was right about one thing though – only the cautious survive. I simply applied his own rule to him.”

He was right about something else, too – she really was clever. I suppose there was no way a vampire of her age was going to take over and hold a kingdom without some serious smarts; I reluctantly had to admit it.

“How did you know I was in the annexe?” I was stalling as hard as I could, hoping the cavalry would come charging over the hill any minute.

Instead a cool, familiar voice spoke up from behind her, saying, “that would be me.” and Bill stepped into the room. Of course. It would have to be Bill. He wasn’t smiling – he never smiled much – but there was a deeply self-satisfied air about him. “I called Her Majesty and let her know where you were.”

“You … you traitorous pig! How could you do that?”

He shrugged. “Like everyone else, I do what I have to, to get what I want. And you know what I want.” His dark eyes crawled over me and I shuddered with loathing. How had I ever trusted this man? He still hadn’t answered my original question.

“But how did you know I was here?”

“Did you think after all the time we spent together, and our closeness, I wouldn’t recognise the scent of your blood?” He touched his ear, and I raised a hand to my own, remembering too late that I’d been struck by a flying branch. I hadn’t realised until now that it had cut me, but although the wound was already healed, thanks to Eric’s blood, there was still a damp red stain on my fingers.

“I thought you were in the library. How could you smell it from there?”

He continued. “I … er … left the library.” Damn, Farrell’s attentions must have made Bill’s uptight ass too nervous to stay … “I happened to be passing through the foyer and detected your blood, and informed the Queen.”

Freyda broke in, tired of being ignored. “Enough of this. Compton, go and deal with the Ravenscroft woman, Eric’s second. She’s currently looking for her maker in the main building.”

“Yes, my Queen.” He bowed, but then hesitated. “Er … deal with her how?”

She looked at him impatiently. “Kill her, of course.”

He was open-mouthed now. “Kill her? But … but she’s a lot stronger than I am. She’s centuries older than me.” I remembered Bill telling me this on the first night I went to Fangtasia with him. I’d always thought it was odd, because Pam had mentioned to me that she hadn’t had a haircut in a hundred and fifty years, presumably since she was made vampire, so if Bill was turned in the War of Northern Aggression …

Freyda’s tone was dry as she said, “and who told you she was so much older than you?”

“Eric did … oh.”

The realisation dawned on his face before Freyda said, “he was lying, you idiot. She’s almost exactly the same age as you, but she’s female, so you’ll be physically stronger. You should have no trouble dispatching her. Now do as you’re bid.” I didn’t say anything, but I had a feeling Pam wouldn’t be quite the pushover Freyda was suggesting.

Meanwhile Bill was still dwelling on Eric’s deception. “So, all the time she was ordering me around, making me wear …” His jaw tightened as he remembered his humiliation at Fangtasia, and realised that he’d unnecessarily gone in fear of Pam ever since he moved back to Bon Temps. His fists clenched. “I’ll kill her for this.”

Freyda’s eyes rolled. “That’s the idea. Now go and do it.”

He nodded deeply and was gone in a blur of speed, while Freyda turned her attention to me again. “Now, how to best dispose of you …” Her eyes narrowed and she tapped her lower lip thoughtfully with one polished fingernail, as she considered possibilities I didn’t want to know about.

“Are you sure you want to dispose of me? I thought you needed a telepath.” Not that I wanted to work for her, but while I was alive, there was hope I could reach Eric.

“I have one. With Texas out of the way and his vampires all under arrest, his boy is available for the taking. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do as soon as I’ve finished with you. I’d have disposed of you already if Eric hadn’t turned up and coached you to resist my glamour somehow. I don’t know where he came up with that ludicrous story of you being attacked in the basement, but …” the words trailed off as her eyes lit up with satisfaction; she’d obviously had an idea. Oh crap. “And I think that will do nicely. Come along.” She moved towards me with the speed of a striking cobra and I yelped as she gripped my hair painfully.

She dragged me from the room, holding me bent over at the waist and although I struggled, I couldn’t break her grip. I tried to kick at her legs, but she shook me like a rat and tightened her hold “Or I could break your neck here, if you prefer.”

I winced and my eyes teared up but I stopped struggling and tried to keep my footing as she hauled me along the tiled passage, the click of her heels relentless. I could hear shouting from down the hallway, and even though I couldn’t see anything I suspected Freyda’s guards were meeting with resistance as they tried to round up all the Texas and Louisiana vampires.

I desperately tried to focus through the pain in my scalp, and felt again for my connection with Eric, but there was nothing there. I choked down my rising panic and tried for Mr Cataliades. We were both telepaths, I’d heard his mind when we were in the suite, and it had to be worth a shot. Hell, I was out of options here – I’d try anything.

Freyda opened a door at the end of the passage and begin pulling me down some steps. I stumbled and nearly fell down the whole flight, crying out in pain as she dragged me back up by the hair, not slowing for an instant.

We came out into an huge open area with a brick floor, which looked as though it ran the whole length of the annexe. I knew where we were; Eric’s description of the basement containing the entrance to the refuge for drained vampires was very accurate. With a sinking feeling, I began to realise what she was planning. I hoped I was wrong, and doubled my efforts to contact Mr Cataliades…

She dropped me to the floor and took a seat in front of me. Her elegant shoes and slim legs were in my eye range, but I didn’t look up; I stayed where I was, catching my breath and gently feeling my scalp with one hand, trying to figure out how much hair she’d yanked out.

“So, human, here we are. You recognise this room, of course? Where you had your ‘unfortunate experience?’ Her sarcasm put the quote marks round the words as clearly as if she’d done the ‘air quotes’ gesture with her fingers. I looked up through my hair, and her smile was a particularly nasty one.

She went on, “I’m afraid you’re about to have another ‘unfortunate experience.’ But there’s no-one to save you this time.” She waved one hand in the direction of an open doorway at the far end of the room and my eyes followed the gesture. I could see some beds with vampires lying on them, while others were seated in chairs. They glanced in our direction, but then looked away again; they seemed quite apathetic.

“The wards on that door will allow you in, but I’m very much afraid they won’t allow you back out without permission from one of my staff. Although your blood won’t heal the inmates, Bill assures me it’s very tasty, and a little human snack could be just what they need to cheer them up. You …” she was interrupted as someone came clattering down the stairs. It was one of her guards. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I think you ought to see what’s happening outside.”

“What do you mean?”

“The storm has worsened – it’s reaching tornado strength and it’s hitting the palace hard. Do you want to order an evacuation?”

While Freyda sighed and dealt with Bertine’s little diversion, I hastily summoned all my mental strength for one final push. I don’t know if my terror boosted my output, but suddenly Mr C came through loud and clear.

Sookie? What’s wrong, child? Where are you?

In the annexe, down near the refuge in the basement. Eric’s hurt, Freyda’s here and she’s going to put me in with the drained vampires. Help me!

Hold on – I’m coming.

I knew he wouldn’t be long, which was just as well, because Freyda finished her instructions, the guard saluted and left, and then she turned her attention back to me. She stood and dragged me to my feet, forcing me in front of her across the twenty feet or so that separated me from the refuge.

The vampires inside had started to move towards the door now, clearly having registered what was happening. Eric had said there were nine, and on a hasty count I could see five at the door. I guessed the other four were too weak to leave their beds, but that didn’t help me much – five hungry vampires was still five too many. I dug my heels in, and tried to resist, but it didn’t do much good – she was vampire strong.

I reached back and clawed at her eyes as best I could. She hissed and her grip loosened slightly, but it wasn’t enough. Oh Jesus, I was losing the fight …

“Your Majesty, what is happening here?”

Thank God – Short of Eric, Mr C’s voice was the most welcome sound I could hope to hear right now.

Freyda spun round, releasing me as she did so, and then she relaxed when she saw who was speaking to her. The lawyer was already beginning to look a lot more like his old self. Even though still thinner than normal, he was standing tall and his face had lost that haggard look that had so worried me.

“Oh. It’s you, Cataliades. There’s nothing happening that need concern you.”

“On the contrary, ma’am, you appear to be coercing Miss Stackhouse for some reason. This concerns me greatly.”

“I don’t see why. She’s a human – nothing more.”

“Again, I beg to differ – she is considerably more than a human. But whatever her heritage, Miss Stackhouse belongs to Sheriff Northman, and for any vampire to interfere with another vampire’s human is a very serious matter.”

She snorted contemptuously. “Sheriff Northman will not be bothering us again, I can assure you of that.” Her eyes narrowed. “And do I need to remind you that any interference on your part with my plans could have very serious consequences?”

He bowed, but refused to back down. Of course, Freyda didn’t know that her leverage was gone, and for some reason he didn’t seem to want to enlighten her just yet. She’d forgotten all about me now as he continued to argue with her, and I wondered if his plan was to keep her distracted until I could get away.

He and Freyda were between me and the stairs we’d come down, but Eric had been right when he’d mentioned a number of other doors in the basement. I looked round, but they were all closed except for the one into the refuge.

The vampires had lined up on the far side of it now, and were staring avidly across the basement. Their fangs had emerged and one or two of them had the glowing eyes which meant they were feeling very strong emotion. I swallowed hard, sensing their bloodlust, but then I realised … it wasn’t me they were staring at; it was Freyda.

Of course – drained vampires needed vampire blood to recover. Although they wouldn’t turn down a tasty human, their instincts would send them after the nearest source of vampire blood. Which, in this case, was …

A lightbulb slowly brightened in my mind, and my hand reached for my pocket. Amelia’s bunker-buster charm was still there, and I stealthily pulled it out and unscrewed the lid.

With one swift motion and a swifter prayer, I splashed the liquid onto the apparently empty air between the vampires and myself, and they all recoiled instinctively, but then watched in fascination as the goo dripped down an invisible wall.

I checked Freyda again, but she was involved in a heated argument with Mr C, and was now very clearly threatening him. She was obviously frustrated and puzzled that her threats didn’t seem to be having any effect on him, and was almost stamping her foot in rage.

I looked at the nearest vampire, and beckoned silently. A dark brow lifted questioningly, and I nodded and beckoned again. He hesitated, looked at Freyda again and licked his lips. Then he reached for a book lying on the nearest bed and I hastily stood to the side as he tossed it at the door. Of course it sailed through, and fell on the floor with a thump.

Freyda whirled to face the sound, and her eyes widened as the vampire took a single step over the threshold. I flattened myself against the wall by the door – no point in drawing attention to myself – as Freyda stared in disbelief and horror as a second vampire emerged, followed by the other three. They hissed softly, their gaze riveted on her, and she took a step backwards. For possibly the first time in a long while, she suddenly knew what it felt like to be prey rather than predator.

She must have realised she would stand no chance against five starving vampires; even if they were not at full strength, their hunger would drive them and between them they would take her down like a pack of wolves on a buck. She began to back towards the door to the upper floors, but bumped into Mr C who was between her and her escape route.

“Protect me Cataliades. Protect me and I’ll release the Professor immediately.”

He smiled. “Your Majesty is most generous, but I believe I won’t trouble you to do that.” She tried to go round him but she found her arms pinioned at her sides. Freyda was tall and strong, but the demon was taller and, as it turned out, a lot stronger. She struggled in his grip, thrashing about, but he held her as though she was no stronger than a despised human.

She threw back her head and yelled for her guards. They came running, but Mr C said a short word and a sheet of blue flame sprang up in the doorway with a roar. I’d forgotten demons could control fire – there was no way the guards were getting through that.

Then she tried appealing to the approaching vampires, although she sounded a little hoarse now. “Stay back. Return to your room and I’ll send you some vampires straight away. At least one each. You can drain them completely, I swear.” I didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she was thinking of the Eric’s and Stan’s followers.

The approaching vampires paused briefly, and she smiled, but the lure of her blood was too strong – they came on again, and now there was a scraping sound as the four remaining vampires hauled themselves from their beds and came shuffling through the door, intent on feeding. They didn’t even glance in my direction, but I could see how weak they were as they passed me, their limbs shaking as they dragged their emaciated bodies towards Freyda. They could barely stand, but their bloodlust was driving them to feed on the nearest source.

Freyda tried again. “You can’t hurt me anyway – I’m wearing a reversus amulet.”

I had no idea what that meant, but even if the silent vampires stalking her knew they didn’t so much as pause in their slow advance, and Mr C smiled and looked at me.

“I’ve been having a most interesting chat with Mr Fielding, the curator. He tells me that a reversus amulet is a very ancient Fae device that protects the wearer by causing any attack to rebound directly on the attacker. If these vampires try to bite the Queen, their own flesh will be torn in equal measure. As long as she’s wearing the amulet, of course.”

He released one arm, and reached up, plucking the intricate gold clip that I’d noticed before from her hair. She shrieked with outrage. “No! I’ll kill you for this! I’ll kill you all!” and her nails went straight for his eyes, but he tossed the hairclip to me and pinned her arm again with no trouble. I caught the clip and instantly felt a buzz against my leg as the penhallin, which was still in my pocket, registered the proximity of a powerful magical object. I quickly twisted my own hair up and fastened it in place, just in case…

Freyda wasn’t going to go down easily; she was still fighting, with the desperation of someone who could see defeat looming and yet refused to give in. She spoke directly to the lead vampire, whose eyes were burning as though lit from within.

“I command you to stop. I am your Queen and you will obey me.” It didn’t work. She tried again. “Forrester … Matthew … don’t do this. You remember me, I’m the one who saved you from the drainers. I gave you shelter, remember? You don’t want to harm me … please …” Appealing to a vampire’s better nature? Yeah, like that was going to work.

Whatever she was going to say next, it was too late. The first vampire reached her as Mr C held her fast by the upper arms. The white hands fastened in the neckline of her blouse and she shrieked as, with one downward movement, he tore the front of it clean off, exposing her bare breasts. With an indescribable sound of mingled hunger and satisfaction he buried his fangs in her pale flesh, and two other vampires snatched at her wrists, fastening onto them like enormous leeches.

“No! Get off! Get them off me! Help me, please!” her cries were desperate now, her eyes wild. She even looked across at me, as though hoping I would rescue her, but even if I’d wanted to, there was nothing I could have done. Mr C released his grip and stepped back, she staggered and then went down under the weight of the ravenous vampires swarming her.

The weaker patients reached her now, some barely able to do more than claw at her thrashing legs, shredding her pants and sinking their fangs in wherever they exposed skin. She was almost invisible under the heaving press of starving bodies, and I was reminded horribly of a shark feeding frenzy I’d seen on Discovery.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the hideous spectacle, until Mr Cataliades came across and stood in front of me, shielding me from the sight. Unfortunately, I could still hear everything. Freyda’s doomed cries rang through the basement, bouncing off the stone walls, mingling with the roar of the flames and the growls and snarls and slurps of the feeding vampires.

I shuddered and buried my head in his chest and his arms went round me as her screams rose in pitch; vampires usually only died through staking, beheading, fire or sunlight; they could survive pretty much anything else, but I wasn’t sure anything of Freyda would be left after this. It sounded as though they were tearing her to pieces as they fed…

This was confirmed as something white landed near us with a revolting wet splat, and when I looked, a bloodstained hand was lying on the floor. Oh God, it was still twitched, as though even now it still lived and felt … I felt sick, but couldn’t look away as the disgusting thing trembled and the fingers moved, almost beckoning me … I saw that the nails were bare and realised that this must have been the hand that had been injured by Amelia’s wards. Although vampires could restore damaged flesh, they couldn’t restore damaged nail polish and Freyda hadn’t had time to re-do it.

The horrible object’s spasms gradually grew still, and at last Freyda’s screams faded too, but I could still hear them echoing in my ears. I doubted I’d ever forget the sound of the vampire Queen’s agony in the last minutes of her existance.

The vampires were still feeding, and Mr C said, “we must not be here when they finish. They’ll be looking for other food sources.”

I was more than happy to get out of what had become Freyda’s tomb. “Okay, but how do we stop them leaving the basement?” I was worried about the prospect of nine vampires, hungry almost to the point of insanity, being loose in the annexe and then further afield.

The demon muttered some further words I didn’t understand and the blue flame suddenly filled each doorway. It was beautiful to look at but very weird – I could feel the heat, but it didn’t seem to be burning the wooden doors or frames around it.

“Levin fire,” he said. “It will keep them in the basement, but I control it – it won’t spread, so it’s no danger to the building. Now, shall we go?”

I nodded and his arms gripped me firmly. This was my first experience of teleporting, but it didn’t feel like very much at all – there was a faint rushing sound and suddenly we were standing in the passageway at the top of the stairs. The shouting I’d heard as I’d been dragged down to the basement was still going on – I thought I could make out Indira’s voice, and I could definitely hear Maxwell Lee protesting and demanding to see Eric. I realised it had only been a few minutes since Freyda had dragged me downstairs, even though it had seemed like a long time.

But in that few minutes, things had moved on some; the shouting wasn’t all we could hear. There was now a roaring, moaning noise filling the air, which grew louder and louder as I stepped out of Mr C’s hold and we hurried along the hallway towards the front of the building. By the time we reached the foyer, we could hardly hear ourselves over the sound of the wind raging round the corners of the annexe. It was the most appalling din, and it was accompanied by the rattle of hailstones on the patio outside and thuds and crashes as larger objects were hurled against the building.

I looked around fearfully, and Mr Cataliades yelled, “I don’t think it would be safe to be out in the open at the moment, but we can teleport anywhere you want to go.”

I was having to speak at almost screaming level. “The palace. I need to find Eric. And Pam – we have to warn her about Bill.”

He nodded. “Have you any idea where Mr Northman might be?”

“He went …” suddenly the sound of the wind dropped, and I found myself yelling into what felt like complete silence.

I was startled, and Mr C said, at normal volume, “this is the eye of the tornado – we’re right in the middle of it. The calm will last for a few minutes before the other edge reaches us. What were you saying?”

I tried again. “Eric went to Freyda’s suite with her, on the top floor. He said he was going to kill her there, so I guess that’s where he’ll be. Unless she’s had him taken somewhere else.”

Mr C frowned. “We have to start somewhere, but I don’t think the top floor would be a good idea at the moment. Let’s take a look.”

He cautiously opened the front door and we both stepped out into an eerie stillness. The sky was a strange shade of green and the lawn was white with hailstones, but Mr C was pointing to the palace. I gasped as I looked up through the stripped branches of the trees, towards the upper stories. Or maybe I should say, towards where the upper stories used to be.

Bertine had done a pretty comprehensive job – There didn’t seem to be much left in the way of a roof and the remains of the top floor looked like a ruin from the days of the Civil War – just walls … I didn’t know how anything could still be alive up there, but if that’s where Eric was, that’s where I had to go.

I turned to the demon. “Mr Cataliades, now that Freyda’s …” I swallowed as the memory of what I’d seen downstairs re-surfaced, but then I forced it down. “Now that Freyda’s dead, could you get Miss Bertine to call off the tornado, do you think? We don’t need it any more.”

He nodded. “I’m sure I can. Let me take you over to the palace first. I think we’d better start on a lower floor and find our way up when it’s safe to do so. Are you sure you’re ready for this?” I knew he wasn’t just asking if I was ready to teleport. He was asking if I was ready for whatever I might find over there.

I nodded. “C’mon, let’s do this.”

He took my hand, and together we vanished from the debris-strewn patio, heading for the palace and whatever awaited us there.

* * *

So Felipe’s gone, Freyda’s gone; who’s left, I wonder …

See you next time. Thanks for reading. 🙂

AAE

About Immortal Beloved

blog
Immortal Beloved

For any of you who enjoyed Immortal Beloved, or are in the process of reading it only to find it has vanished from your screens, I’m truly sorry I wasn’t able to let you know in advance, but I have no way of knowing who is reading it. IB has been completed for a full year now, and I am very flattered to say that I have recently received some interest from a publisher for it (in modified form). Because I don’t think it can stay on the internet if it’s going to be published I have, regretfully, had to remove it. Please forgive me if you were in the middle of it; If you want to continue reading it, then PM me my email: merrylanderson1@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to send you a pdf/mobi/epub version.

To all those of you who read/reviewed/fave’d it, you will never know how grateful I am for all your kindness – its success was entirely down to you, the readers, and I was really astonished at its reception.

I shan’t stop writing fanfic – I enjoy it way too much – and I shall post something new when inspiration strikes, I promise.

With thanks, again, for the time you spent with me, enjoying the adventures of King Eric and Fairy Sookie…

AAE

1474785_477002735753777_350263566_n KingEric

Happy Ever After Chapter 15

*Chapter 15*

Sorry – hit the wrong button and posted chapter 12 instead of 15. My bad 😦

Chapter 15

SPOV

I turned to Mr C, horrified at what I’d done. “Can you contact Bertine for me? Find out what Freyda took?”

“What do you mean?” I’d forgotten the lawyer hadn’t been around when Eric had asked me to text him, and I quickly told him what Eric wanted, even though I couldn’t explain why it was important. Mr C frowned and said, “I can ask her, but she probably doesn’t remember – she may well not have noticed. I’m sure you’ve seen how focussed she can get when she’s working.”

“Please will you try? I need to know as soon as possible.”

He nodded and closed his eyes. While he was doing that I helped Amelia gather what she wanted to take with her. She wasn’t sure what to do with the tunic of Nessus and the unused jar of ward-melting potion so she offered them to me. I wasn’t sure what to do with the tunic either but I didn’t want leave it in the suite in case it got trashed by Hurricane Bertine, so in the end I asked her to take it down to the basement with her; if anything happened to me, it would be easier for her to get it to Durion, with her witch connections.

She agreed and wrapped it carefully before adding it to her bag along with the rest of her magic ingredients. I was surprised she was taking them along, but she said she was going to pick an empty room and set up some good solid wards, just in case the drugged vampires recovered too soon and didn’t appreciate their hangovers … she would probably add a little anti-tornado warding to the mix, just in case.

“Surely you won’t need that? I mean, if you’re down in the basement, it’ll be like a storm cellar – you’re as safe there as anywhere.”

“I know, but just in case. I don’t know how bad it’s gonna get, but Bertine looked pretty pissed off to me. If she can control this tornado, how do you know she won’t send it into the basement deliberately?”

Ah. She had a point. “Well, tell you what – why don’t you go back to the treasure cell? I’ll bet the one thing she’d never do is destroy all those precious objects. You’d be safe there.”

“I thought she locked it when she left.”

I thought. “There’ll be more than one key – I’ll bet one of the guards has one.”

“Okay, I’ll do that if I can get Cal to come with me.”

“How are you going to explain what’s happening to him?”

She grinned. “I’ll find a way. Durion’s blood has really ramped up my strength so I can put down a pretty powerful attraction spell right now, and if that doesn’t work I’ll just lay a trail of lingerie; he’d follow that to kingdom come.”

“Miss Stackhouse!” That was Mr C calling from the living area where he’d been sitting. I shot out of Amelia’s room to see if he’d had any luck.

“I’m afraid Bertine has no idea what Freyda removed. She suggests you ask Mr Fielding, the Queen’s curator; apparently he was with Freyda, and he keeps very careful records of what’s where.”

I sighed. “Somehow I can’t see him giving me that information. Eric said he’s really anal; he’d need an order signed in triplicate before he’d tell you the time.”

“Is it really important?”

I nodded, frustrated beyond measure that I couldn’t tell him why.

“Then would you like me to try and persuade him for you?”

“You’d do that? Would he tell you?”

Mr C smiled, and it wasn’t a pleasant sight. “For you, Miss Stackhouse, I most certainly would. And yes, he will tell me. Now that I’m no longer forced to obey Queen Freyda I can, shall we say, extend myself a little.”

I know Eric didn’t think much of his offensive powers, but from where I was standing, Desmond Cataliades looked a pretty formidable enemy. I mean, even if he hadn’t been a half-demon, he was still a lawyer…

“I’d be really grateful. Could you do it, like, now? I think it’s something Eric needs to know straight away.” As soon as Eric came back, I was going to ask him to lift this damn glamour. Surely it couldn’t be important any more.

“I’m the one who should be grateful. You have no idea how badly I felt at being forced to do Freyda’s bidding. I’ve already told Diantha and asked her to let her father know the good news. He’ll probably want to show his gratitude too.”

I had no idea what form the gratitude of a full demon would take, but now wasn’t the time to be distracted. “So, do you know where to find this curator?”

“I’m sure he’s where he always is – in the treasury. I’ll go along there straight away. Please don’t leave the room until I come back, child – without Mr Northman you might not be safe. However, I suggest you occupy yourself by calling young Barry and warning him to get to safety.”

“Where do you think would be safest?”

He frowned. “Bertine tells me she is just going to target this floor but there could well be damage elsewhere, so you should really leave the building to be safe.”

“How about the annexe? That’s where all Eric’s vampires are housed, and the Texas ones too. It’s not part of this building – it’s the other side of the gardens.”

“That would be fine. And now I’ll go and talk to Mr Fielding.” He looked around him. “Do you have any weapons here? Anything to protect yourself with while I’m gone?”

I pulled the silver dagger from my waistband. “I’ve got this from Freyda’s treasury – it’s pretty magical.” I explained about the penhallin and he took the weapon from me very carefully. I hadn’t had a chance to examine it closely, but now that I did so, I could see it wasn’t just silver; the handle was some sort of black wood – ebony, maybe? – and the silver seemed to be like a heavy filigree covering for something else, but it was hard to make it out through the shiny metal squirls.

Mr C’s eyebrows rose. “this is very impressive,” he said. “Do you know what it is?” When I shook my head, he continued, “this is part of Gae Bulga – the spear of Cuchulainn. I’ll tell you the history of it another time, but suffice it to say that it’s particularly deadly to vampires, because it’s made from silver and bone – the bone of a sea monster.” He turned it so I could see the pale ivory color between the silver curlicues.

I was puzzled. “I can understand the silver bit, but what makes bone particularly deadly?”

“Have you never wondered why you’re always told that only a wooden stake will work on a vampire? It’s because wood was once alive and is now dead – just like a vampire. And bone is the same; once alive, now dead. But, of course, wood is much easier to come by than bone, so that’s what most people use. But this,” he hefted the dagger. “This would finish any vampire off, so be very careful with it.”

I nodded and he handed it back to me. “I’ll be back as soon as possible. Don’t leave the suite.”

He really didn’t need to keep repeating himself, but I didn’t want to be rude – he was only looking out for me. “Okay. And thanks, Mr Cataliades.” I put my hand on his arm, and instantly picked up the buzz from his mind. He smiled at me, placed his hand over mine and for the first time ever I heard his thoughts clearly.

No thanks are necessary, child. Believe me. I shall return as soon as possible.

And then he vanished from sight and I sighed. For once I wished I had more than just a smidge of fairy blood – teleporting would have been so useful right about now…

Enough regrets. I focussed on what needed doing. First off, I had to call Barry. I focussed carefully, and found him still in the next door suite, his frustration coming through loud and clear. He latched onto my mind eagerly and I told him what had happened downstairs. He was gleeful that his reading of the Weres had been so helpful, and I explained to him who and what Bertine was.

He’d met Mr C, but had no idea that he was the lawyer’s great-great-great grandson. I shielded that information from him as hard as I could, but it was really difficult. You know if someone tells you not to think about a pink elephant, it suddenly becomes the hardest thing in the world not to think about? I’d had plenty of practice in my life shielding my reactions to people’s thoughts, but I wasn’t used to other people ferreting around in my mind and I was worried that it might slip out. I’d already decided I’d speak to the lawyer and ask him to tell Barry the truth – after all, it seemed wrong for me to know and not the person it most affected.

But for now, there was enough going on for him not to be focussed on getting any deeper into my mind than I chose to allow. I warned him what was going to happen, and told him to tell all the Texas vamps to get over to the annexe asap. I suggested he try calling Stan and Joe, but he said he didn’t want to distract them at what might be a crucial moment in whatever they were doing. He had a point, and I decided not to call Eric for the same reason; there was intense concentration coming down the bond right now, which I took to be a good sign. I’d text him as soon as Mr Cataliades got back with the information we needed, and then he could check his cell when he was free.

Barry promised to head right on out to the annexe and I disconnected as I heard Amelia coming out of her room. “Okay, I think I’ve got everything,” she said, hoisting a duffle-bag bulging at the seams. She turned and faced her room, then closed her eyes.

“What are you doing?”

She looked at me, mildy pissed at being interrupted, and said, “I’m re-doing the wards on this room. You remember we melted them?” There was still an embarrassingly large hole in the carpet, and we’d had to throw several towels away. “I’m putting them back, at maximum strength.”

“Do you have time?” I looked nervously at my watch.

“I want to give you all the protection I can while Eric’s not here. Remember what happened last time someone took your wards down and forgot to put ’em back up again?” She looked at me pointedly, and I grimaced ruefully at the memory of being chased by killers. Again. “This is back-up in case anyone gets through the main door somehow. It’ll only take ten minutes, and Eric would want me to do it.” There was no arguing with that, so I saved my breath and she began again. I could read a fierce determination in her mind that if she couldn’t be with me, at least she wasn’t going to let me down.

It seemed longer than ten minutes and I was getting real antsy, but at last she opened her eyes, took a deep breath and said, “there. There’s nothing getting through that sucker. I’ve re-set the wards to just you, me, Eric and anyone we choose to let in. With any luck you won’t need it, but just in case … now I’ve gotta go. And, thanks for not fighting me on this.”

I rolled my eyes. “Would it have done any good?”

She grinned. “Maybe. Probably not.”

“That’s pretty much what I figured.”

Her grin slipped a little as she said, “stay safe, Sook. Don’t leave the room until Eric gets back, and I’ll see you when it’s all over.”

We hugged, hard, and then I checked for vampire minds in the hallway before giving her the all clear. She hurried away and I watched her turn the corner before closing and locking the door carefully.

Then I sat down on one of the couches and looked around me. The room was completely silent, and felt empty without Eric. I glanced at my watch, startled to see that nearly forty minutes had passed since we’d left the cell block. Time was running out …

I was torn between going to the annexe, where I’d be safe from tornadoes, or waiting in the suite, where I’d be safe from pretty much everything except tornadoes. I wondered what Eric would want me to do, and decided to text him. He needed to know what was happening (after all, I didn’t want him turning up at the palace just in time to be hit with Bertine’s little surprise), and I needed his advice. I picked up my phone and was startled as it vibrated in my hand.

It nearly fell, but I caught it and looked at the ID. Thank God, it was Eric. I answered and the first thing I heard was a loud rushing sound, his voice almost lost in the noise.

“Sookie? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, just about. What’s that noise?”

“It’s the wind – I’m flying as fast as I can. Where are you?”

“I’m in our suite.”

“Don’t leave it, whatever you do.” I rolled my eyes, but didn’t comment – the urgency in his voice came across even through the roaring of the wind.

“What’s happening?”

“We were betrayed. Someone warned Freyda – probably Bill – and she attacked Joe and Stan before they were ready. She injured them both seriously and she’s on her way to the palace right now – I don’t know what she’s planning, but you must stay behind the wards. She wants blood.”

Unfortunately, I knew that wasn’t a just a colourful metaphor. I looked at the door and shuddered, hoping the wards would hold against a furious vampire queen.

“How long will you be?”

“Less than five minutes, I hope, but I’m heading straight into the wind, and it’s slowing me down – I’ve never encountered it so fierce; it feels like Hurricane Katrina again, and it’s getting stronger.”

Oh crap. I knew what that was about. But before I could tell him, he said, “I’m almost close enough to mindspeak you, but I don’t know how much of a headstart Freyda has. Did you find out what she took from Bertine’s cell? Whatever it was, it protected her from Joe’s stake.”

Oh crap. “Bertine didn’t know. Mr C’s just gone to force the treasury curator to tell him, but he’s not back yet.”

Eric cursed briefly, but colourfully. “If Cataliades is doing that, I take it you freed Bertine?”

“Uh … kind of. It’s a long story.”

“We don’t have time for it now. Can you hear my mind yet?”

“Don’t know – say something.”

His mind said I am hurrying as fast as I can, dear one. Be strong, and I’ll be with you in a few minutes. That was a relief – he was close enough to mindspeak. I disconnected the phone as he said there’s a bad storm coming, I can see the clouds building up ahead of me but I should beat it to the palace.

That’s Bertine’s doing – she’s really pissed and she’s bringing a tornado down from Wichita, but she’s only going to hit the palace with it. Can you tell Pam to get all your vampires to the annexe? Mr Cataliades says they’ll be safe there.

I’ll call her straight away. Pam’s on her way, but she and the others can’t fly; they’re coming at vampire speed, but it’s still less direct through the streets. Freyda will beat her, and probably me. Something you need to know – the excuse Pam came up with for getting me away from Freyda was that you were attacked by a vampire while visiting over in the annexe, and she called me to come and heal you. That’s where I’ve supposedly been since I left her. If Freyda reaches you before I do, remember to stick to that story.

Did it work? Did you get Felipe?

Fierce exultation through the bond. Yes. And Angie and Horst. Sandy’s the only one left of the hierarchy, and I doubt if the Nevada vampires will follow her. The infighting will mean they won’t be looking beyond their own borders for years to come.

My exultation would have matched his but at that moment I heard swift footsteps out in the hallway, and then the door-handle rattled. Oh crap.

Someone’s at the door. I think it’s Freyda.

Don’t panic, dear one and I’ll be with you in a few moments. Stay connected, and whatever you do, don’t let her in.

Like I was about to …

Then I heard a well-remembered voice, the one I’d been dreading…

“I know you’re in there, human; open this door at once.”

“Sorry, uh, Your Majesty, but Eric told me not to let anyone in.”

She tried the handle again and said, “don’t be ridiculous. He didn’t mean me; this is my palace. Now open up.”

I didn’t respond and I could practically hear her taking a deep breath and trying to be reasonable.

“I only want to talk. I’m concerned for you. Eric said you were injured.”

“That’s right. He brought me back here to rest – I’m not supposed to have visitors.” I tried to sound weak and convalescent.

“who attacked you?”

“I don’t know his name – he didn’t bother introducing himself.”

“This is ridiculous. I can’t have humans being attacked in my palace. I’m coming in.”

“The door’s locked.”

A nasty chuckle. “I don’t think that will trouble me.”

I heard a snapping sound and the door handle fell off, letting the door swing inwards.

I prayed that the ward would hold. Amelia hadn’t wanted any accidents when people knocked on the door, or accidentally brushed against it as they passed in the hallway, so she’d set it to only operate if someone uninvited tried to cross the threshold

But that’s exactly what Freyda attempted to do. She took one step forward and there was a sizzling sound and a scream; she’d suffered the same fate as Bill. Through the open door I could see staff hurrying to help her up from where she lay against the far wall, but she brushed them aside, getting to her feet and straightening her clothes with angry tugs at the fabric.

Then she was just outside the open doorway, her eyes glittering, her fangs on full display. She was a mess, with blood all over her clothes and face. “You stupid bloodbag, how dare you ward my own palace against me?”

I could see she was really big on this whole ‘my palace’ thing, but I didn’t see what she could do about it.

A minute later, I found out. She stepped out of sight, and there was a crash and the wall next to the door shook, the light bracket vibrated and some flakes of coloured plaster fell to the floor.

Oh fuck, she was coming through the wall!

I didn’t know how far out from the door the wards extended, but I doubted Ames had done more than the door. I mean, who would ever imagine someone coming through the freaking wall?

Eric, she’s breaking the wall down! At this point I began to back slowly towards Amelia’s room.

Nearly there … hang on, lover, stall her for a few seconds more. His voice was calm, but I could feel how frantic he was through the bond.

There was no doubt about Freyda’s intentions now; in a scene straight out of The Shining, a hole appeared in the wall and the vampire queen’s furious face became visible. I almost expected her to say ‘here’s Johnny!’ but she didn’t say a word; she simply hissed and began to enlarge the hole.

It took only seconds before it was almost large enough for her to enter, and I bolted into Amelia’s room and turned just in time to see her kick the last of the drywall aside and step through. Now I could see her fully, and it was a scary sight. Her hair had mostly come loose from its complicated gold clip and the blood streaking her face was mingled with the white plaster dust into a macabre mask. She looked like the world’s most frightening clown, but somehow I didn’t feel like laughing.

She looked around and smiled evilly when she saw me. “Ah, there you are.”

“Your Majesty, what’s going on?” I gulped and tried to speak normally, appearing confused-slash-innocent.

“Well, my dear, you don’t look too badly injured to me. Let’s see if we can do something about that, shall we?”

Her voice was an ominous hiss as she moved towards me. She reminded me of Medusa the snake-haired gorgon who could turn men to stone with a look. She came at me at vampire speed and I shut my eyes in reflex, stumbling back until I bumped into the bed and sat down heavily. There was a loud shriek and then a foul smell that rivalled Amelia’s efforts from that afternoon, but this one had a sickly sweet component to it, reminiscent of a barbecue gone hideously wrong …

When I dared look, Freyda was cradling her hand, and smoke was rising from it. I remembered the incinerated orange from earlier and hoped her hand was in a similar state, but I knew she would heal in minutes, and strong as this ward was, it was still only a delaying tactic. If she could come through the outer wall, she could come through this one too.

She knew that as well as I did, and she struck the wall with her good fist. Although I could feel the warmth that meant Eric was near, I knew I didn’t have long, and looked around me for something I could use as a weapon. The dagger in my waistband was a start, but I didn’t know if I could get close enough to her to use it. My eye caught the jar of anti-ward charm Amelia had left behind. It had melted through the carpet; maybe it would do the same with Freyda’s face if I threw it as she broke in, then while she was blinded I could stab her …

I picked up the jar but before I could move from the bed I heard a welcome voice behind her, saying, “May I help you, Freyda?” and Eric strolled into the suite.

Freyda spun round, her good hand hooked into a claw, and I heaved a sigh of relief. He’d made it. Always a welcome sight, he looked better than ever. His hair was a little mussed, but only in a sexy, Fabio-esque kind of way. He didn’t look as though he’d just been flying through a storm. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought he was just coming back from a stroll.

“Traitor!” With a yell, Freyda hurled herself at him, but she was up against a very different opponent this time. There was a blur that I could barely see and Eric had both her wrists in an iron grip and was holding her at arms’ length. She was struggling and kicking wildly, but he contained her with a thousand years of strength and experience. Vicious though she was, she was still too young to be a match for the Viking.

He glanced over in my direction. Are you alright, lover? Did she harm you?

No, you were in time.

“Freyda, what’s going on? Why are you calling me a traitor and threatening my pet? She’s already had a difficult enough evening, without you making it worse.”

“Guards! Guards!” the enraged woman yelled, and I looked to see her people charging through the hole in the wall, but no-one came.

“Your guards are out of action, I’m afraid,” said Eric. “They tried to prevent me entering my suite, and I didn’t choose to be delayed. Now, please settle down and explain this to me.”

Eric’s calm tones, the grip on her wrists and the knowledge that help was not coming any time soon seemed to have an effect on Freyda and after a few more seconds she stilled, glaring up into his face.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do,” she hissed.

“What am I trying to do?” Eric really was wasted as a sheriff – he should have been on the stage. His puzzlement nearly convinced me, and I had the advantage of knowing he was lying through his fangs.

“You’re trying to take over my kingdom.”

“Nonsense,” he said calmly. “I don’t need to take over your kingdom. Have you forgotten that we’re getting married tomorrow night? I will have as much power in Oklahoma as I desire without trying to take it by force.”

“You and Texas are plotting behind my back! He attacked me in the car on the way back here! Only my amulet saved me from being run through!” An amulet! For the first time I noticed the only jewellery she wore – a large amber-coloured stone that hung on a chain round her neck – and wished I could describe it to Mr C – it might help in his questioning of the curator. For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder if I could reach him telepathically, the way I could reach Barry. If I got a minute, I’d try it.

Meanwhile, Eric was all concern. “Oh, I see. That explains the blood. Were you injured at all? Perhaps you should sit down.” He carefully didn’t enquire after Joe and Stan as Freyda shook her head – it wouldn’t look good to be concerned about traitors.

He guided Freyda to a seat, keeping a firm grip on her, but he looked mystified. “I still don’t understand why you think I was involved. If Texas and I were in a plot together, we’d have to split the kingdom if we succeeded, and I wouldn’t end up with any more power than I’m getting as your consort. I would be increasing my level of risk, for no gain. How would that benefit me?”

She had to see the logic of this, but she refused to give in. Her eyes narrowed. “You’re lying. I know you weren’t called away for any attack on your human – it was a ruse!”

He frowned. “A ruse? To what purpose? Again, if I were part of this plot surely I would have been in the car, helping to stake you. I’m older and stronger than Texas – I’d stand a much better chance of ending you, so why would I leave it to weaker vampires? You’re not being logical.”

That made her pause. She didn’t know about the attack on Felipe, so she couldn’t think of any reason why Eric would have weakened the coup’s chances of success by not taking part.

He continued, “and I can assure you that Sookie most certainly was attacked this evening. I’ve just been over in the annexe dealing with the matter. Again I ask, why do you think I’m lying to you about this?”

That put her in a dilemma. Eric believed we’d been betrayed by dear Bill but I doubted if Freyda would want to admit that. After a few seconds, she said, “because after you left the arcade I phoned the palace for more information, and was told that your second and most of your entourage weren’t in the annexe and your pet hadn’t been there all evening.” She was careful not to name her source.

“And did whoever gave you this information think to check the refuge?”

“I … don’t know. Why?”

“Because that’s where the vampire who attacked Sookie came from. I imagine my entire retinue were down there trying to contain the situation.”

She stared at him, taken aback. It was clear that whatever he’d just said had her at a loss for words. I had no idea what he was talking about now, but while Freyda was marshalling her thoughts I asked what’s a refuge?

Every kingdom has secret refuges for vampires who’ve been attacked by drainers. Did Bill never explain this to you?

Oh yes, I forgot. Bill had told me long ago that most vampires who were attacked by humans trying to steal and sell their blood didn’t survive the experience, but if they did they needed vampire blood to recover, not human, and it was a long process.

The nearest refuge in this kingdom is underneath the annexe here. It’s warded very heavily to stop them getting out. That made sense – recovering victims had to be carefully contained, as they couldn’t be trusted near other vampires because their survival instincts urged them to attack and take what they needed. As they got stronger, they could begin to feed direct from donors, rather than from bagged or bottled blood. Most vampires were happy to offer a donation, knowing that it could easily have been them ambushed, chained with silver, drained of their valuable blood and left out for the sun …

Eric continued out loud, partly for Freyda’s benefit. “Pam tells me there are currently nine vampires housed there in various stages of recovery. It appears what happened tonight was that one of the more convalescent patients had been allowed out of the refuge and was feeding on someone, when Sookie arrived. He was sufficiently restored to find human blood attractive again, and couldn’t resist her. I’m surprised your informant didn’t discover this; it seems very sloppy. Are you sure he or she is telling the truth?”

“I … I’m not … how do I know that you’re telling me the truth?” I could see that Freyda was having doubts now, and I silently congratulated Eric for playing on her insecurity about Bill’s trustworthiness. He let her now-healed wrists go, as she’d calmed down some, and I began to relax a tad as he calmly talked her down off her ledge, but then his next words made my stomach lurch.

“Well, why don’t we ask Sookie? She was there, after all.”

Freyda’s eyes turned in my direction. “She’s your pet – bonded to you. I know she’d lie if you told her to.”

Eric’s tone was bored as he said, “then glamour her and question her yourself. I won’t say a word.” Damn, I hated having to fake glamour…

His mind said. Follow my lead. I will tell you what to say.

Freyda looked satisfied, and said, “yes, that would work. Come here and look at me, human.”

I played reluctant, and said, “Eric? Do I have to do this?”

He sat back on the couch now, apparently completely at ease. “Yes. Just do as you’re told and let the Queen glamour you. I want to get this farce over with, and then you need to go and lie down again. You should be resting.”

I frowned, and then stepped out of Amelia’s room and moved to a chair a little distance from Eric and Freyda, with a heavy coffee-table between us. I realised I still had the potion in my hand, so I slipped it into my pocket and sat down before turning to Freyda and meeting her eyes. They glowed slightly, and within seconds I felt her glamour flowing over me, looking for a way into my mind. It didn’t amount to much. Nope, not too strong in that department, are you, bitch? I hid my satisfaction and allowed my face to go blank.

“Where were you this evening?”

You went down to security and then over to the annexe

I repeated his words.

“Who did you see while you were there?”

I listed the names Eric gave me – all the Louisiana vampires except Bill and the nestmates who’d fled Katrina, who’d been distracting him.

“Where did you go in the annexe?”

Following Eric’s guidance, I said, “I went to Pam’s room, and then the TV room and then the basement.”

“Why did you go into the basement? It’s marked No Unauthorised Entry.”

Eric snorted. “That’s never been known to stop Sookie. She’s the nosiest human of my acquaintance.” Freyda glared at him and he held up a pacifying hand. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Go on.”

I nearly glared at him too, but kept my face carefully blank and repeated after him, “Pam wasn’t in her room, so I was looking for her. I’ve got an AAA pass, so I assumed that meant I could go to the basement too.”

“Describe the basement to me.”

She obviously wanted to see if I’d really been there. I paused, picking up Eric’s words. “There were a lot of steps and a sort of open area at the bottom, with a brick floor and lots of doors.” I spoke slowly, allowing time to get his next sentence before continuing. “Heidi was sitting in a chair, with her sleeve rolled up, and there was another vampire kneeling, drinking from her wrist.”

“Describe him.”

“He was dark-haired. I couldn’t see how tall he was at first, but when he stood up he wasn’t much taller than me. His face was very thin and bony, and his eyes were sunken and kind of bruised-looking. He had a blue shirt on, and … that’s all I had time to see before he came at me.”

Freyda hissed softly. “That sounds like Matthew Forrester – from my household. He was caught by drainers about eight months ago. I thought he was nearly ready to go back to work, but apparently not.”

She believed me. I felt her glamour loosen and nearly breathed a sigh of relief but a warning thought from Eric held me still. Freyda asked Eric, “what did you do to him?”

“Nothing – he wasn’t responsible for his actions. No-one can blame him for being too weak to resist Sookie’s blood; I know exactly how tempting it is.” He dropped fang for the first time tonight, and leered at me. “By the time I arrived my vampires had got him back into the refuge and I was able to focus on healing Sookie. Then I brought her here to rest before I went back to oversee the clean-up. Pam was in a panic again.”

I couldn’t understand why he said that – Pam never panicked – but Freyda didn’t seem to be surprised. “Really, Eric, I don’t know why you chose her as your second. She seems to be good for nothing.”

“She’s young; only a hundred and sixty or so. She’ll learn.”

Freyda looked at him oddly for a couple of seconds and then said, “her age is irrelevant – I’m only a hundred and fifty-two, and I rule an entire kingdom with no trouble.” She frowned. “At least until tonight. I’m going to deal with this attempted coup. Anyone involved will wish they weren’t. Come along.”

“So, are you now convinced that I had nothing to do with the attack?” Eric hadn’t moved from his chair and still seemed to be completely unruffled, if not slightly bored with the whole thing.

She considered. “I suppose so. But you can’t blame me for being suspicious.”

“I never blame a vampire for being cautious; caution has kept me alive for a thousand years.” Before she could say anything, he added, “and now, why don’t I escort you back to your rooms and we can deal with this situation together?”

What are you doing? Why are you going back to her room? We’re running out of time here!

I’m getting her away from you. before I kill her. If I do it here she’ll try to take you with her. His mind was cool and focussed. He talked about killing Freyda in the same casual way I’d talk about smoking out a nest of wasps…

What about the amulet? We don’t know what it can do.

I’ll talk her into removing it.

That sounded hellishly risky. What if he couldn’t persuade her? But Freyda was on her feet now, saying, “first of all, I’m going to round up the rest of the Texas vampires and find out what they know.”

Her fangs were still showing and she was about to march out when Eric said, “May I suggest that first of all you take a few minutes to shower and get changed? You are looking … a little less than your usual immaculate self.”

Ah, that’s how he was going to get her to take the amulet off. Freyda looked down and brushed at the hem of her skirt. A small white cloud of plaster dust rose from it and she wrinkled her nose and said, “very well, but I don’t want to waste any more time. I’ll get cleaned up while you call Security and tell them to arrest all the remaining Texas vampires. Then send someone to fetch my limo and have it cleaned – I had to abandon it near Glen Oaks. And get some more guards up here. You really shouldn’t have killed them.”

“They really shouldn’t have got in my way,” he replied coolly.

Freyda huffed but didn’t comment further, and moved to inspect the damage to her hair and make-up in a wall-mirror, but then she remembered I was still there. She frowned at me, and said, “what about her?”

Eric shrugged. “I’ll glamour her – she won’t be going anywhere.” He stood and turned to me, saying, “up.” I ignored his imperious tone and faked a stumble as I rose, producing a real artistic pratfall. Help me up. I’ve got something that might help.

Eric tsked at my clumsiness and bent over to help me to my feet. I’d fallen between my chair and the coffee-table and had slipped the dagger from my waistband as I did so. It was on the floor where he could see it, but Freyda couldn’t.

Take it. The handle’s wood, but the rest is silver and bone so be careful. It’s magical and Mr C says it will finish off any vampire.

It vanished into his clothes as he straightened up. He’d moved so fast I had no idea where he’d hidden it. Then he took my chin in a firm grip and tilted my head up, fixing his cerulean blue eyes on mine. Thank you dear one. I’m going to release the deep glamour now – it’s no longer needed.

Thank you so much – it’s been a real pain.

He smiled. It’s been necessary. As soon as we leave, go straight to the annexe. Pam will be there before long. Don’t waste time – the storm’s almost here. Aloud, he said, “go to Amelia’s room and stay there until I return. Don’t answer the door to anyone.”

“Yes, Eric.” I moved away obediently and headed for Amelia’s room. As I turned to close the door he was assisting Freyda through the hole in the wall with a courteous bow.

“We’ll need to get that repaired,” he said as they moved out of sight. “A wild night, isn’t it?”

I stood motionless and tense, hearing their conversation fade, tracking their mind blanks until they went into Freyda’s suite and Eric said Go now. Don’t use the elevator – take the stairs. I’ll join you as soon as I can. He cut the connection and I bolted for the hallway.

It was littered with bodies and parts of bodies – Eric’s handiwork – but I didn’t even spare them a glance. I raced for the stairs and hurtled down the first two flights, before slowing to a more normal speed. There were more people down here, but at least nearly all the vampires were out escorting the VIP guests to the various attractions and entertainments. I passed various staff members on the stairs and in the hallways, and tried to look as though I didn’t know there was a demon on the roof, a tornado overhead and a murder going down in the Royal Suite…

I’d been over to the annexe once before, when Amelia and I had been exploring, so I found my way to the door that led out into the gardens. I opened it and yelped as it was ripped clean out of my grasp, slamming back against the wall. Being in a building with no windows, I’d been kind of insulated from the elements, and I’d had no idea how powerful the wind had become, and just how loud. It had reached painful levels, and I could tell that Eric was right – the storm was nearly here.

I leaned against the passageway wall, shielding my eyes from the blast as I looked across the lawn, calculating my safest route. At least it wasn’t raining; the air was full of dust and leaves and flying bits of trash, swirling in mini tornadoes, and as I looked I saw a full plastic garbage sack go bowling past. I hoped Eric wouldn’t leave it too late to join me, or at least to get down to the basement.

There were trees dotted about on the lawn between the palace and the annexe, and I could see the smaller ones bending in the gale. I took a deep breath and stepped outside into the full force of the wind. My hair was whipped across my face and my clothes flattened against my body as I struggled to close the door and then turned and scurried across the grass to the shelter of the nearest big tree.

The wind stung my cheeks and tore my breath from my lungs, and it was hard to keep my footing, but I knew if I slipped and fell I might not be able to get up again. I dodged the larger chunks of debris, and made it to the tree with only one scratch on my ear from a small, leafy branch. I leaned against the lee side of the sturdy trunk to catch my breath before making a dash for the next one.

The branches creaked and groaned ominously as I looked up at the palace to see if I could see Bertine on the roof. She wasn’t visible, but the sky above had an odd look. Most of the streetlighting in the area was orange, and it cast a weird glow upwards, lighting up the undersides of the thick clouds that were gathering low above the palace. They were bulging ominously, and I could see flickers of lightning inside them. It looked like a foretaste of hell…

As I watched, there was a crack of thunder and a streak of lightning shot downwards to the roof. For a split second everything looked like a photographic negative – all the blacks and whites standing out sharply, and then the heavens opened, and the rain fell.

Well, I say fell – the wind was so strong the rain was coming in horizontally from all directions and I was soaked in seconds. I peered out towards the annexe, but my flash-dazzled eyes could barely see it through the curtain of water. I knew I couldn’t stay here any longer – trees and lightning were not a good combination. I took a deep breath made a dash for it.

It wasn’t very much further, but by the time I reached the doors and tugged them open I felt as though I’d been through a carwash – the rain had pummelled my skin mercilessly and my head was hurting from the force of the pounding it had taken. I forced the doors shut and leaned against them, gasping and dripping on the tiled floor of the foyer, and gradually became aware that I was being stared at by a group of strange vampires.

I didn’t have the breath to say anything – I just shook my head wordlessly and hoped that Pam would be here soon, as I didn’t like the looks I was getting. A number of them were gathered near the foot of the stairs, looking as though they’d been arguing about something, but now they were all looking in my direction and more fangs than I was comfortable with were on display. A couple of them exchanged that silent communication look that I’d seen so often between vampires, they all began to move towards me, and I began to wish I hadn’t given the dagger to Eric, but then a voice coming from my left said, “stand down, boys; this one’s a friend.”

When I looked across I heaved a sigh of relief to see someone I recognised standing in a doorway. A tall, thin, dark-haired vampire, dressed in full western regalia – bolo tie, cowboy boots, fringed shirt – the whole shooting match. It was Farrell, the vampire I’d helped find in Dallas when he’d been abducted by the Fellowship of the Sun. He said, “she’s Eric Northman’s telepath from Louisiana – you remember, the one who helped find me?” The other vampires looked at him silently, and he continued, “howdy, Miss Sookie; good to see you again.”

Although nobody moved that I could see, there was a slight lowering of the tension in the atmosphere. I had recovered a little by now, although my ears were still ringing some from the roaring of the wind, and I was able to say, “You too, Mr Farrell. Do you know where Pam is, please? Eric’s second?”

“Don’t rightly know if she’s back yet. Haven’t seen her in a while. Do you want me to escort you to the TV room? You can wait for her there if you like.”

“Thank you, that would be mighty nice of you.” He stepped forward and I carefully edged round the vampires who still surrounded me. They didn’t move out of my way – telepath or not, I was still human and it was for me to go around them, not for them to step aside.

Farrell led the way down a hallway, and the lights flickered as we went. He glanced up at the ceiling. “Dang storm,” he muttered. “Hope it doesn’t take out the cable – there’s rodeo from Houston on abc13 later tonight.” I was more concerned over the lights going out, but of course that would make no difference to the vampires.

“Um … do you happen to know where the other Louisiana vampires are right now? The ones who aren’t out with Pam?” It was important to me that I keep away from Bill if possible and I was relieved when Farrell said, “I think they’re in the library, using the computer. Why?”

“Um … I don’t want to run into Bill Compton if I can help it.”

He looked interested. “You and him on the outs?”

“Uh-huh. I’m with Eric now, and it could be kind of embarrassing, you know?”

“He brightened as I said that. “Sure. Well, maybe I’ll just mosey along to the library and keep him busy for y’all.”

“Would you? That would be really kind of you.”

“No problem at all. He’s kind of cute in his own way.” He grinned at me and opened the door into the TV room as I considered Bill’s possible reaction to the gay vampire hitting on him …

The TV room was large and comfortable, with a huge wall-mounted TV screen – thankfully turned off at the moment – surrounded by lots of squashy chairs and couches. Farrell took himself off and I found a seat on a couch and flicked through a listings magazine lying nearby. After five minutes I began to get a bit antsy. Surely Pam should be back by now? I wondered if she’d been caught in the storm and was starting to think about going to look for her when I heard feminine footsteps coming along the hallway and registered a vampire blank approaching.

Thank goodness. I put the magazine down and turned to the doorway, saying, “Pam?”

“No. Sorry to disappoint you.” The smiling figure in the doorway was definitely female, but it wasn’t who I’d been expecting.

It was Freyda.

I stared in horror as she sauntered into the room. Dimly I registered that she’d found time to clean up and change, even though there were damp patches on her clothes and she was distinctly windblown. But how had she found me? And where was …

“Eric…?” I croaked, my suddenly dry mouth hardly able to form the necessary syllables.

Her smile grew more predatory and her eyes glowed a little as she smoothed her hair back into its clip.

“I regret to say that dear Eric won’t be joining us this evening. Or any other for that matter.”

* * *

Ah oh. Join me next time for the final chapter …

AAE

Happy Ever After Chapter 14

A/N: This has been a very hard chapter to write, largely because of the tragic news that rocked the fandom earlier this week; that our dear friend and awesome fanfic goddess, EricizMine, passed away on Tuesday, aged 37. Words cannot say how much she will be missed, so I won’t even try. But if you have been unfortunate enough not to have come across her work yet, please go to her profile and read something. Anything. It’s all good.

As a member of her Bratpack I couldn’t help but be aware of what a truly special person EricizMine was. The fact that there are so many members of that fanclub is its own testimony to her warmth and sense of humour, and the tributes and messages of support are only what I would have expected to see.

So, as my own personal tribute, I would like to humbly dedicate this chapter of Happy Ever After to a writer whose enormous talent I admired and envied in pretty much equal proportions. God bless you, Angela; may you rest in peace and find your own Happy Ever After.

All About Eric

angela

Chapter 14

EPOV

Rising from my daytime rest had never been a gradual process for me, as it was for some vampires; I was instantly alert and aware of my surroundings and I smiled as I opened my eyes and registered Sookie’s presence. I inhaled her scent, and was relieved, as always, that there was no hint of tears or fresh blood. This was not always the case; my little love was all too prone to running into trouble when I was not around to shield her. It had always been a source of frustration to me that all my strength, experience and cunning were of no use to her during the hours of daylight. Having to rely on her witch friend or else shifters and dogs for her protection was galling but, regrettably, unavoidable.

But even though there was no smell of blood tonight, there was the most appalling stench of something that I couldn’t place. “Sookie, what is that hideous smell?”

“Hello to you too, Eric. Yes, I had a good day, thanks. How about you?” Ah. That was revealing; she was always a little snippy when she was on edge. I checked the bond, and sure enough it was rippling with nerves and excitement. That was only to be expected, bearing in mind what the night would bring, but I was getting an underlay of guilt, too. Something was going on…

“I was dreaming of you, lover, so it was very pleasant, but the waking reality is much better. I’m glad you had a good day. Tell me about it.” I sent soothing pulses along the bond and turned on my side to face her, reaching out a hand to brush a lock of her hair away from her face.

She settled a little at my touch. “Well, I know what you mean about the smell; its something Ames is working on. A new type of charm she’s not tried before.”

I raised an eyebrow and looked interested, but simply waited without comment. When Sookie was in this sort of mood, almost anything I said could be cause for an explosion, and I had found it best to let her speak without interruption.

“I wanted to talk to you about it.” Ah, there we go. I pulled myself up until I was sitting against the headboard, and she snuggled in close to me. I would have preferred to see her eyes, but sometimes she found it more comfortable not looking at me if she had something she wanted to confess. And this did feel slightly confessional …

“You remember we were talking about Bertine – Mr C’s godmother …” I might have known she would not take my decision that morning as final. As she talked, I reflected ruefully on her inability to leave well alone. Her saviour complex led her to assist anyone who asked for it – or even those who didn’t ask for it …

I acknowledged that she had been trying very hard to change, as had I; she had been behaving in a very mature fashion since we reconciled in Bon Temps, and I had been trying to be more open, and our trust had strengthened as a result. Still, old habits are hard to break, and it was only to be expected that sooner or later her rebellious nature would reassert itself. But I was pleased that, this time, she was telling me what she had done before she went ahead with her plan. This gave me the opportunity to adapt to circumstances and, to be fair, she and Amelia had thought things out very thoroughly. I was pleased that they were involving Ramon, too.

When she had finished speaking I considered everything she told me and then said, “tell me again why you feel it’s necessary to do this tonight and not tomorrow.”

“Well, I figured if we could get Bertine out, she’d surely be willing to help us. And she’s the sort of person you’d want on your side. I mean, a pissed-off demon has got to be worth having, and if she’s free then Mr C’ll be able to help us too.”

“Have you spoken to him about it?”

“No, I wasn’t gonna say anything until I’d talked it over with you. But another reason I thought tonight was better would be in case Freyda took it into her head to start killing prisoners if things went badly. I’ve heard some regimes do that – they give orders that if anything happens to the leaders, the soldiers have to kill all the captives. I didn’t want to risk that – Freyda’s exactly the type who’d do it.”

I was inclined to agree. “So tell me, how are you going to handle the CCTV?”

“Ramon says the Max Security block is monitored from the front desk, and he’s gonna take care of the Were who’s manning it. He didn’t tell me how.”

“He will tell me, however.” I reached out and pressed the button that would summon a servant. Then I rolled out of bed and put on a robe. Sookie went into the living-room and waited for whoever answered the summons, before sending them to fetch Ramon. She also turned the air-conditioning up, in a vain hope of removing the smell from the room.

When Ramon came I sent him to fetch breakfast for Sookie and Amelia, and Sookie added a request for some strong air-freshener. Amelia tried to look offended, but even she had to admit that the smell was almost overpowering. I made what I thought were helpful suggestions as to how to neutralise it, but for some reason she didn’t take kindly to the idea of dousing herself in tomato sauce, which was the Mythbuster-approved remedy for skunk scent.

I didn’t understand her reluctance; it was entirely for her own good. After all, after the first whiff had nearly destroyed my sinuses I had stopped breathing and the smell no longer troubled me. But she and Sookie both glared at me coldly, so to distract them I asked for a demonstration of the ‘bunker-buster’ charm while we waited for Ramon.

Amelia somewhat gleefully invited me to try and breach the wards on her room, but I’d heard about what happened to Bill and declined the invitation, saying I would take it on trust. She shrugged, and picked up an orange from a bowl of fruit nearby. She tossed it at the open door to her room, and there was a fizzle and a sparking, and a small charred lump hit the floor. I was startled and not a little impressed; Maybe I had under-estimated the witch – if she had set these wards, she was a lot stronger than I had realised.

I looked at her with slightly more respect as she brought out a wide-necked jar from her pocket. She unscrewed the lid and closed her eyes, humming gently as she did so. A few passes with her hands and she suddenly turned and hurled the contents of the jar towards the door. A wave of green liquid splashed against an invisible barrier and began to trickle down it. It began to bubble as it dripped, and before it reached the floor it was hissing and fizzing, clearly eating away at the wards. After thirty seconds or so it was forming an emerald pool on the carpet, and when she tossed a grapefruit it went through the doorway and thumped on the floor inside.

Amelia turned to me with a smirk and was about to say something triumphant when a faint shriek from Sookie distracted her. We both looked at where she was pointing and there was smoke rising from the green puddle.

“The carpet! It’s eating through the carpet!” said Sookie and they both dashed for the bathroom and quickly began to soak up the mess with towels.

“That shouldn’t have happened,” Amelia said. “Maybe I added too much capsicum…”

“Never mind, it did what it was supposed to,” said Sookie. “We don’t have time to try again. Have you got enough left for downstairs?”

“Yep. And I doubt if the Maximum Security block is carpeted. But I wish we had time to refine it.”

Just then Ramon arrived with food and while the girls were eating I quizzed him carefully about his plans. I was not happy with his ideas for the Were on guard – he was planning on using wolfsbane – and told him a better way to approach it. I also asked to see the bottle of Elf blood.

“Did you say there were ten guards?”

“Yes sir. There’s enough blood for two drops each.”

I shook my head. “That’s too much – it will kill them. One drop per bottle will put them out for the night and leave them with nothing more than the worst hangover of their lives.”

“Very well sir. What shall I do with the spare blood? I got the impression from the ladies that it was very precious.”

“It is.” I looked over to Sookie. “Dear one, would you have any objection to my using any Elf blood that is left over? We have more than enough for the guards.”

“What are you going to do with it? Durion only let us have it because we told him what it was for.”

I explained my plan in more detail. In discussing the coup with Stan and Joe, we had reluctantly decided that Freyda was too well-protected in her palace – there were too many vampires within call. Our best chance was to attack when we were in public somewhere; preferably in her car, when her guards were necessarily reduced. We had also decided that Stan and Joe would deal with her, as it was important that they be seen as her natural successors, while I devoted myself to taking out Felipe and his entourage. I felt I owed myself that much, after everything they had put me through. Pam, too, wanted revenge for the death of her human Miriam.

I already knew that there was a choice of activities scheduled for the distinguished guests tonight – opera at the Performing Arts Studio on South Jones Street, any number of different strip clubs and casinos, a visit to Cactus Jack’s iconic arcade, a rodeo at the State Fairground Arena and WWE Raw at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

When Freyda had asked for my preference regarding the evening’s entertainment, I had deliberately chosen Cactus Jack’s, the pinball and video gaming arcade. She was surprised at my choice, but I knew she would come with me – she would not miss a chance to be seen with me on her arm. Of course, Stan’s reputation for geekiness would give him the perfect excuse to join us, while Felipe would rather stake himself than be seen in such a place. It would be sensible to split him and Freyda up and I suspected he would probably choose the wrestling. He had enough strippers and gambling in his own clubs in Nevada, and I had not forgotten his fascination with T-Rex, the pro wrestler he had brought to my home.

Although Freyda didn’t yet know it, part way through the evening I would be receiving a call from Pam, who would be panicking about something, and I would have to leave the arcade early. To save time I would fly, which meant Freyda would be travelling back with Stan and Joe, who would make sure she never reached the palace. The Royal limousine seated eight, which meant if Stan and Joe took two bodyguards, Freyda could have a maximum of two in the back with her, plus the driver in the front. I felt if Stan and Joe could not take out four unsuspecting vampires, they did not deserve to hold Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, I would join Pam and some of my other followers at a pre-arranged point and together we would seek out and destroy Felipe and his people, which was where I planned to use the extra Elf blood. Sookie asked, “who will you take with you? I saw the Nevada vamps arriving and there’s five coffins.”

I nodded in satisfaction. “That means Felipe, Angie and Horst plus two bodyguards. I know Sandy isn’t expected – Freyda showed me the guest lists.”

“Can you handle five of them?”

I was insulted. “Do you doubt my skill? I took down Victor and his entourage, and that included Akiro.”

“I?” She raised an eyebrow. “As I recall, you had a bit of help from a few other vampires that night, and one or two humans as well.”

I smiled, feeling her indignation. “I know, I was only teasing. And I will be forever grateful to you; if you hadn’t cut through Victor’s spine, Pam would have died that night. But although Felipe and Horst are fighters, Angie is not, and I will have plenty of my own vampires with me. Not all of them – Parker and his nestmates will have to stay behind to distract Bill, so he doesn’t realise the rest of us are missing.”

“Can’t you send him with Freyda, so Stan and Joe can take him out too?” That was Amelia. It was a good idea, but I shook my head.

“No – there’s not enough room in the car and he’s not senior enough to warrant an invitation. It would look odd. But we’ll keep him occupied here, and deal with him when his beloved Queen is simply dust in the wind.”

“That sounds good. Can I watch?” Sookie was surprisingly bloodthirsty when it came to Bill – she had clearly completely gotten over her infatuation with him and now saw him as clearly as even I could wish.

“If you happen to be at hand when I stake him, then of course you may. But I’m not going to miss an opportunity if one comes my way.”

She pouted briefly, but understood my reasoning. She agreed that Durion would have no objection to his blood being used to help take down Freyda – he seemed to have a dislike of her – and Amelia found a small empty bottle in her belongings which would hold the drops.

Ramon and I carefully divided up the blood, and after he cleared the meal away, I sat the girls down and went through their plan with them again, step by step. I felt it had a fair chance of success, which was as much as I could hope for.

Then I asked if I could feed from Sookie before we went our separate ways, and she agreed. I didn’t really need the blood, but I would never pass up an opportunity to hold my dearest one in my arms…

* * *

SPOV

By eight forty, Amelia and I were leaning against the wall of the training hall, watching the Weres sparring as usual. They’d gotten used to us being there, and ignored us for the most part, but this time Cal was present, and I could feel Amelia’s eyes following him. He could too, I guess; at least, he took his shirt off and seemed to spend a lot of time rippling his muscles unnecessarily. He was definitely built. Not to compare with Eric, of course, but still fairly easy on the eyes. I knew Eric would have glared at me if he’d seen me looking, but hey, I wasn’t blind. I didn’t blame Ames one bit for staring, and I just hoped Cal survived the night …

Eric and all the visiting vampires had been in the foyer, choosing their entertainment for the evening, when we headed downstairs, leaving Barry sulking in Stan’s suite. He’d wanted to be included in the action, but Stan didn’t want to take any chances with his telepath and had ordered him to stay safe in their rooms. He didn’t want Freyda deciding to snatch him.

I knew Freyda was more interested in me at the moment, but once things started to unravel I was pretty certain there were other vampires who wouldn’t miss a chance to grab themselves a stray telepath. Felipe for one…

I’d seen him in the foyer, dressed up to the nines as usual, and I was pleased to see that Eric had made a good call – the king of Nevada and his entourage had joined the group headed to the wrestling. Horst and Angie had stared at me, but Felipe had nodded slightly. I’d just smiled politely and kept walking on by; vampires were notoriously good at reading human body language, and I didn’t want him to pick up even the faintest hint from me that something was wrong. Fortunately, Amelia had never met him so she didn’t react to the sight of him any more than the other vampires who were getting ready to leave.

Eric’s mind had expressed his approval and relief, and we’d stayed connected while everyone was getting into the limos. At the moment he was waiting for Freyda, Stan and Joe to join him, and he was being somewhat scathing about women and their tardiness. I pointed out that Stan and Joe weren’t women and he simply said that he could see them, but Freyda had yet to put in an appearance …

Meanwhile I focussed on the sparring pair nearest to me, and tried not to look at my watch too obviously. It had become something of an obsession, and Amelia had had to nudge me at least twice, but it was alright for her; she had something to distract her attention. Instead I glanced discreetly at the clock on the wall, counting off the seconds, playing mental games with myself. The next time someone lands on their ass, I’ll look at the clock again … When that pair finish their move I’ll look at the clock again …

The minutes crawled by and when I couldn’t wait any longer I carefully reached out with my mind to check the hallways nearby. There were two vampire minds approaching from the direction of the elevator. I waited until they’d passed, and then casually pushed open the swing door and took a peek. I saw their backs as they turned the corner. One I didn’t recognise but the other was all too familiar. It was Freyda!

Damn, what was she doing down here? I let the door swing closed and Amelia said, “what are you looking at?”

“I thought I heard Barry’s voice, but it wasn’t him,” I said calmly. Inside, I wasn’t so calm and I was frantically calling Eric.

Freyda’s here! She’s in the basement, heading towards the Max Security area with another vampire. What should I do?

I got shock through the bond, but then almost immediately back came the reply. There’s nothing you can do. Stay where you are – don’t try to follow her – it would be too dangerous. Did you recognise the vampire with her?

No. I’ve not seen him before.

Can you describe him?

I thought carefully. He was blond and very tall and thin. He had a clipboard with him and he shuffled a bit as he walked. That’s all, sorry – I only saw him for a few seconds.

Concern. That sounds like Ezra Fielding – the vampire in charge of Freyda’s treasury. I mentioned him to you, remember? It sounds as though they’re heading towards Bertine’s cell. A pause. If you manage to get in there, see if you can find out what they wanted. It may be important.

Okay. I’ll let you know the minute I find out.

Good. Meanwhile, stay out of sight until they’re gone. I must go now, Stan and Joe are coming. I’ll wait to hear from you. If the distance is too great to mindspeak, text me – don’t call. I don’t want anyone overhearing our conversation.

Of course. I’ll see you soon?

Yes. Regret. I wish this was over. I love you.

I love you too.

Interest. How much?

I’ll show you how much when you get back.

Amusement and anticipation. As if I needed any more incentive to get this over and done with … and he faded out.

I kept my mental radar on, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before two minds came back along the hallway. I couldn’t check this time – the door opened the wrong way – but I called Eric mentally and warned him. Sure enough, three minutes later he told me that Freyda was in the car and they were moving out.

Okay, this was it. I checked the hallway one more time, and said, “Come on Ames. We can’t stay here all night – let’s go see what Barry’s doing.”

“Do we have to?” she whined, faking reluctance, and even though he was on the other side of the hall Cal grinned in spite of himself. His Were hearing was definitely operating at full strength.

“Yes we do. Besides, you’re causing a major health and safety issue right now – someone’s going to slip in that puddle of drool on the floor. Now c’mon, I want to talk to Barry.”

She grumbled artistically as we left the gym, but instead of turning left towards the stairs we dawdled along towards the open space where the guard sat at the security desk, watching the monitors.

We paused just in sight of the desk, arguing the relative merits of guys with or without chest hair, and it wasn’t long before I picked up Ramon’s mental signature approaching, along with a vampire blank. He was carrying a tray with bottles of True Blood on it, and passed us without so much as a glance. He and his vampire escort paused at the desk while the Were on duty buzzed open the barred gate to let him into the Maximum Security section, the vampire remaining behind.

This was all normal so far, and the guard locked the gate behind Ramon, who passed out of sight around the bend in the corridor. Our conversation became slightly stilted as we tried not to stare across the space, watching and waiting. The vampire was leaning casually on the desk, talking to the Were in a low voice, who was apparently listening intently to whatever was being said. He nodded occasionally, and when Ramon re-appeared he buzzed him back out. The vampire straightened up, nodded to the guard and he and Ramon headed back the way they had come.

My nerves were so tense that I think if you’d touched me I’d have twanged like a guitar string. I was waiting for something to happen – groans and thumps from the vampire guards; yells of outrage as they discovered their blood had been tampered with; sirens going off, strobe lights flashing, the thud of racing feet – something.

But nothing happened. The Were guard continued staring at his monitors, the hallway remained empty, and we stared at each other. Had it really been that easy? But of course, that was stupid – this was the easy part. Getting Bertine out was going to be the tough part of the evening.

I looked at Amelia. There was still the faintest trace of green staining on her fingers, but fortunately the smell had surrendered to a thorough scrubbing with floral soap and shampoo. Eric had been worried that if it was too strong it would alert people in the security area, but Amelia assured him that the smell was one of the ingredients, not the charm itself. Grinning, she’d invited him to take a sniff at the jar, but for some reason he’d declined…

I didn’t need to check I had the penhallin with me – I could feel it slightly warm against my thigh through my pocket. I whispered “have you …?” I made discreet drinky-drinky motions with my hand to indicate the Elf blood and she nodded silently. Okay, time to do this.

We approached the security desk, and the Were sitting there looked at us blankly. “Could you open the gate for us, please? We want to visit Professor Leventis,” I said, praying the vampire had done what he’d promised. He was one of the vampires Ramon had got Eric information on; he’d served under the previous king as an adviser, but he’d been demoted and resented the hell out of Freyda because of it. He was also heavily in debt to one of the local casinos, and Eric had promised to clear that if he glamoured the Were for us. He’d agreed eagerly, and when the Were didn’t ask any questions, but simply pressed the button to buzz us through, I was thankful that Eric was such a good judge of character.

We hurried through the gate before someone else came along and then made our way cautiously along the hallway. I glanced up at the CCTV cameras, knowing we would be showing up on the Were’s monitor, but he’d been told to ignore our presence completely. Then we were turning the corner that concealed us from the desk, and I wondered what we would see.

Bodies. Bodies and bottles…

I did a quick count, and there were eight vampires, all in Freyda’s grey uniform, all lying on the floor in various attitudes. A couple were half-sitting, as though they’d simply slid down the wall as their legs gave way under them, but most were just sprawled untidily across the hallway.

I gulped, hoping they weren’t dead, but then common sense took over and I realised if they’d been dead they’d be flaking by now. The faces that I could see were very, very red and the eyes were half-closed, and seemed to be staring at me, but they didn’t move as we made our way past them, stepping over occasional limbs …

I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that one of them would come to life and snatch at my ankle as we did so, but nothing happened. They were definitely spark out.

Amelia whispered, “which cell is she in?”

I thought for a minute and whispered back. “Not one of these – the picture Barry saw was of a cell with open bars – these have all got solid doors. Maybe round the corner?”

She nodded and we tiptoed on, round the corner, and then we both stopped, staring.

There were two vampires face-down on the floor, but even though Barry had described what he’d ‘seen’, the reality was almost too strange to take in.

The end of the corridor, facing us, was a wall of bars, and behind the bars was exactly what he’d said – a junk shop. There were tables and shelves covered with what looked like all manner of crap, but I reminded myself that these were magical and supernatural objects, and that my cluviel dor hadn’t looked like anything special. There was a small single bed in one corner (unmade), and sitting at a desk with her back to us was …

Well, I guess it had to be Professor Bertine Leventis. She was hunched over, studying something I couldn’t see, and then she put down a magnifying glass and started scribbling frantically in a book next to her. Her dark hair was very untidy and she kept running her left hand through it, which didn’t help.

Amelia and I moved a little closer. I mouthed ‘Vlakas wards?’ at her, and she nodded confirmation. She could clearly feel them, although I couldn’t. What I could feel was the penhallin. It was getting hotter and vibrating slightly, tickling my leg. I ignored it – first things first. We went right up to the bars, although we were careful not to touch them. Even though I knew the Vlakas wards were keyed to the Professor, I wasn’t taking any chances.

I cleared my throat, but that didn’t produce any effect; the scribbling continued. I tried again, louder, and said, “Uh … Professor Leventis? Ma’am?”

To my surprise, she didn’t even turn round. She simply waved her hand and said, “yes, yes, whatever it is, take it and go. Just make sure you bring it back safely.”

For a moment I was confused and then I remembered, Freyda had just been down here. Bertine probably thought she’d come back for something else.

I said, “we don’t want anything, ma’am. At least, we want you. We’ve come to get you out of here.”

At that she sighed, threw down her pen and turned round. Pale, washed-out blue eyes blinked at us from behind pince-nez glasses. She had a round, pink face, with a tracery of fine wrinkles, and a mouth which looked like it smiled easily. But right now, her lips were thinned with annoyance as she looked at us. “Whatever you young ladies want, you must take it up with the Queen. I cannot be disturbed like this, it’s most distracting. I’m on the verge of deciphering this amulet and it could be the key to half the inscriptions of the Aefa dynasty, but these constant interruptions are most irritating. Please go away.”

What? Go away? Amelia joined me and we stared at each other. This wasn’t going quite the way we’d imagined it. This time Amelia spoke. “Professor, we’re friends of Desmond Cataliades. We’re here to help you.”

This got a better reaction. “Friends of Desmond’s? Ah, I see. Do forgive me – I thought you were tourists. Are you interns, or students? What particular branch of folklore are you interested in? There’s bound to be something here – it’s the most comprehensive collection I’ve seen in centuries. I simply couldn’t believe my luck when Queen Freyda invited me to study it.”

Well, that confirmed Eric’s theory. But it was still weird – it was almost as if she didn’t realise she was a prisoner. “Uh … we’re not students ma’am. Amelia here’s a witch and I’m Sookie Stackhouse; Mr Cataliades is my … sponsor.”

She blinked a little, as though registering the names and then her expression cleared. “Sookie Stackhouse! Of course, dear Desmond has spoken of you many times. I’m delighted to meet you – you own the last known cluviel dor, am I right? I hope you keep it very safe, my dear.”

“Um, I’ve already used it, ma’am.”

Now she rose and moved to the bars, brushing her tweed skirt into place, her eyes alight with interest. She wasn’t a great deal taller standing up … “Really? What did you use it for? How did it work? Come in and tell me all about it. I’ve never seen one in operation, and the records are very vague.”

She fished in her pocket, drew out a key and unlocked the door, swinging it inwards. I gaped for a moment. She had her own key? What the hell? Then I realised that it must be to keep other people out rather than her in – a simple lock would never hold a demon; that’s what the Vlakas wards were for.

We hesitated briefly and then stepped cautiously through and joined her, although there wasn’t a great deal of room – even the floor was littered with objects – ceramic pots, mostly. I said, “I used it to save a friend’s life, but that’s not why we’re here. Like Amelia said, we’re here to help you. Did you know that dear Des …I mean, Mr Cataliades is very worried about you?”

“Really? Why? It’s not like him to worry. He was always a very calm-natured boy. Not like his brother Nargal at all – now there was a worrier. I remember once when he was fourteen …”

I broke in on the family reminiscences here. I didn’t know how much time we had. “Freyda has been blackmailing him by threatening you.”

“I beg your pardon?” She looked from to the other of us. “Queen Freyda has never threatened me; she’s been nothing but accommodating to me since I arrived. She’s given me everything I’ve asked for.”

“Except your freedom,” Amelia said, dryly. “Didn’t you ever wonder what all the bars and guards were for?”

“I assumed it was security for the objets enchantés. Many of these items are unique and absolutely priceless, you know.”

I shook my head at her naivety – Mr C had been quite right about that. “They’re not here to guard the treasure – they’re here to guard you. Well, to stop you leaving, really.”

“Oh. Oh my word.” The demon sat down again, hard, looking from one to the other of us. “You say Freyda has been … threatening my Desmond?” A frown was gathering on her brow.

“I’m afraid so, ma’am. She’s told him she has you prisoner down here and she’s forcing him to work for her.”

“But that wouldn’t work on Desmond – he knows that bars and guards could never hold a demon.”

“She has the cell warded to keep you in here, ma’am, but my friend has a charm which we hope will dissolve them.”

Amelia dug in her pocket and brought out the jar, but Bertine waved a hand dismissively. “Quite unnecessary. Come along. I’m not going to tolerate this.” And with that she moved towards the still-open door. I didn’t know what the Vlakas wards would do if she touched them, but before I could stop her she’d stepped out of the cell and was studying the vampires on the floor.

We stared with dropped jaws. What? How? I mean … she just walked out? Amelia stuttered, “but … the Vlakas wards …”

The demon glanced up. “Vlakas wards? Pah, a common misconception. She’s not the first person to assume that just because I’m of Greek origin Vlakas wards would work on me.” She stooped over the vampires. “The only thing that could do this is Elf blood. Whose did you use?” Now the slight vagueness that we’d seen was pretty much gone. She was brisk and focussed.

Which was in direct contrast to Amelia and me – we’d slipped so far down the rabbit hole I expected to see a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party any minute… “Um … his name was Durion … but, I don’t understand. If you could walk out any time, why didn’t you just leave?”

She stared at me. “Leave? This is the greatest supernatural repository in the country – a source of knowledge beyond any scholar’s wildest dreams. Why on earth would I want to leave?”

So she hadn’t even tried to escape. After all the time and effort we’d put into breaking her out of there, she could have just walked out free as a bird. Ames and I stared at each other speechlessly as Bertine said, “I’m going to speak to Desmond about this. It sounds to me like he’s been putting people to a lot of unnecessary trouble. And Durion shouldn’t be giving his blood away to all and sundry – it’s much too dangerous.”

Ah, that reminded me I had a duty to the Elf. “Miss Bertine, do you know if the tunic of Nessus is in here?”

“Yes, it’s in that chest, I think. Why?” She gestured to a small brass-bound box under the desk.

“Durion wants to return it to King Tyriol – it belongs to his family. I said we’d try and get it for him in exchange for his blood.”

“well, normally I wouldn’t approve of tampering with a collection of this nature,” she said, “but frankly, if what you’ve told me is true then Freyda doesn’t deserve to have it. See if you can find it while I call Desmond.”

She closed her eyes and I figured she was connecting with Mr C in some demon-specific way. Amelia and I looked at each other and shrugged before stepping back into the cell, where we went to our knees and pulled the little chest out from under the desk. We flipped the lid and a strong scent rose up from whatever was inside.

Amelia breathed it in appreciatively. “Cedar-wood,” she said. “that’s so much better than the snake lily I used for the charm.” I had to agree – although the name was charming, the smell had been less so … but I focussed on the contents of the box.

Sure enough, a creamy linen shirt was folded neatly inside, and when we lifted it out and unfolded it there were black stains on it, which I figured were the centaur blood Durion had mentioned. We looked at it in silence for a few minutes, contemplating the fact that we were holding something older than either of us could even imagine, and then we heard a faint pop and a voice I knew.

“Bertine!”

“Desmond, dear. Oh, just look at you!”

The horror in Bertine’s voice made us turn round to see Mr Cataliades standing in the hallway, with a disbelieving expression on his face. Bertine was holding her arms open and he went to his knees to embrace her. Even though he was a lot thinner than he had been, he was still close to a foot taller than her, and even kneeling his face was still nearly on a level with the tiny demon’s.

But his weight loss was clearly what was troubling her. “Desmond, you look terrible – what has that woman done to you?”

I was amazed to see the great Mr Cataliades, renowned and respected demon lawyer, almost in tears. “Bertine,” he said again, his voice almost a whisper. “Are you alright? How did you get free? Queen Freyda told me she had you under the strongest possible wards.”

Bertine chuckled slightly. “The stupid woman didn’t do her research properly. She tried Vlakas wards.” A look of comprehension came across his face. Well, I was glad somebody understood what the hell was going on. The demon shook him gently. “Now tell me, dearest. What’s been going on. Are you in trouble? What did that woman make you do?”

While he told his sponsor what had been happening, Amelia carefully folded the tunic again and tucked it inside her blouse and I got out the penhallin and moved around the tiny cramped cell, watching it carefully. I was determined to take something special for Durion. I wished I could ask Bertine what everything was, but she was focussed on Mr C. In the end I found a silver dagger that made the penhallin practically vibrate out of my hand, and slipped it into the waistband of my pants, covering it with my blouse. Then I turned back to the demon couple in the hall.

By now, Bertine’s brow was black as thunder. If I’d thought she was just a fluffy, harmless-looking, elderly lady, mildly annoyed at being interrupted, that impression was long gone; I was seeing a whole new side of her now. She seemed slightly taller, but that may have been an illusion, owing to the way she was drawing herself up. However, she’d removed her spectacles and her eyes were glowing an eerie red and that was definitely not an illusion.

Her voice was almost a hiss as she said, “and that woman had the effrontery, the impudence to use me against you? To force my godchild to be a party to the unwanted divorce of his own godchild? How dare she? How dare she? Mark my words, she will pay for this. Where is she now?”

Ah, that was my cue. I was frustrated at what I couldn’t say, but I did my best. “Miss Bertine, ma’am? Freyda’s gone out for the evening with Eric and King Stan from Texas. I don’t know when she’ll be coming back.”

The demon turned to me, and smiled a terrible smile. “Then I think I’ll arrange a little welcoming party for when she does come back. Where are her rooms?”

“She’s on the top floor of the East Wing. But Eric and a lot of the other wedding guests have rooms up there, too.”

“Then you must go up there and warn anyone you care about to leave immediately.” She paused for a few seconds, her burning eyes closed, then she opened them and said, “you have just over an hour, so I’d advise you not to delay.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Do? I’m going to show Queen Freyda exactly what happens when she tries to manipulate a demon.” And with these words, she turned back to her cell and picked up the notebook she’d been writing in, putting it in the pocket of her jacket. Then she stepped out again and locked the door behind her. Ames and I were still standing staring, and she looked at us. “What are you waiting for? You and your friends must be out of here in one hour. Desmond, go with them. You can’t teleport both of them, you’ll have to go on foot.”

“Yes, Bertine. Miss Stackhouse, Miss Broadway, shall we?” He took our arms and began to escort us back down the passageway towards the exit. I looked over my shoulder as we turned the corner, and then wished I hadn’t. The glimpse I got of Professor Bertine Leventis’ true form would stay with me forever …

We stepped round the drugged vampires, came to the exit gate and the Were buzzed us out. He was still in the same placid state as when we’d gone in – staring at the monitors, apparently oblivious to the fact that the guards behind him were all comatose. I was thankful that at least they’d not died and would recover by morning.

Amelia and I hurried to keep up with Mr C’s long stride and we did our best to look as casual as possible as we passed through the hallways of the security wing. I managed to summon a smile when we saw Cal, who had put his shirt back on after his workout and looked as though he wanted to speak to Amelia, but Mr C didn’t pause and the Were hesitated to stop the famous lawyer.

Amelia waved as we headed up the stairs, and then we were back in the foyer. There were very few vampires around – they had mostly gone out with the wedding guests, but those few we did pass nodded politely to the lawyer and ignored the insignificant humans. For once, I was glad to be beneath their notice.

When we reached our suite we invited Mr C in, and checked the surveillance detector was functioning, then we all sat down and stared at each other.

I spoke first. “What’s she going to do?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure, but at a guess she’s going to use the storm.”

“What do you mean?”

“Bertine is a powerful weather demon. She can control the environment, and I suspect she is going to summon the storm that’s been hitting Wichita so hard in the last few days. She’ll bring it down here, and that will take a little time, which is why we have an hour to clear the building.”

“But how can a storm help?”

He chuckled dryly. You haven’t seen what my sponsor can do when the mood takes her. It may be a storm at the moment, but by the time it gets here it will be a full-strength tornado.”

I was horrified. I’d seen the effects of tornadoes before. “But what about all the innocent people between Wichita and here? Their homes, their families?”

“Don’t worry, she’s very skilled – if that’s what she’s planning, she won’t unleash it until it gets here and it will only affect the palace. But we don’t have long so you must decide immediately who you need to contact.”

“Ramon, Barry, all the Louisiana and Texas vampires who aren’t out with Eric … anyone else?”

“Cal.” That was Amelia.

“But how do we warn him? We can’t tell him what’s been happening.”

She shrugged “I don’t know, but I don’t want him hurt.”

I turned to Mr C. “Any suggestions? Cal’s the Were we saw on our way up here. He’s a friend of Amelia’s but he’s one of Freyda’s men.”

He was thoughtful. “Where does he normally work?”

“He’s security – he’s usually in the basement.”

“Well, if he stays there, he should be safe enough. If we try and warn him, he’ll either ignore us or want more information than we can give him. I’m sorry, Miss Broadway, but I don’t think there’s anything else we can do for your friend.”

“Then I’m going to go down there with him.”

“What?” I sat up and stared at her. “Why would you do that?”

“If it’s safe for him, it’s safe for me too, right? And if anything did happen I … well … I want to be with him. Okay?” Her mind said it all. She was hooked. She’d fallen for the hunky Were big-time. And who was I to say she couldn’t follow her heart? After all, she was over twenty-one – I wasn’t responsible for her. And I certainly wasn’t going to interfere in her love life; not after the way I’d behaved when she’d interfered in mine.

I sighed. “Okay, Amelia, if you must, but stay down there no matter what you hear up here, okay?”

She nodded. “It’ll be fine. There’s a canteen down there and everything, so there’ll be food and water just in case. And I’ve got my phone – you can text to let me know what’s happening.”

I sat up. Text. Oh crap! I was supposed to be texting Eric to let him know what Freyda had removed from Bertine’s cell and I’d completely forgotten to ask her. I could only hope it wouldn’t make any difference to his plans …

* * *

EPOV

Cactus Jack’s was a shrine to all that was best (or worst) about the seventies. The place was closed to outsiders for our party, and the visiting vampires had spread out among the hundreds of games consoles and pinball machines beeping and whirring around us. Although we had all been given buckets full of tokens in order to play I had used only a few so far. It was a long time since I had seen games like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man and I allowed myself a little nostalgia, even though my Vampire reflexes were more than a match for the primitive graphics of forty years ago.

If I had to be here, I was at least willing to enter into the spirit of the occasion. Freyda, on the other hand wasn’t even trying to conceal her boredom as she stood at my elbow yawning ostentatiously.

A few feet away Stan was in his element. Although there was a variety of shoot-em-ups and other modern games, he was only interested in the vintage section. He had already played a very lengthy game of Pong with Joseph, each of them being blindfolded to make it ‘more interesting’, and he was now going for the high score on a classic Asteroids game. He was strangely excited by the fact that it was in a box that said Lunar Lander on it, claiming that it was one of a very few that still existed. I didn’t care, and neither did Joe, who had wandered off to play pool with one of Freyda’s bodyguards.

I wondered what Sookie was doing right now. We were too far away for mental contact, and the bond we shared was sending very mixed messages. In quick succession I had picked up nerves and excitement, strong puzzlement, utter astonishment and now I was getting worry. I wished I could check my cell phone, but with Freyda next to me I would have to wait until it rang. It should not be too much longer before I heard from Pam. I wondered what excuse she would come up with to make me leave early.

Ten minutes later, my phone played Devil Woman, which was Pam’s ringtone. I stepped away from the console and answered it, infusing annoyance into my voice.

“This had better be important.”

“Eric, you’ve got to come back to the palace right now. It’s Sookie.” I stiffened at the realistic sound of panic in my child’s voice. She had chosen her excuse well – she knew I would respond instantly to any threat to my dearest, imaginary or otherwise.

“What about her?”

“She’s been attacked. She came over to the annexe to visit and a vampire from one of the other kingdoms went berserk and tried to drain her. She … she’s lost a lot of blood, Eric. You’ve got to come.” The feeling of dread that swept over me was so real that for a moment I could almost believe what Pam was saying. Only my bond with Sookie told me that my child was faking it superbly.

“Have you given her blood?”

“She won’t let me. She keeps saying, ‘Eric or no-one’. I don’t know how much longer she can survive.”

“Fuck! Are you in the annexe now?”

“Yes.”

“Keep her alive – I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I was already walking towards the exit. “Have you got the vampire that did it?”

“Yes – he’s under guard, and he’ll be waiting for you. He’s a little … damaged … but he’s mostly intact.”

“Good.” I closed the phone and turned to Freyda who was walking with me. “You heard?”

“Yes. Do you want me to call the limo?” She was radiating concern, but I knew it was only for the possible loss of her telepath.

“No, I’ll fly. I can be there in under two minutes, the car will take twenty.”

“Do you want me to come with you? You could carry me.”

I shook my head as we stepped out into the night. The wind was picking up and the dark clouds were racing overhead, but it wasn’t raining. “There’s nothing you could do. Stay with your guests and I’ll see you back at the palace.” Without waiting for a reply I launched myself into the sky and left her behind me. Hopefully, for ever.

I turned towards the palace until I was out of her visual range, and then changed my course, heading slightly south-east for the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Two minutes later I was in the parking lot under I 40, where Pam and the others were waiting for me. I hugged her briefly and congratulated her on her performance.

“Well done – Freyda was totally convinced. I was almost totally convinced.” She nodded and we all turned towards the exits. “Now, are you sure you managed to leave without alerting Compton?”

She smirked. “He doesn’t have a clue. I got Parker Coburn to distract him by talking about computers, and when I left they were buried in something called QR code. Don’t ask me what that is – I couldn’t care less. But we’ve located where Felipe’s party is sitting.”

“Where?” This had been a source of some anxiety to me – I knew he liked the best, and hoped that he wouldn’t interpret that to be ringside seats on this occasion. It would have been a lot harder to kill him in public. Not impossible – just a lot harder.

Maxwell Lee said, “he’s got a suite. Number twenty-four. There’s nine vampires in total; two bodyguards outside, and Felipe, Angie, Horst and four vampires from Kansas inside.”

“Excellent.” I looked over my small group of followers. They had been with me for many years, and I trusted each of them to back me up tonight. Quickly I gave them my instructions, and then we headed for the arena. The bouts were under way, and the hallways were largely empty. Maxwell Lee peeled off, heading for the security office, where his job was to glamour the guards into switching off the CCTV for the section we were traversing.

Pam and Thalia led the way, glamoring any humans who looked as though they might challenge us, but the majority of them took one look and gave us a wide berth. One female member of staff was guided to the nearest restroom by Indira, who disappeared inside with her. When she rejoined us, the woman was heavily glamored and carrying a tray with seven bottles of True Blood Royalty Blended on it. The original plan had been simply to use the blood to get the guards to open the door, and then we intended to rush them, but the Elf Blood was so much more effective; our work would be half done for us before we even entered the room…

We moved as a group, the waitress in our midst, until eventually Pam stopped and held up her hand silently. We all came to a halt behind her, and I knew that the door to the suite we wanted was just round the curve. Indira took the tray from the woman and held it steady as I carefully added the Elf blood drop by drop. Then she gave the tray back to the waitress, who took it and set off round the curve of the hallway.

She was immediately challenged by the two bodyguards, but a short conversation later and they tapped on the door and allowed her in. It was only a few moments before she came back out and rejoined us, and Indira escorted her away from the danger zone.

Pam looked at me questioningly, I nodded, and she undid a couple of buttons on her already low top before disappearing back the way we had come. We were aided in our plan by the fact that the arena was circular; this made it easy to approach any given point from both directions and I knew that with her vampire speed she would be in position on the far side of the suite in less than a minute.

It didn’t take long before I heard her sultriest voice coming from round the corner. “Hello, boys. Who are you guarding?” At the sound I took the stakes that Thalia handed me and drifted silently into the air. Once I had reached ceiling level I eased forward until I could see round the curve and sure enough, there was Pam, smiling, displaying large amounts of white flesh, and the two Nevada guards both looking in her direction.

They were both alert, and she wasn’t so stupid as to approach closely enough to them to be regarded as a threat, but even if they had looked towards my followers it was doubtful that they would have noticed me above them. It was the work of a moment to drop from above, stake them and catch their bodies before they hit the floor. Pam smiled fangily at me over the flaking corpses and went to fetch the others.

We gathered silently outside the door and I knocked once, keeping my stake at the ready. There was no answer and after a brief pause I pushed open the door slightly. An elegantly-shod foot came into view, and then a grey pants leg. I had been listening intently, and there had been no sounds to indicate a problem and the guards hadn’t reacted in any way before they’d died, but I was still alert for a possible trap. Gripping my stake I opened the door fully and did a quick body count. Seven still figures, either in chairs or on the floor, lying where they had fallen. It looked like a scene from a slasher movie – the bottles had dropped from nerveless fingers and the blood substitute was splashed everywhere.

I could hear fangs running out around me, and warned my people again to avoid the blood. I didn’t want any casualties at this stage. Then I closed the door and quickly found the Nevada vampires.

All three of them were sprawled in chairs facing a huge picture window looking down over the arena. A nod from me and Thalia drew the blinds over it, and then I stood in front of Felipe, studying his motionless body. He was overdressed, as usual, in a frilly dress-shirt with a scarlet cravat and tight black pants with a scarlet cummerbund. A lock of his hair fell picturesquely over his pale brow, giving him the look of a debauched poet. I was unmoved by the romantic picture, and looked at Pam. “Shall I do it, or would you like the pleasure.”

She shrugged. “Your choice, naturally.” But I could see the hunger burning in her eyes, and stepped back, granting her silent permission.

“I will see to Horst and Angie.” She nodded once and I moved away. It took only moments to despatch Felipe’s consort and his second, and then direct my people to clean up the remains of the guards before I turned my attention to the Kansas vampires. They had been lifted into chairs and arranged more or less comfortably. They would not be moving before the dawn, and I comforted myself with the thought that most venues of this size kept emergency coffins on hand for stranded vampires. Then I turned back to Pam.

She was still looking down at Felipe and I joined her in gazing at my king and enemy. Although it had been Victor who had denied Pam the right to turn Miriam, and thus save her life, it had been Felipe who had inflicted Victor on us and who had refused to do anything to rein him in. Felipe had killed Sophie-Anne, my friend and queen, he encouraged Freyda to pursue marriage with me, he had invaded my home and brought endless trouble on us, he had made it clear he had designs on my dear one. There was no reason why he should be allowed to live.

I looked at Pam. “Are you ready to do this?”

She nodded and said, “oh, yes,” and her voice was hoarse as she spoke. “I’m just … savoring the moment.” Then she leaned down and with one swift, economical motion she stabbed the King of Nevada into oblivion.

Faint applause came from the watching vampires at the clean kill, and I took a last look at his corpse. I had desired, and planned for, his death for so long that in some ways the actual deed had been something of an anti-climax, but on a practical level, a swift, surgical strike with no drama was preferable to a messy, prolonged drama. As we left, closing the door carefully behind us, I noted there were just a couple of small stains left in the hallway to show what had happened.

As we headed swiftly towards the exit I texted Maxwell Lee to come and join us, and it was only minutes before we were all back in the underground garage. I was just commending my people on a job well done when my phone vibrated. I was expecting a message from Sookie, telling me what she had discovered about Freyda’s visit to Bertine, but to it was a call from Stan. Had he already succeeded in dispatching Freyda?

I answered it. “Hello?”

“Eric?” The voice was Joe’s, and I was instantly on the alert.

“Yes?”

“We’ve got problems.”

My heart sank and I gripped the phone more tightly, waiting to hear the worst.

He coughed and then said, “the attack failed. We were in the limo and she got a text from someone, and then went berserk, screaming about betrayal. We got the guards, but Stan’s stake bounced off her somehow, and she killed one of our men and wounded Stan and me. He’s badly hurt.”

Fuck. “Where is she now?”

“She’s heading for the palace. Be careful, Eric, I think she’s gone insane. She’s coming for you. And for your telepath.”

Happy Ever After Chapter 13

Chapter 13

“Sookie Stackhouse, I’m surprised at you! I thought you had too much self-respect to ever do that!”

I gaped at Amelia for a second. “Ever do what?”

“Play the dumb blonde card.”

I laughed when I realised what had got her feminist panties all in a wad. “No, I didn’t mean that. Listen…”

I told Amelia the story of a visit Pam and I had once made to a night club in Mississippi. It was called Blonde and we were (reluctantly) on an errand for Victor. While we were there Pam had torn a vampire’s ears off and I’d shot an Elf in the face (which hadn’t been part of the errand) and we’d both pretended to be strippers to get away safely (which definitely hadn’t been part of the errand!). But it was what I’d learned while there that I was hoping to use on this occasion.

I explained this to Amelia, and once she’d understood what I needed, she became very thoughtful. “Hmm. That could be tricky. I mean, Janelle at the local coven might have some – it’s an ingredient in certain types of spells – but she might not be willing to part with it. It’s probably real hard to get hold of now that Niall’s closed the portals to Faerie.”

“Well, I know that was what he said he’d done, but I’ve lost track of the number of times someone or something has popped through those supposedly closed portals.” I didn’t tell her I’d used one to dispose of the occasional corpse … “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Niall had meant to close them all and then forgot a couple. But even if your friends don’t have any they might be able to contact Faerie for us and ask for some.”

She shrugged. “I guess. We could go and ask, if you like.”

An hour later, we were pushing through the bead curtain that hung across the doorway of Wicca Work – the shop that formed the HQ for the local coven. It was full of woven baskets and dream catchers and incense burners and tarot cards, but that was just window-dressing for non-Wiccan shoppers. There was a smaller sign over the door, which said Arden Group, which I remembered was the name on the bill Eric and I’d seen for the Vlakas wards. We were definitely in the right place.

Amelia introduced me to Janelle Montrose, the coven leader. I’d kind of expected someone in a kaftan and silver amulets, but she was a large, friendly-looking lady, casually dressed in jeans and a Harley Davidson T-shirt with a Stetson on her short black hair. She didn’t look like a witch, but then neither did Amelia. I’d learned long ago that there were no stereotypes.

Amelia told her we had some confidential business, and she called someone to take over the shop for her and led us through to the back room where she had her office. She offered coffee, and once it arrived, Amelia got straight down to business, and explained what we needed.

Janelle frowned. “Elf blood? Why do you want Elf blood?”

We’d discussed how we were going to tackle this on the way over, and we’d decided that we’d need to tell at least some of the truth, but didn’t want to reveal any more than absolutely necessary. We couldn’t mention the coup, so Amelia told her that we’d discovered that a relative of a friend was being held prisoner by vampires and we wanted to free her.

Janelle frowned. “So you’re going to give the guards Elf blood?”

I nodded. I’d discovered on that unfortunate trip to Mississippi that Elf blood didn’t hype vampires up, like Fairy blood – it was more like a potent narcotic and it completely knocked them out. Too much of it would kill them; Pam had nearly been poisoned by drinking just a tiny amount of blood from a half-Elf. A few drops of the full-strength stuff would take down any vampire in seconds.

“How do you plan on getting them to drink it?”

We looked at each other. I wasn’t quite sure of the details yet, but I wasn’t going to admit this. “If you don’t mind, we’d rather keep that to ourselves, Miss Janelle. The fewer people who know, the better.”

She nodded slowly, but her mind told me she was very reluctant. “It’s not something we keep on hand – you can only get it in very small amounts and for specific uses – and I’m not sure it would be a real good idea. You know what the vamps will do if they find out who supplied you with it. Shoot, we’d be lucky if all they did was kill us.”

Dammit, I so wanted to tell her that it wouldn’t be an issue – those particular vampires wouldn’t be around for much longer – but Eric’s glamoring was too strong. But if she could get it, that must mean she had access to an Elf. Maybe one who’d chosen to stay in this world when the portals closed – I knew some hadn’t wanted to give up the luxuries that the human plane provided. All I could do was say, “well, could you tell us who your supplier is? Maybe it would be better if we approached them direct, so that you’re not involved.”

“Why would I do that? He’d be righteously pissed off with me for telling anyone about him. Even if he wasn’t mad, he’d need a very good reason to let you have his blood, and so far you haven’t told me why we should get involved in this at all. I don’t know how things are where you all come from, but we tend to live pretty peacefully with the vampires here in Oklahoma – we don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us for the most part.”

“But you do work for them, sometimes, don’t you?” That was Amelia.

Janelle shrugged. “We work for pretty much anybody who pays us. And vamps are good payers.”

“I guess so,” Amelia agreed. Always a loud broadcaster, I could tell where she was going with this, and I stayed quiet. “I mean, I’m sure they must have paid a lot for those Vlakas wards you installed in the palace. They take some serious skill.”

Janelle stiffened in her chair. “How did you know about that?”

“I felt them when I was visiting the security block. They’re really strong – I was very impressed. Did you do them personally?” Ames was doing her best to soft-soap the older woman, and I could see it working. Apparently, professional pride was a big part of Janelle’s character. She sat up a little straighter and smiled.

“Yeah, that was me. Me and one of my sisters.” I could tell she meant coven sisters, not a sibling.

Now Amelia leaned forward, her eyes wide and eager. “Tell me, I’ve always wanted to ask an expert – do you have to key them to a specific name?”

“Some folks might need a name but I don’t – just a personal item. The more personal the better.”

“What did you have this time?”

“A gold locket. Gold’s always good – pure metal holds the essence better’n most things”

Amelia nodded, clearly fascinated. “Wow, I’d never have thought of that. I can see why Freyda came to you. Can I ask, just out of professional interest, why did you choose Vlakas wards? I mean, there are other wards that are quicker and cheaper to install aren’t there?”

Janelle chuckled. “Wasn’t none of my choosing. I offered standard wards, but the vamps asked for Vlakas and I wasn’t about to argue with a paying client.”

“They specifically asked for Vlakas wards? I wonder why.” Amelia mused out loud, on the surface doing nothing more than innocently exchanging shop talk with a colleague. Her mind was saying that if Janelle wasn’t going to help us willingly, the more information she could get out of her, the more chance she had of figuring out a way round the wards herself.

“They said it needed to be real strong to hold this particular prisoner.”

Amelia said, “well that’s true enough. Bertine must be very powerful, even if she doesn’t look it …” She broke off as I nudged her sharply and glared at her. She’d gotten carried away, and said way more than she should have done.

But it was too late. Janelle had been expanding like a flower in the sun under the genial influence of Amelia’s flattery but now she frowned and looked from one to the other of us.

“Bertine? You’re trying to free someone called Bertine?”

Oh crap. “Um … ” Ames floundered, looking at me for help, not knowing what to say.

Janelle was clearly adding two and two together now, and was reaching a total she wasn’t too happy with. I dived into her mind and what I saw there told me that honesty was the only thing that would serve us now. I took a deep breath and spoke for almost the first time since we’d arrived in the office.

“Yes, ma’am. Her name’s Bertine Leventis.”

“Sookie!” Amelia was horrified that I seemed to be making bad worse, but I knew I was doing the right thing. Hoped I was doing the right thing.

“The Bertine Leventis?”

The witch’s voice was full of suspicion, but I nodded. “Uh-huh. The vampires tricked her into visiting them, and then locked her in a cell using your Vlakas wards.”

“Well, I’ll be …” The witch leaned back in her chair, looking almost overcome. Amelia didn’t look much better.

“Do you know Bertine Leventis, ma’am?” I said.

“Hell yeah! Well, that’s not to say know her – I know of her, though. Professor Leventis is an expert on magical artefacts – there’s nothing she can’t tell you about folklore and ancient history. I did a special project on her when I was still an apprentice. I’m surprised you’ve not heard tell of her.”

Amelia looked a tad embarrassed. “Um, artefacts aren’t really my field. Octavia – my tutor – was more interested in harnessing natural forces and energy-flows than artificial repositories.”

Janelle frowned. “That’s no excuse – you should know the history behind what you’re doing. How do you expect to grow in the craft if you don’t look beyond your own tutor’s interests? In my day we didn’t start specialising until … but never mind that now. You’re sure the vampires have imprisoned Bertine Leventis?”

We nodded.

“Well, hell. But why? What could they want with her?”

I said ,”they’re using her as a hostage to put pressure on Desmond Cataliades, the lawyer. He and Bertine are kind of connected.” I wasn’t sure how much to say about their relationship, so I kept it as vague as possible.

“You don’t say! That’s downright … you know, I can’t even think of a word bad enough! And she’s the one you’re trying to free?”

“Yes. For Mr Cataliades’ sake. The vampires are making him do stuff that he hates doing, but he can’t refuse. He looks terrible.”

“Shoot, I’ll just bet he does.” She took off her hat and ran her hand through her hair. She didn’t seem to know what to do, but she was thinking about the risk of giving us what we needed compared with the benefits of helping a full demon who was connected to the most respected lawyer in the Supe world. I gave her a gentle nudge.

“I’m sure that he would be really grateful if you helped us, ma’am. If you could just put us in touch with your source, we’d do the rest.”

“And maybe help us take off the wards?” Amelia put that in.

Janelle looked from to the other of us and shook her head slowly. “Well … okay … I guess I can call Durion for you, but the decision’s his, and I can’t help you with the wards.”

“Why not?” said Amelia. “you put ’em on, surely you can take them off, too?”

“Usually, yeah, but this time the vamps paid extra for single-user security. We supplied ’em with a key – you see why you need to understand artefacts? – and Queen Freyda holds it. She’s the only one who can open the wards.”

I asked, “but surely someone else must be able to go in and out. I mean, how do the guards feed her and such?”

She looked slightly impatient. “That’s not how Vlakas wards work. They’re very specific. Anyone can go in and out except for the subject or subjects. So the guards would have no problems – only Professor Leventis.”

“So we could get into the cell?” That sounded promising.

“Yeah, but I don’t see how that would help. And you’ve still got to get past the guards.”

And that took us back to the Elf blood. Janelle sent a text, and while we were waiting for Durion, her supplier, to arrive, she and Amelia discussed possible options for weakening the Vlakas wards in some way. They dragged books from shelves and consulted various online forums, and Amelia was in her element, but it soon became obvious that, although there were countless different unlocking spells, to make one strong enough to shatter the Vlakas wards – what Janelle referred to as a bunker-buster – would take a team of about ten witches working in concert, and there was no way that was happening.

They were getting very frustrated when a soft knock sounded on the door and I registered the distinctive Elven brain signature that I’d noted with Bellenos. Janelle straightened up from the volume she was consulting (Amelia had looked very superior when I’d called it a book, informing me that it was a grimoire) and called ‘c’mon on in”.

Durion may have had the same brain pattern as Bellenos, but that was where the similarity ended. This male was tall and slender, with a pale, sensitive face that somehow looked both young and old at the same time. He had fair hair brushed straight back from a broad white forehead, and very dark, slightly catlike eyes which swept the room, missing nothing. It seemed odd that this exotic creature was dressed in a button-down shirt and blue jeans, with ostrich-skin cowboy boots and was carrying a simple canvas holdall; I felt he should have been wearing a doublet and hose and carrying a lute …

He greeted Janelle politely and nodded slightly to Amelia. When his eyes fell on me, they glowed slightly. He registered my name, hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then he dipped his head slightly lower than he had to Ames.

“Cousin.” His voice was light and cool, and reminded me of distant bells. I found myself drawn to him, but at the same time I felt clumsy and gauche and completely unworthy of his notice. I became aware that my shoes were scuffed and my hair could use tidying and my fingernails were probably grubby and I was fat and useless and ignorant and I certainly didn’t deserve that such a beautiful and exalted being should even speak to me, let alone address me as …

“Cousin?” Janelle looked at me sharply.

I found my voice. “I’m not really his cousin; I’m only …”

My voice trailed away and Janelle said, “Okay, Durion, knock it off.”

Knock what off? But the Elf took his gaze from me and smiled at the witch. Or at least, showed his teeth, which were sharp and pointed. Okay, so he and Bellenos had that in common, too. “My apologies. A bad habit.”

What was he apologising for? What was going on?

Janelle looked back at me and grinned. “Sorry -I forgot to warn you. He was glamoring you – the Elven version. It’s not like vampire glamor, where you’re forced to obey them even if you don’t want to – the Elves just show you how beautiful and noble and splendid they are and how lowdown scum-of-the-earth you are and you end up feeling that you’d do pretty much anything they asked just for the chance of a smile. In fact, you’d fall over yourself to be allowed to do exactly what they wanted. Did you feel that?”

“I guess … kind of …” I felt embarrassed that I’d succumbed so easily, but Janelle was speaking again, her tone almost scolding.

“You should know better than that, Durion. You’ve lived here long enough not to draw attention to yourself that way. These folks are here to do business, not have their heads messed with.”

Amelia said. “I didn’t feel anything. Is that because I’m a witch?”

“Yeah – it doesn’t work on us. Just regular humans.” She looked at me. “Which I’m guessing you’re not, otherwise you’d have been on your knees.”

“I’ve got some Fairy blood. Just a smidge.”

“It is not the quantity that is important, cousin – it is the quality.” That was Durion again, but this time his voice, although pleasant, didn’t have that strange bell-like quality to it. “To those of us who still operate on the earthly plane, Miss Sookie Stackhouse is well-known as a member of House Brigant. I am honored to claim even courtesy kinship with her.”

He didn’t quite bow, but I could feel he was on the verge of it, and I was glad he didn’t. Even though he’d switched his glamor off I didn’t feel comfortable at the idea of him bowing and scraping to me. I cleared my throat and said, “I’m honored to meet you, sir. Janelle told you why we wanted to see you?”

“Yes. She said you needed some of my blood. Why do you require it?”

Amelia said, “um … it’s kind of confidential.” She was right – the fewer people who knew what we were planning the better.

He shook his head. “This is … I think the phrase is ‘non-negotiable’. The strength of an Elf resides in his blood – I would be weakened if I gave it to you, and I have a right to know what you are planning to do with it. I must judge whether it is worth the sacrifice on my part.”

Oh. When he put it like that, I could see his point. I nodded at Amelia and she explained what we planned to do. He listened carefully, then said, “so, if you free Professor Leventis you will also free Desmond Cataliades from unwanted pressure, but to do so you will have to incapacitate and possibly kill an unknown number of vampires.”

“Yes.” We had to face it; although I would try very hard to just put them out of action, if we got the dosage wrong, they might well die.

“And, whether you succeed or not, the attempt will undoubtedly enrage Queen Freyda.”

“Definitely.” He didn’t know that, with any luck, it wouldn’t matter, but I couldn’t tell him.

He considered for a minute, and then said, “very well. I have worked with, and respect, Professor Leventis, and the prospect of inconveniencing Freyda of Oklahoma and her followers is an added pleasure. I will allow you to take twenty drops of my blood. What do you offer in exchange?”

“How much do you want?” At least money wasn’t an issue – Amelia had more than she knew what to do with – but to my dismay he shook his head.

“I do not need money – I have ample. What else can you offer me?”

“Um … what do you normally take?”

He looked at Janelle. “You must understand, this is not something I do on a regular basis. As a person of note in the magical community, Mistress Montrose occasionally hears things that may assist me, and in return I allow her to take small quantities of my blood for a use that I approve.”

Okay, so information was a tradeable commodity. “What sort of things? If you know about me, you know I’m a telepath – I can read human minds. If it’s information you’re after, I might be able to help you.”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. Humans are usually only too eager to tell me anything I ask without my having to read their minds. But it is rare for me to need mortal help – my quest usually involves the supernatural community.”

“Quest? What sort of quest?” I wondered if my contacts in the vamp world might be of any use to him.

“I am a crypto-archaeologist. I work for the Elven King, and my job is to locate and recover magical artefacts in this world that have been stolen or mislaid over the centuries, and return them to their rightful owners in Faerie.”

Amelia said, “but I thought Niall shut the portals.”

He smiled. “His Highness does not control all of Faerie, whatever he may like to think. No, King Tyriol has his own ways in and out of his realm. In fact, Prince Niall has occasionally been known to make use of them himself, even if he wants his own people to believe the portals are closed.”

Well, that explained a lot …

“So you come and go freely between this world and yours.”

He sighed. “Not as often as I would like. I am required to live here for the most part, and I am only permitted to visit Faerie when I return something of value. It does not happen often enough for me – all the easily obtainable objects were recovered centuries ago, and now I sometimes spend years trying to track down a single item, only to find it was carelessly destroyed by some fool who was ignorant of what he possessed.”

There was bitterness in his beautiful voice now, but I had an idea.

“Durion … sir … I think I might have something that you would find valuable.”

“And that would be?” He looked sceptical at first, but as I explained Eric’s theory about how Bertine had been lured to Freyda’s palace in the first place, his expression changed to one of eagerness. His eyes glowed again as he said, “and the Vlakas wards only relate to the Professor? You could remove any item from the cell with no difficulty?”

“Well, assuming we can get rid of the guards.”

“You shall have all the blood you need if you promise to bring me even one item from Freyda’s treasure.”

I was doubtful. “I could bring you something, I’m sure, but I’ve no way of knowing what’s valuable to you. What sort of thing are you looking for?”

“Hmm. Have you ever heard of the tunic of Nessus?”

I shook my head, but Amelia said, “I have. It’s the poisoned shirt that killed Hercules, isn’t it?”

“That is the legend, but it has been twisted over the ages. The reality is the reverse – those who don the shirt are immune to fire. My king is related to Nessus the centaur, who created it, and has wanted it returned to the family for centuries. That is why I have remained in this area for so long; there have been rumours circulating for decades that the previous vampire King owned it. I was never able to get proof, but it would be something of immense value to a vampire – worth killing your king for, even without anything else he may have been hoarding. If King Aloysius had it, Freyda would have inherited it when she killed him.”

“So, what does it look like?”

“Nothing special – a simple short-sleeved linen shirt, with bloodstains on it. It was soaked with the blood of Nessus, which gave it its magical properties. If you see that, I would value it above almost anything else.”

“And if it’s not there?”

He reached into his holdall, and handed me what looked like a leaf, but it was made of a green stone, veined with gold. It was warm to the touch and glowing slightly. “That is a penhallin. It is one of the tools I use in my work – it glows in the presence of magical objects. The stronger the magic, the brighter it glows; choose the most magical object you can find and bring it to me, and I will be satisfied. If you bring me more than one item, I will be in your debt.”

Janelle said, “Do you have anything that would help weaken the Vlakas wards? I’m darned if I can think of anything. Amelia here’s good, but when I ward something, it stays warded.” I could feel her frustration warring with her professional pride. She had done almost too good a job.

Durion shook his head. “No, my skills do not lie in that direction. However, I may not be able to weaken the wards, but I can strengthen your friend.”

“How?” That was Amelia.

“My blood has the property of strengthening magic. That is why witches value it, and that is also how it kills vampires – they are creatures that exist entirely through magical means, and if they drink Elf blood, they effectively suffer an overdose. Their systems overload – too much magic will kill them as surely as too little. But witches don’t exist through magic – you simply channel it. So, if you drank my blood, your natural ability would be enhanced tenfold and you might be able to break through the wards. I cannot promise, but it is the best I can do.”

“Would you really let me have some? Thank you – that sounds amazing!” Amelia was really excited at the prospect. I expressed thanks, too, and Janelle asked us to leave the room while Durion gave his blood. We went back to the shop and browsed a little. Amelia bought some items that would help with the spell she and Janelle had finally settled on as having the best chance.

I discreetly got the penhallin out of my pocket and looked at it – it was almost too hot to handle, and was glowing so brightly in the presence of all the magic in the little shop that it cast a shadow for a few seconds, before I stuffed it back into my pocket. Fortunately, the assistant was busy wrapping Amelia’s frogspawn or eye of bat or whatever she’d bought.

When Janelle fetched us back to her office Durion was lying on the couch, looking, if possible, even paler than before. He tried to rise as we entered, but Janelle pressed him back down on the cushions and handed us two tiny phials of blood, one for Amelia and one for me. Durion said, “drink it near sundown – it will be at its strongest while it is fresh in your system. And send me word if you are successful.”

I was worried – his voice was very faint. “Will you be okay? You don’t look too good. Is there anything we can do to help?”

A breath of laughter. “Thank you for your concern, cousin. Bring me something that will allow me to return to Faerie and that will be all I need. Meanwhile, I shall rest here for a time; Mistress Montrose’s wards will keep me safe until I am strong enough to leave. Good fortune attend you.”

His eyes closed and we tiptoed from the room, clutching our precious phials.

####

Back at the palace we manoeuvred our way past the piles of travel-coffins and luggage that now crowded the foyer – the vampire guests were arriving thick and fast in readiness for tomorrow night’s festivities. I saw one party of porters wheeling a group of expensive-looking coffins labelled Nevada and was tempted to flip back the lid and stake Felipe where he lay…

I got a grip and contented myself with taking the same elevator and noting carefully the number of coffins and which rooms they were given. From what I could see, Felipe’s entire party was housed in the Royal Wing – there didn’t seem to be any coffins being taken off to the annexe where Eric’s followers had been put.

When we got back to our own suite, I was surprised to notice a small group of servants waiting outside. They looked round as we approached and their expressions ranged from annoyed to relieved.

“What’s going on?”

“Do you have access to this room, Miss?” An annoyed-looking butler-type said.

“Yes, I’m Sookie Stackhouse, Mr Northman’s …” I didn’t complete the sentence, but I didn’t need to, because he continued, his words clipped and sharp with frustration.

“Would mind being so very kind as to lift the wards? The domestic staff really need to be able to fulfil their duties without being blasted across the hallway! Her Majesty will be seriously annoyed if the Consort-elect’s suite isn’t clean and tidy when he rises, and no-one’s been able to get in!”

I’d completely forgotten about Amelia’s wards. Every time the staff had wanted in before, I’d just said ‘come in’ and that had been enough permission for them to enter. Now I said, “oh, sorry about that. Come on in,” and I opened the door with my keycard and was followed by Amelia and six pissed-off members of staff.

Ames and I exchanged glances but didn’t say anything; we just sat on one of the couches and watched as the staff cleaned and tidied strenuously, and with possibly slightly more banging and clattering than the situation called for. It wouldn’t disturb Eric of course, but they were leaving me in no doubt as to how they felt about being delayed like this.

One of them approached the door to Eric’s room and I immediately said, “not in there!”

She paused, one hand on the door knob. “But I have to change the towels!”

I got to my feet. “I’ll fetch them for you. You do not go in there while he’s resting. Nobody does.”

IHer round face was red with indignation and her mind was saying who does she think she is? … jumped-up little madam … I’d like to infect her, see how popular she is then … Hmm. that was interesting … I needed to trigger the right thoughts, so I said, “when was your last Sino-AIDS test?” Instantly, her mind flared brightly and I found what I wanted.

“None … none of your business,” she stammered, and I leaned forward and whispered, “Well, if you don’t want me to make it my business, you’ll back off. How much did you have to pay that creepy doctor to falsify your test results, anyhow?” Eric had told me that all the human employees here were tested regularly for Sino-AIDS, and any positive results meant you lost your job. This woman’s thoughts had told me she was SA positive, but needed her job, and the doctor was blackmailing her.

Her previously red face paled as the blood drained from it. She stared at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But she removed her hand from the door and flounced away to fetch the towels from Amelia’s room. Of course, she came up against yet another ward and for some reason Amelia let her walk straight into it. It was milder than the one on the main door of the suite and it just stung a bit, but her yelp of surprise was still satisfying.

Amelia’s apologies were effusive and earnest and completely insincere, but she didn’t let her through – she went and got the towels for her. She protested feebly, saying she needed to clean up, but Ames just opened the door and let her see for herself. Her cleaning fetish had left absolutely nothing for the maids to do. While she was arguing I slipped into Eric’s room and fetched our towels from the bathroom.

I stopped and studied him in the low light as I came back out. Naturally, he hadn’t moved a muscle; he was still lying in what I thought of as his starfish pose – sprawled out on his front, arms and legs wide, taking up most of the bed. His face was half-hidden by his golden hair and the sheet covered him to the waist, leaving his torso on display. I sighed a little, thinking of the pleasure that gorgeous body could give me, then I shook myself and took the towels back out to the living room.

The maid glared at me and all but snatched them from my hand before dropping them in her hamper along with Amelia’s. I stayed where I was, standing in front of Eric’s door to make sure no-one else felt like entering the inner sanctum, until they all finished up and left, and then we looked at each other and heaved a sigh of relief.

I was startled by the chiming of a little clock on the mantel – it was almost lunchtime. We decided to eat in this time, and I rang down for some food, which was delivered by Ramon.

I checked the surveillance detector, and it was still operational, so I decided to ask Ramon if he had any ideas on how to help get Miss Bertine out. Eric trusted him, so I knew we could. I filled him in on everything that had happened so far, and asked his opinion.

He listened carefully, and asked a few questions, and then said, “it will be easy to deal with the vampires. They can’t live-feed while they’re on duty, so they have bottled blood delivered. I can arrange to be the one who brings it to them – I’ve done it before, and if you give me the Elf blood, I’ll add it to the bottles. Do you know how long it takes to work?”

“Not very long at all – I’ve only seen half-Elf blood before, but that was pretty quick. Pam went really red, and her speech went slurred after about two mouthfuls. I think the full stuff would be even quicker. How many vampire guards are down there?”

“There are ten in the Maximum Security block – two to a cell. They normally have their blood about nine o’clock; does that fit in with your plans?”

“It can do. What about the Were on the front desk? Any ideas?”

He smiled. “Leave him to me.”

Oh. I guessed that this was one of those, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell situations. “Will you give us a call when you’re on your way?”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea – you should make sure you’re already down there and then you’ll see me go past. Can you do that?”

I looked at Amelia. “Yes, we can do that, but if we’re not there do it anyway – something might delay us.”

I handed over the phial of Durion’s blood. “Don’t lose this, whatever you do. And no more than two drops each.”

He smiled. “Mr Northman trusts me for a reason. I’ve never let him down, and I never will.”

“Good to know. We’ll see you later, then.”

After we’d eaten, Amelia went to start preparations for her bunker-buster spell, and I decided to sack out with Eric for a bit. I hadn’t slept last night, and even though I didn’t know exactly what was going to be happening tonight (I’d refused Eric’s offer to share the details of his plans with me, knowing I wouldn’t be allowed to take an active part) I still wanted to be fresh. I stripped off and crept into bed with him, lifting one of his arms and snuggling underneath it to lie curled up against him, and waited to drift off.

But sleep was a long time coming …

The longer I lay there, the more I started having second thoughts about what we were planning on doing. Or, not so much about what we were planning, as about not telling Eric. Even though he wasn’t conscious, I could almost hear his voice saying, “trust me, Sookie.”

I determinedly closed my eyes and turned over, trying to get comfortable, but when I finally slept, my dreams were full of Eric. I seemed to be re-living all the times Eric and I had been in trouble together, and all the times he’d rescued me. I saw him taking bullets for me, fighting Fairies off at swordpoint for me, defying Andre for me, healing me, holding me, loving me …

The alarm woke me and I sat bolt upright, wide awake and absolutely sure of what I had to do. I turned the alarm off, climbed out of bed, pulled on a robe and crossed the living-room to Amelia’s bedroom. I knocked on the door and she said, “just a minute!” It was more like five before she finally opened the door, and I recoiled. The smell was indescribable, her hair was wild and she had smears of green powder on her face. “Yeah?”

I spoke from behind the edge of my dressing-gown, which I’d quickly pulled up to cover my nose. “I’ve decided to tell Eric. I can’t not – this could screw up his plans. It isn’t fair. He’s offered to share his plans with me – I should do the same, and there’s more at stake than just my own concerns here.”

“Well, yeah, that’s a good point, but what if he says no?”

“I think I can talk him round if I can explain to him what we’re doing. He said no earlier because I just threw what I wanted to do at him – I didn’t have any real idea of how to do it. Now I can present him with a proper plan, carefully worked out, and if I can show him the benefits of letting me do it, he might be more agreeable. He could even … I don’t know … factor it into whatever he’s got planned, or something. But either way, he’s got to know. How’s the smell – I mean spell – coming?”

“Pretty much there. I got the proportions of comfrey and salt-petre wrong the first time, but this one’s looking much better. Ten minutes, it’ll be done.”

“That’s good, because Eric might want a demonstration.”

“I’ve prepared extra just for that reason. Now don’t try to come in here again – I’m going to ramp up the wards on this door to the strongest I can manage and see if I can take ’em down. And then I’m going to show Mr ‘She’s Not Strong Enough’ what Amelia Broadway can do when she really puts her mind to it!”

She was already focussing back on whatever was going on in her room, so I retreated back to my room and sat on the bed, watching Eric as he slept, waiting for the moment those startling blue eyes opened on possibly the most important night of our lives …

Happy Ever After Chapter 12

Chapter 12

“What?” I found it hard to imagine anything at all that would terrify the type of guards we’d just been watching kick the crap out of each other, let alone a little old tea-drinking lady…

“Whatever they’re guarding, they’re scared.”

“Why would they be scared of an old lady?

I could feel his mental shrug. I dunno. Maybe it’s not her they’re scared of. Maybe they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t guard her properly. From what I’ve heard from Stan, Queen Freyda is one scary bitch.

Well, he was right about that. But it didn’t explain what this grandma was doing there. I took a peek at his memory but although the basic image was there, it was pretty fuzzy. That was clearly the problem – I was looking at his memory of the Weres’ memories, and it was like a third or fourth generation photocopy – all the fine detail was gone and I couldn’t really make out the features. I was about to ask some more questions when Bruno came over. He’d been hovering nearby, clearly anxious, but now he said “it’s sunset. We need to go back inside.”

“Can you give him a few minutes? He’s a bit out of it right now.” The big guy was reluctant but Barry genuinely did look shaken, so he agreed to wait a few minutes longer. As we sat there, limos began to pull up – more wedding guests, timing it so they arrived just after sunset. We were to one side, slightly shielded by the pillar, but we attracted a few curious glances from the vampires as they passed up the steps and into the palace. Fortunately, the wind was so strong that it was whipping skirts and hair all over the place, so no-one lingered.

Bruno had been on his lapel mic, and when Barry finally said, “I’m feeling better now,” the Were shook his head.

“Mr Davis says you’re not to come through the palace without protection; too many other vampires around. He’s sending Deacon for you. ‘ The big guy looked pretty pissed off, but there was no denying he wouldn’t be that much protection against a predatory vampire. I guessed Deacon was one of Stan’s followers, and sure enough a few minutes later a tall, thin vampire arrived on the steps and beckoned to us.

Bruno reached down and hauled Barry to his feet and we followed Deacon back into the palace. As we walked through the foyer we attracted quite a lot of attention from the visitors who were being greeted by senior Oklahoma vampires – I heard murmurs of ‘telepaths’ and ‘Texas’ and, unfortunately, ‘consort’s pet.’ So the staff weren’t wasting any time making sure everyone knew my status. Freyda’s orders, I was sure. I kept my head up and my back straight, and ignored the burning in my cheeks, reaching out for Eric as we mounted the stairs. By the time we reached the hallway with our rooms, I had already heard from him.

He was up and about (he’d never been one for lying in bed when there was no-one to lie in bed with) and was concerned about what he was picking up from me. I told him about the comments, and he send strong waves of comfort and appreciation through the bond.

You know I don’t think of you in that way. And it’s only for two more nights. Where are you now?

On my way back to the suite. Stan’s already arrived, and Barry and I have been down to the maximum security block.

Disapproval. I know – Amelia is here and told me what was happening, otherwise I would have been alarmed at your absence. You shouldn’t have left the room without my knowledge.

Annoyance. Just because they’re calling me a pet doesn’t mean I am one, Eric. I have a brain and a will of my own, and I don’t need your permission to go walkies. If I’d waited for you to rise the Weres might have been off duty and we’d have lost our chance.

Rueful acknowledgement. A good point. Did you get anything?

Puzzlement. Well, we got something, but it’s pretty weird.

Intrigued. Very well, come straight back to the suite and bring Barry with you. I’m with Stan and some of his people now – I wanted to meet before Freyda comes looking for me. Deacon knows where to bring you.

Okay. ETA two minutes.

Irony. Over and out.

We left Bruno at Stan’s door and when we entered our suite, Eric was sitting on a couch, with Amelia in a wing-chair to one side. The coffee-table in front of Eric held a tray of True Blood bottles and the surveillance detector, green light glowing. On the couch opposite were Stan and Joe, with three vampires standing behind them. I didn’t recognise them from my last trip to Dallas but they were introduced to me as Amos, Elliott and Billy-Ray. Isabel was back in Texas, minding the store, apparently.

I greeted them politely as Deacon joined them, and they nodded with varying degrees of indifference. Joe just watched me silently and Stan said ‘Miss Stackhouse,’ but that was as warm and fuzzy as it was going to get. At a nod from his boss Barry joined him on the couch and I’d just sat next to Eric when there was a knock on the door and Eric called permission to enter.

Pam came in, and I stared a little as Eric introduced her. Normally a fairly conservative dresser, except when on duty at Fangtasia, her dress tonight was anything but conservative. A tight silk sheath revealed almost more flesh than it covered, the deep peacock blue making the whiteness of her skin even more startling.

She sat on the other side of Eric, who was dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, and greeted the guests. There were nods all round, but I was surprised at the way Pam practically purred as she said hello to Stan. The Texan vampire looked a little surprised too, and I remembered that Pam had expressed an interest in ‘geeky types’ when I’d first met Stan in Dallas. Maybe this was her opportunity to get to know the King of Texas a little better, but it would have to wait for the right moment.

Eric passed around the True Blood, then when everyone had taken one, he looked at me expectantly, and said, “do you have anything to tell us?”

“We might have.” I looked across at Barry. “Can you tell them what you saw?”

He looked slightly mutinous. “Uh … can someone tell me what I was doing, first? It might help me make sense of what I saw, and Sookie wouldn’t say what was going on.”

“Not wouldn’t – couldn’t.” I turned to Eric and said, “I promised him someone would explain what was happening – can you fill him in, please?”

Eric nodded and in a few sentences outlined the reason we were all here. Barry’s eyes widened, and I could hear his mental oh crap! as clearly as if he’d said it out loud, but his months of working for vampires kept anything indiscreet from coming out of his mouth. He was just suddenly real worried about what this could mean for him and his future. If Stan lost…

Eric finished up by saying, “I suspected there was something or someone unusual being held in the maximum security area, but my sources within the palace couldn’t help me. So I asked Sookie to try and read something from the Were guards, with your help. Presumably you achieved something?”

He looked at me questioningly and I was about to speak when Barry said, “well, why couldn’t you have just told me that, Sookie? Didn’t you trust me?”

I wasn’t sure what to say; I didn’t know if Eric wanted other people to know about what he’d learned to do to block areas of my mind, but it seemed he didn’t have a problem. “Sookie has been deep-glamoured not to be able to speak of our plans to anyone except myself, Pam, Stan and Joseph,” he said. “It’s a technique I learned from the Native American vampires.”

Stan seemed very interested and started to ask questions, but Joe coughed discreetly and we came back to the main topic at hand.

“So, what did you see?”

I explained that I’d distracted the guard while Barry had gone digging, and when he told them what he’d seen and felt they were as astonished as I’d been.

Joe said, “Are you sure they were scared? You couldn’t mistake it for another emotion?”

Barry shook his head. “Nope. They were scared sh … spitless.” He glanced across at me, as though in apology. I mentally shrugged. I’d heard worse.

The vampires looked at each other with speculation in their eyes, and Eric said, “can you describe this woman to us?”

“uh … maybe sixty, sixty-five. Round face, fuzzy dark hair, sorta untidy-looking. She had those little glasses that sit on your nose – you know, the kind with no earpieces? She had a high-necked blouse and a tweed jacket on and she was drinking tea, I think.”

“How do you know it was tea?”

“Well, it was in this dainty little tea-cup, you know? I guess it could have been coffee …”

“I don’t think what she was drinking matters,” said Stan. “What is important is, who is she, what is she doing there, and why is Freyda keeping her prisoner?”

There were no answers, but Joe said, “can you remember anything else about her? Anything at all?”

Barry closed his eyes as he racked his brains. I was tempted to go in and take a look, but his impression was going to be clearer than mine. Then he said, “She was surrounded by all this junk, and she had a little brooch on, I think, and an ID badge like ours. But that’s it, sorry.”

He looked apologetic, but Eric had stiffened. “An ID badge? One moment.” He got up and went into the bedroom and came back with his laptop. He pulled a datastick out of his jeans pocket and plugged it in, then, a few seconds later, he turned the screen so Barry could see it, and said, “is that her?”

Barry leaned forward. “Yes! That’s her! But how …?” Eric looked smug and the other vampires all sat up, registering varying degrees of interest.

Stan frowned, “how do you come to have a picture of this woman on your computer?”

“You remember Freyda’s take-over plans, which I sent you? I got this image from the same source. I didn’t see how it could be useful at the time, but I kept it, and when Barry mentioned an ID badge it rang a bell. You can see the picture here is part of a driving licence – clearly it was copied to be used to make the ID badge Barry saw her wearing.”

“So who is she?”

“Ah. That’s the difficulty. I don’t know. Do any of you recognise her?” Stan and all his vampires leaned forward to study the details on the screen. I remembered the slightly startled expression on the face we’d looked at on my computer. Then they all sighed and shook their heads.

“So, where do we go from here?”

Eric said. “I’m not sure. I admit I’m disappointed – I’d hoped we’d find something to help us with the coup, but it looks as though it’s not relevant. I suggest we set it on one side and continue with our battle plans.”

Stan nodded and said, “how many vampires do you have with you?” They were just about to settle back into a discussion of tomorrow night, when an idea occurred to me.

“Excuse me, Eric.”

The other vampires looked at me in annoyance but Eric paused instantly, and said, “what is it?” I felt warm inside at his acknowledgement of my importance to him in front of his fellow-vampires. I wasn’t just a pet.

“Just a thought, but would Parker have access to facial recognition software? I know there’s some pretty sophisticated stuff out there. It might help identify her.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea. Pam – check that out as soon as you can. But she’s clearly not a threat to us or our plans – just someone Freyda wants to keep secure for some reason. We’ll have to come back to the mystery of Miss Bertine Leventis at another time.” He turned back to Stan and the others, but there was a bell ringing faintly in my mind. Where had I heard that name? It was familiar somehow, but I couldn’t pin it down…

I tuned out the discussion that was going on around me, racking my brains, but nothing emerged. It was only when I heard my name that I registered the conversation again. The vampires were all looking at me expectantly.

“Excuse me?”

Eric looked mildly annoyed. “I asked if there was anything else you’d noticed while you were downstairs. Anything that might help us.”

“Uh … no. I don’t think so. Barry mentioned one of the vampires was worried about a gambling debt, but I still don’t understand why the guards were scared and why the cell was full of junk …”

He sighed. “We’ve moved on from that Sookie. Right now we need to focus on these plans.” They had a rough diagram of the palace spread out on the coffee-table, and they were all studying it carefully. I caught Amelia’s eye, and she glanced towards her bedroom. I nodded and quietly stood up. We weren’t needed for this and I knew Eric would fill me in later.

Anyway, I had a very strong suspicion he was intending to make sure I was somewhere safe when the coup went down – he would fight better if he knew I wasn’t in danger. We would be having words about that, but for now I didn’t feel there was anything I could contribute.

Eric’s voice sounded in my head as Amelia and I retreated to her room. Don’t disturb yourself, lover. We’ll give it some more thought later, I promise, but Freyda will be here soon, and we need to finish our business before she gets suspicious.

Got it.

I closed the door behind us and leaned against it, puffing out my cheeks. This was so frustrating! I knew that name was familiar, but my mind just wouldn’t give it up.

“Ames, can you put any memory-enhancing spells together with the stuff Eric gave you? This is going to drive me nuts.”

“Sorry, Sook. That sort of thing takes way different ingredients and a lot of time. And I don’t think Eric would be happy with me casting spells on you – he was pissed as hell the last time I did it.” True that. “Anyway, messing around with your mind seems to be something Mr Deep Glamour seems to prefer doing himself.”

I grunted and flopped down on the bed next to her. I remembered to fill her in on ‘her’ message for Cal about being late, and she pouted some – it seemed that, even though making ’em wait was her usual MO, on this occasion she wasn’t keen on playing hard to get.

Her mind said she was more taken with Cal than with anyone since Tray died, and I hadn’t missed the physical resemblance between the two Weres, although Cal was distinctly less hairy. Bearing in mind what was due to happen tomorrow night, I didn’t think there was much of a long-term chance for this relationship, but Amelia had to be as aware of that as I was. For the moment I was happy to see her so enthusiastic; she burbled on about his many charms and I nodded in (approximately) the right places, but my mind kept returning to the little old lady in the cell like a sore tooth that I was unable to keep from probing …

I picked up a message from Eric that the others were leaving and he’d been summoned to see Freyda. I was glad to come out of Amelia’s room, but I didn’t want to go wandering round the palace any more – the looks I had been getting made me very uncomfortable. If this was what it meant to be a pet, I was happier than ever that we weren’t going to be staying.

The living room was empty now, even the tray of True Blood empties had been removed. I went through to the bedroom where Eric was changing his clothes. He looked edible in a black velvet tux with silk lapels. It was a good job vampires didn’t suffer from dandruff – with his love of black, it would have been an absolute nightmare.

“I’m sorry I have to go, dear one,” he said, “but Freyda wants me to meet some of her Sheriffs who’ve come in from the more distant Areas for the wedding. It’s a nuisance, but I may learn something useful; at least I’ll be able to assess the loyalty of her supporters – whether they’ll fight for her and how hard.” He turned away from the mirror where he’d been smoothing his hair.

“Did the planning go okay?”

“Very well. Joseph had some excellent ideas – beautifully ruthless. He’ll make a very good king.” Then he came to me and pulled me into a tight embrace. “I’ll mindspeak you when I can, but don’t expect me back any time soon. Her meetings tend to be long and boring.”

“Can I talk to you too? I could probably find some things to say that would keep you from being bored.” My hand crept down to stroke the front of his pants and he inhaled sharply.

“Best not – I know the sort of things you’d say and I can’t afford to get distracted while I’m in public.” I felt the flesh under my fingers stiffening and swelling and he sighed and reluctantly moved my hand away. “It goes against every fibre of my being to say so, but you will have to stop doing that, lover. I don’t want to greet the Sheriffs of Oklahoma with a hard-on – it might give them the wrong idea.”

“I don’t know, some of them might be flattered…”

He smirked, then sighed again and pulled away with an effort. “We’d better play it safe – we’re too close to our goal to risk my being distracted now. I’ll keep my end of the link closed. Stay safe for me.” And then he kissed me and was gone.

I wandered back to Milly’s room to find her flicking through the channels on the plasma screen TV opposite the bed. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I joined her, listening out all the while for Eric’s voice in my mind.

True to his word he was giving me a running commentary on what was happening. His emotions were coming through loud and clear, and he was clearly bored out of his mind. A great believer in actions speaking louder than words, Eric had very little tolerance for pompous blowhards who loved the sound of their own voices.

All monumentally dull so far … Gods, I wish she’d just shut up and get on with it. A strong mental impression of a sigh. Meetings; the practical alternative to real work …

That’s interesting, all Freyda’s Sheriffs are younger than her… all the better for us. Pam could eat most of them for breakfast …

Now they’re discussing the Areas I’ll have responsibility for. Mostly the north of the kingdom. Hmm, that Sheriff is glaring at me as if I’d farted right under his nose …

I giggled, and Ames glanced at me, but fortunately she was watching Frasier so laughter was appropriate.

I continued dividing my attention between Eric and the TV, stifling yawns as the evening went on until …

Cataliades has arrived … he doesn’t look any better …

An image of the demon lawyer as I’d seen him last night came to mind. Although he’d tried his hardest to behave normally, he’d had a haunted look about him, nothing like his usual urbane self. The only other time I could remember seeing him ruffled was when he’d been helping me dispose of Donald Callaway the antiques dealer who …

And as soon as I had that thought, I had the answer! I sat bolt upright clutching at Amelia’s arm as the penny dropped and she stared at me wide-eyed as though I’d gone mad. “Of course! It’s obvious! And oh crap, no wonder the guards were so scared!”

“What? What are you talking about?” Amelia was damn near shaking me in her impatience.

“I know who the prisoner is!”

She instantly turned the TV off and said, “tell me! Is it someone important?”

“Hell yes! It’s … I can’t remember, have you ever met Desmond Cataliades? the lawyer? he’s half demon.”

“No, but you’ve told me about him. He’s like your demon godfather isn’t he?”

“Sponsor, yes. Well, it turns out that he has a sponsor too – maybe it’s something all demons have – and I’ve just remembered, he told me once his is a woman called Bertine! This must be her!”

“Holy hell! Are you sure?”

I was thinking hard now. “Yes, it all fits. It’s got to be her. Even her surname – Leventis – that sounds Greek, right? Like Mr Cataliades? That would explain why he couldn’t help Eric like he promised. If Freyda’s kidnapped his sponsor she’d have him over a barrel – he’d have to do whatever she said.”

“But why didn’t you recognise the name when you saw her picture back in Bon Temps?”

“I only saw the face – the writing was too small. And Eric never mentioned the name, or I might have put two and two together sooner.”

“So this Bertine, is she a half-demon too?”

“No, she’s a full demon, and a pretty powerful one too. I can’t even think how Freyda managed to imprison her – that must be why she needed the Vlakas wards. The guards are probably worried she could break free. Do you think they’d hold a demon?”

Amelia nodded. “I think so, if they were set up right.”

“Poor Mr C – he must feel terrible. She pretty much raised him and his half-brother. No wonder he looked like he’d been up all last night and half of tomorrow. We have to do something.”

“Like what? If it was that easy, Mr C would probably have done it himself.”

“We’ll have to ask Eric. He’ll think of something. He’ll be really pleased we’ve solved two mysteries in one!”

####

Sure enough, when Eric came back a lot later, he was delighted and fascinated by my theory, and agreed that this had to be the answer to who was in the cell and why Mr C looked so down. Some things still puzzled me, though, and I brought them up when we were in bed together, towards dawn.

“I still don’t understand how she was trapped in the first place. And once she’d been trapped, why is she just sitting there in the middle of what looks like a thrift store? You’d think she’d be mad as hellfire, wouldn’t you? Not calmly drinking tea.”

“Hmm. You’re right – it is intriguing. Tell me everything you know of Bertine Leventis.”

“Well, it’s not a great deal. Mr C said he would tell me about her when he had more time, but he’s never got around to it. She brought him and his half-brother up when their mom was killed, so I guess she’s a lot older than him. He thinks she’s a bit naïve sometimes, but she’s an expert in ancient folklore – it was her who accidentally told Callaway about the cluviel dor – and that’s about it.”

“Nothing else?”

I racked my brains. “He thinks I’d get on well with her, but I can’t remember him saying anything else. Sorry – we had other things to be thinking of at the time.” Like disposing of Callaway’s corpse…

“That may be enough … Do you remember the other documents we studied from the datastick?”

“Sort of. There were the plans for Freyda’s take-over and the bill for the wards and … what else?”

“There was a signed order from Freyda authorising the moving of the contents of her secret vault to an undisclosed location in the basement. You remember I was puzzled at the time as to why I’d heard nothing of a hidden treasure. Why had it not been used to tempt me? Well, suppose the treasure was not something that would tempt most people, but would be fascinating to someone who specialised in that particular field?”

“I don’t follow. What field?”

“Suppose it was … a collection. A collection of supernatural artefacts, or ancient talismans, like your cluviel dor. Hugely valuable if you knew what to do with it, how to use it, but it might not look like much at all. Perhaps just like a pile of … junk.”

“You mean …”

He nodded. “Maybe Freyda’s treasure was moved to the cell as a way to trap an expert in ancient folklore. Just think of how a naïve specialist in that field would react if she was invited to study a collection of magical objects like that. She’d jump at the chance.”

Now I saw where he was heading. “Of course she would! And that would explain the ID badge. She wasn’t kidnapped or taken by force – she thought she was a guest. She just walked in through the front door and offered herself up like a lamb to the slaughter. And once she was in the cell, there was no getting out again. Damn!” I was awestruck at how devious Freyda had proved herself to be. “We have to get her out of there.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Well we can’t just leave her there – she’s a prisoner.”

“There are a lot of prisoners down there, most of whom probably don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“But she’s Mr Cataliades’ godmother! He’s a mess because Freyda’s got her!”

“I know that, but I don’t see any realistic possibility of breaking her free of the Vlakas wards.”

“Amelia might be able to do something about that.”

He snorted inelegantly. “You should not allow your fondness for the witch to blind you to her capabilities. She couldn’t even turn her own boyfriend human again. No, she won’t be able to help you. And even if she could, the demon is guarded by vampires. How would you take them out?”

“You could take out any number of vampire guards – I know you could.”

“Well, admittedly that’s a more realistic assessment than your view of Amelia, but even if I did kill the guards, you forget – tomorrow night is the coup. I can’t be distracted from that. I have to put all my attention where it’s needed most.”

“Couldn’t you get Stan to let you have some of his men?”

He shook his head. “I can’t risk splitting our forces for something like this.”

I couldn’t believe his single-minded focus. To him, the coup was the only thing that mattered and he practically had tunnel vision until it was over. I tried a different angle. “But what if Freyda forces Mr C to fight against you? Wouldn’t it be better to have him on our side? If Bertine was free he could help us instead of her.”

“He’s only a half-demon – his offensive powers are limited. You remember you told me about the struggle he had with those hellhounds? No, I’m sorry Sookie, but we’ll just have to leave it. Once we’ve succeeded in the attack, then we’ll see about freeing her. Until then, there’s nothing I can do.”

“But what if you don’t succeed?”

“Then she will be the least of our worries. We’ll be lucky if we don’t end up in the cells along with her.”

“But …”

“I said no. There’s too much at stake. One more night in captivity won’t hurt her.”

I wanted to continue arguing, but his eyelids were drooping and I could see he was starting to crash for the day. I knew there was not a lot of point in arguing with him – in a few minutes he wouldn’t be able to answer me anyway. Damn, he always had to have the last word …

But I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t bear the thought of Mr C’s misery – I had to do something. I waited until Eric was unconscious and then I slipped out of bed and padded to Amelia’s door. She was back from her date with Cal and let me in. We sat on her bed together and when I told her what Eric had said she was as indignant as I was, but mostly because he’d disparaged her powers. “What does he know? I’m much better now – I’ve learned a lot more. Octavia says I’m really coming into my strength. And I could always go to the local coven for help – they told me I could call on them if I needed anything.”

“So, you’re up for this?”

“Hell yeah. The way I see it, tomorrow night we’re probably going to be in the way. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should just sit around here like a couple of bits of luggage ‘not wanted on the voyage’, waiting for someone to come pick us up. Why not try to do something useful?”

“That’s pretty much what I was thinking. I don’t like the thought of Mr C worrying all the time. He’s been pretty good to me – this is something we can do for him.”

“Agreed.”

“So, it seems to me we have three jobs. One, take out the Were guard at the front desk. Two, take out the vampire guards by the cells and three, undo the Vlakas wards. I’m sure once we get Bertine out of the cell she’ll be able to take care of herself.”

Amelia looked doubtful. “Hmm. I’m beginning to see what Eric means; it does sound pretty complicated when you put it like that. I can go get some help with the Vlakas wards from the locals – the witches who installed them belong to this coven and they’ll have an antidote they might be willing to let me have. Do you have any ideas about the other bits?”

I smiled. “I might have one or two. Did I ever tell you the story of how useful it is sometimes to be blonde…?”