The Fox and the Bull


We were back on the main path in seconds as the small grove of towering trees—and Roland's sprawled body—retreated into the shadows with near-instantaneous speed. The wind seemed to scream protest. It pushed against my body and fanned my hair into black tangles that batted against Laura's face.

I could feel her twitch in discomfort as it brushed against her skin and more than once she turned her head to the side and spat gracelessly as vagrant strands entered her mouth, only for her body to quiver as even those small gestures aggravated the pain of her broken ribs.

There was no sound to accompany these sporadic shudders, just the rapid sound of her breathing and frantic pounding of her heart. I understood without even having to ask that the lack of sound wasn't sufficient to gauge the severity of her pain.

Laura's near-perfect silence was a merciless self-denial of one of the most basic rights: the right to express hurt. All in order to prevent a recurrence of the scream that had launched our flight. While it startled me, the immensity of her self-control commanded an intense admiration.

The look on Laura's face as she had confronted Roland flashed into my mind; the way her ice-blue eyes had held steady, never once looking away from her target if it could be helped.

It was the same determination that sealed any cries of pain. It was nothing mundane like simple pride; it wasn't even in the same family. Not arrogance, but hatred of anything even resembling weakness, combined with the fixated desire to be strong forever, to never succumb to the limitations or flaws present in every living creature.

I knew suddenly that this Spartan mentality was far older than this horrific night. Her hatred of weakness was nothing more than the terror of being exposed and vulnerable, and it had existed long before she had ever known vampires and werewolves were anything more than the inhabitants of myth and legend.

That anxiety was the dominant facet of her personality. It consumed her character and drew every aspect of her life around itself. Although I tried to ignore it, I couldn't help but feel curiosity about what had created stoicism so immovable that not even wounds received at the hands of a vampire couldn't wrench anything more from her than the occasional tremor.

But those tremors were becoming more frequent. The pain of her wounds was slowly defeating her. She couldn't fill her lungs with enough air; pain and the ferocity of the striking wind combined to make inhaling almost impossible.

The only method of breathing she could attempt were shallow, gasping breaths that provided the bare minimum of oxygen to keep her conscious. The harsh grating of the fractured bones was all too audible as they slid against one another beneath her flesh, forced back and forth by the motion of our bodies.

I estimated that I was running just below the speed of an average car, though with none of its smooth, contained atmosphere. The inevitable vibrations were transferred to my passenger without anything to soften their impact.

Our fast-paced journey was worsening her condition even while I drew closer to the hotel—or at least I thought I drew closer. My eyes easily penetrated the thick shadows that gathered outside the harsh circles of radiance cast by the old-fashioned street-lamps that stood along the path at regular intervals, but it meant nothing without the knowledge of what to look for.

The cobblestone pathway meandered through the snowy wonderland of Cress Park, branching off into identical trails that curved and twisted back upon themselves like snakes devouring one another.

I could see the Cress Green hotel; the rectangular bulk of the building twinkled faintly in the darkness, far beyond the scope of human vision. The target was in plain sight, the only obstacle towards reaching it was the road beneath my rapidly pounding feet. I had just been on the verge of addressing this rather simple but frustrating problem before Roland had seen his opportunity and made the unwise decision to confront us.

I had spent months in Purfleet, carefully perfecting the deception of a high school student by slowly learning to endure the pain inflicted by even the gloomiest day, as well as how to fight the overwhelming sleepiness that always came with dawn.

Yet I had never oncebeen interested in trying to figure out the localities of this small city. Even now I didn't have the faintest idea of where City Hall was located, much less how to find my way through the mazelike pathways of a public park that fed into a very private hotel.

I'm lost.

I was already slowing before I had made the conscious decision to stop, my boots sliding for an instant before finding purchase on the stone. The raging blizzard had ended, but the snow that had accumulated on the paths was at least a foot deep, concealing thick sheets of ice where previous snow banks had melted and then frozen.

"W-why are you stopping?" Laura demanded. "We're not even close!"

Her already weak grasp vanished as her arms unlocked from around my neck; the sharp clack of her boot heels rang against the concrete.

I whirled and caught her before she could do more than slip backwards. My fingers clamped around her upper arms while heaving her forward as smoothly as possible. But even my best attempt at gentleness wasn't enough and I saw her face contort for a moment before the expression smoothed away.

She was fighting pain and the weariness but her strength really was running out and so she didn't attempt hide it any longer.

"Don't just stare at me! Who knows how long it took for us to deal with Roland, or whatever he called himself—you can't waste more of it by stopping here," Laura said.

"Stop complaining and listen to me," I commanded, looking up into her intense, agitated blue eyes. There was no change in her face or eyes, but I could hear the breath catch in her chest as my response interrupted whatever new objection she had prepared throw at my face.

I seized the instant between her words, pushing ahead before she could gather herself. "I have no idea where we're going; I was going to ask you before Roland ambushed us. Now that he's out of the way, tell me the fastest way to get there."

Arthur's mother stared down at me from her marginally superior height, the seconds seeming to spin off into eternity. "You're lost?" she demanded. She sagged forward, her physical state weakening faster than I could support.

For an instant I thought she was going to tumble against me, and I tensed myself to steady her. Laura's right hand went up to push against my shoulder, her palm sliding against the blood-soaked fabric of my t-shirt. But she achieved what she wanted; the push, though faint, allowed her to regain her balance.

While brief, the gesture's harsh meaning was not lost on me. Although I had saved her from a fate I found comparatively worse than death, there was a large part of her that didn't trust me, and perhaps never would. I was a vampire, a creature of hostile legend to her—a monstrous predator.

But I was sure she could have forced herself to look beyond that. Though I hadn't known Laura for very long, I had seen her ability and willingness to adapt to new information at a surprising rate of speed—perhaps an essential trait in her line of work. No, the one stumbling block that obstructed any hope real trust was the fact that my possessive stubbornness had stolen her son's ordinary, human life.

That she could never forgive.

Regardless of her underlying feelings towards me, I could see my explanation had canceled her immediate resentment, though her worry for Arthur was anything but eased. If anything my admission had deepened her concern over her son's fate.

I also knew that she had no intention of yielding to the panic, and I felt relief at the knowledge. No matter what lay ahead, a terrified and argumentative charge would not be one of my issues.

"But, how is that possible?" Laura asked. "How can a creature like you get lost? I would have thought…you'd just locate the hotel by scent, or superior sight or perhaps some other power that I couldn't even hope to guess at."

Her eyes swept down to me as if preparing to pursue the question before her concern for Arthur defused the spark of interest. Then she was facing away from me scanning the park.

I tried to imagine for a moment what this increasingly irritating place must have looked like through her comparatively blurred and inferior human eyes, though coupled with the vast cache of knowledge of Purfleet and its areas.

Laura muttered irritably, "You've taken us farther than I thought," but it was under her breath; nothing directed at me, simply a verbal expression of her competing thoughts. I could see her eyes moving back and forth as she tried to penetrate the shadows. She racked her brain, ransacking her lifetime of memories to construct a route for us.

Come on, I thought, my eyes boring shamelessly into the side of her head as she looked back and forth, as though I could penetrate the mane of her gray-streaked blond hair and see into her laboring brain. Find us a way out of this! Arthur could die! Just because Roland said that he killed Pyre doesn't mean that she didn't get in a few blows of her own. Any one of them could have been fatal especially in her enhanced state. For every second that we spend here, his life could be slipping away!

I regretted that thought, because I could see it all too well. My mind recreated that tunnel perfectly with its marble pillars soaring up to the Gothic arches that made up the ceiling, the fluorescent lights bathing the scene. Arthur's corpse would be sprawled out, his motionless limbs haloed by the pools of blood that would have splashed across the filthy, tessellated surface of the floor.

The blood…

The mental image of the blood, the evidence of battle, shunted my thoughts away from Arthur. I became acutely aware of the burning in my throat, realizing that it had been there for quite some time. My preoccupation had almost completely smothered the sensation. But the thought of blood had reeled my mind back to the scorching pain.

The skin had closed over of the wound on my neck in an attempt to remedy the damage, but the sharp agony had not been extinguished. Instead it had faded into a wretched throbbing which set my teeth on edge. I had been aware of it this whole time, but the conversation with Laura—such as it was—had muted the pain somewhat and more importantly, dampened the thirst that had resulted from the wound.

The severity of the harm done to me meant that a large portion of the human blood I had drunk earlier had to be directed to it just to seal the injury, stopping the bleeding from my severed arteries. The blood had been subtracted from what my body had already used to heal the bullet wound in my hip.

"We bypassed the trail that would have taken us to the hotel's parking lot and garden, somewhere back there," Laura said, pulling me from my musings. "Even with your speed, attempting to go back there would be a waste of time. There's another route that will get us close enough for me to make it on my own."

I nodded and found that I was unconsciously following her lead, staring off into the darkness at our options. "Where do we have to go then?"

Laura looked to the right towards one of the indistinguishable cobblestone trails that meandered off through the trees, illuminated in dazzling orange by its honor guard of regularly spaced street-lamps.

"There are only two entrances into the Green's property. One of them is through its gardens, but you have to go through the parking lot before going there. The gardens themselves open out into Cress Park because it is technically part of the hotel's property, albeit owned by the city. That path, there, leads to a public plaza that's fenced off from the main hotel. I can make it from there by myself."

"Are you sure you can do it alone?" the question was out of my mouth before my common sense could catch up. I shouldn't care what plans Laura was formulating, beyond the fact that her determination to help herself had released me of this protective duty.

But I did care, I realized. I imagined her staggering down a half-forgotten bike path, some random lump of slush—the trash of winter—catching her boot and sending her crashing to the ground. With her injuries, regaining her footing would be close to impossible, and she would die there, the life and vitality sucked out of her by the cold.

Now it wasn't Arthur's face in the tunnel that I remembered as he pleaded with me to save his mother, lied to me about the lengths he would go to in order to secure my help. I saw him as he sat in the smoldering garden of Chateau de Freniere as immanent dawn bled away that awful night. The inner desolation because he blamed himself for Quinn's death at the Outcast's hands.

I couldn't let that happen to him again, because I knew that while Arthur had survived the death of his "mate" and the emotional and psychic trauma that had come with it, the ruin of his family would crush his spirit beyond any hope of repair.

And I can't have that. He has to survive this, body and mind. Anything less than that and he'll be worthless against Adam, a cold, ruthlessly pragmatic part of me whispered in emphatic agreement. Without him, the Outcast will wipe out the human race, and I will not allow a madman with an ancient vendetta to rob us of our food supply.

"Whether I can do it on my own or not isn't the issue," Laura replied. "I have to do it, and so I will. There isn't any more time! There wasn't any to begin with, and sitting here is just going to make it worse—"

I released my hold on Laura's left arm, pulling her right arm downward and across my neck, ignoring her protests and easily overriding her instinctive attempt to pull away from me.

It was a good effort too, and though I made sure my face showed nothing of my inner feelings, I was astounded at the level of power she displayed. Without injury, she would have broken loose from my grasp—though she would never have remainedfree for very long.

But her struggle stopped almost as soon as it had started. I could feel the tension in her body as she understood her helplessness, at the same time she grasped what I meant to do.

"The 'human crutch' rescue carry?" Laura said. "You're not actually planning to use that the whole way to the plaza, are you? Just swing me onto your back again and we'll be there in no time. I can direct you while you run. I know that you'll be able to handle split-second directions—"

"Yes, we could do that—if I wanted to kill you," I returned, slicing through her objection. "You think that you're so strong, so noble hiding your injuries. Did it ever occur to you while you were busy playing the stoic, unflinching heroine, that you might really die?"

"I should have realized I couldn't fool your senses," Laura said, her voice lowering, although I could hear the sharpness in it as she fought down her urge to berate me again, to curse the slow pace guaranteed by my decision.

Instead she transferred that energy into words. "I knew that this might be my last night on Earth the moment I made the decision to follow that vampire out into the park and away from the courtyard. When he approached me, I knew that I had my chance to kill him, to end this once and for all, and so I played the helpless grieving mother. Of course," a strange, rueful thread crept into her voice. "He wasn't your Adam, and his goals were so different than I had imagined."

Your Adam. The implication of ownership stung the deep-seated core of my family pride, but it was brief. I had passed right through indignation and into surprised understanding.

"That's why you were in that tunnel with Pyre and Noah. They didn't capture you, you went willingly," I said. I could hear the accusation in my voice as we staggered down the path together.

I didn't know what to do with that information. I could feel my mind digesting it as if it was blood of questionable quality, pondering that the situation which had almost resulted in her death, and far more importantly Arthur's, could have been avoidable.

"I went to destroy a vampire I thought was Adam. Nothing more and certainly nothing less than that," Laura said sharply her face damp with sweat despite the bitter cold. "What did you think I would do after what you told me he's done—and what he plans to do to my town, and my family?"

"I told you about Adam so that you would take your family and get out of Purfleet," I snapped.

"And I told you that I wouldn't do that," Laura said, her voice low again. But there was anger this time, not her previous anger for me. That had been created from her worry for Arthur's fate, more desperate than anything truly hateful. But now…I could hear the loathing in it as she thought of the Outcast.

Laura continued, her teeth clenched over her words. "Ever since you came to my house and told me about Arthur's suffering and Risha's death, I've thought of the man who is responsible.'What should I do to defeat him? What methods can be used to destroy a vampire?' It was all I could think about, whether I was awake or asleep."

I remembered the way Laura had looked at me when I'd first arrived at the Beck's house with news of Arthur, staring me down, even after the revelation that I was a vampire, fighting back the primal terror that our concept and legend generated within the human mind, forcing it away so that she could obtain the information she wanted.

That was the reason for her broken ribs as well as the other assorted bruises I could smell leaking blood beneath her skin. It had been Pyre's partner who had inflicted her injuries and I could understand what had driven a trained member of the Filän guard to lash out at a target whose health was of the utmost importance if the Azka Breeding Project was to have any chance of success.

Her fearlessness had in some ways been more infuriating than her attack on him. A mere human—prey—standing up to its predator was something unnatural had to be taught to kneel before its betters.

I sympathized with the man, and knew that I would have acted the same in his place—had this not been Arthur's mother. So what should have been fury became admiration, accompanied by the understanding that this was where Arthur's drive and determination had come from, personality traits passed to him in place of physical resemblance.

I wasn't sure how long our walk through the park lasted, only that the task of putting one foot in front of the other while compensating for Laura's balance against my own quickly changed from complex to stultifying.

Even the occasional twists and turns became boredom, broken only by Laura's sharp commands to turn left or right—commands which became more and more infrequent.

Increasingly Arthur's mother simply shifted her weight, allowing her legs to proceed ahead of mine, forcing me by implacable physical means to follow her silent lead. I wondered if she felt the same as I did, boredom held off by thinking of the life that depended on our actions.

That was what prevented me from seeing the small signs of progress, only noticing when the garish orange light of the street-lamps changed abruptly into a softer whitish glow.

Though the wrought-iron fence still kept faithful pace at our left, the Dickensian street-lamps had given way to strangely cylindrical constructs that glittered with the sheen of stainless steel in the glow of their own light. The suddenness of the change took me aback as the cobblestones changed to the uniform roughness of asphalt beneath the cover of fallen snow.

Certainly a more contemporary look, a small corner of my mind observed while the rest of my attention focused on Laura, ready for her word or movement. I noticed that the park-benches were far more populous here, gathered thickly for the benefit of multiple people, the sheen of modernity sparkling off them as well.

"We're close," Laura said, confirming a hope created from the sight of our drastically new surroundings. "The plaza is straight ahead, maybe half a mile. This design…" she turned away from me to look at the silvery lamps that rose up on either side of us, sentinels as grim as they were ultramodern. "It was the hotel's idea, I suppose; we've stepped onto their property now."

I almost nodded and then stopped as I felt her body tense against me, growing rigid and inflexible for an instant. I had gained speed with the knowledge that I was close to my goal. It had forced Laura to move faster, taxing her fragile condition.

"You are fast—but then I suppose that all of you are," Laura said, the pained breathlessness of her voice concealed from all but supernatural ears behind a tone of detached observation. Nonetheless, her words weren't solely to cover her brief moment of weakness, and she continued.

"The vampire I mistook for Adam was superior in speed; I was able to shoot him, but that was only because I had the element of surprise on my side. When he told me that he wasn't who I thought he was, I was the one shocked, and that was when he acted. I didn't even see him move. I only knew that he was behind me, and then he threw me into the wall. He looked older too," she mused, curiosity entering her voice once again. "Was his speed and strength due to age or training?"

"Both," I said, and ease with which I answered the question surprised me once again, the surrealism of sharing information on my kind with a human. "As we grow older, our strength increases, but our speed actually decreases. Training is a large part of it though; the man you encountered with Pyre was a part of the Filän guard, my coven's military and police force."

Laura nodded, but her lips pressed together as some greater concern ran rampant through her thoughts. "You dwelled on Adam, on his demands and the threat he poses. You never once mentioned vampires coming to this town and attempting to…to use me," her voice trembled minutely, quivering around the edges as the thought of how close she had come to that fate threatened to drag her into hysteria.

But, like all other signals of weakness, it was only a momentary flaw in her near-flawless presentation of strength.

"I don't hold you responsible for that. Your reaction to all of this tells me what they want from me isn't something even vampires would condone under ordinary circumstances," Laura continued. "But the issue of Adam is different. I read Arthur's mind when we fought the ones who'd come for me. He had changed so much, I just wanted to see if there was anything of my son left and so I scanned his mind, which of course gave him access to mine…there wasn't anything in his thoughts related to vengeance against the vampire who murdered Risha. All he felt regarding Adam was fear and desperation. What did you leave out when you warned us about him?" she demanded.

It occurred to me that the question wasn't rhetorical. Laura's voice had grown more pointed as her expectation of a response went unanswered, but I struggled to form a reply, wrestling not only with the daunting task of explaining the scope of Adam's plan for the world, but against an entirely separate thought.

I read Arthur's mind when we fought the ones who'd come for me. Her words were extraordinary, but they were said without drama or even the smallest hint of the faint wonder I always heard in Arthur's voice when he spoke of his own psychic powers.

For a moment I doubted my intuition; it occurred to me that Laura was too submerged in her curiosity about Adam's true intentions to give into emotions like that—but the memory the battle with Roland returned to me.

There had been no surprise in her face as she sent wave after wave of mental energy at her opponent, merely attentiveness and anger.

Everything in her manner was suggested a deep and natural understanding of both the powers and limitations of the azka species, a familiarity that Arthur hadn't even begun to grasp. "You're nothing like Arthur," I blurted out without thinking.

"Is there a reason that I should be like my son?" Laura asked, but there was no true curiosity behind it, just the irritation at being ignored.

"What is Adam planning?" she asked again, subtly slower, as if she could force me to answer by verbal sluggishness alone. It was surprisingly similar to Roland's all-too-polite insistence on the rewards of giving this woman over to the designs of Coven Alveria and I felt a mental shudder at the vile—and yet perfectly ironic—resemblance.

"If you've left something out for fear of terrifying Lucas and I, then I think what's happened here is more than enough to convince you that we are made of stronger stuff than that." Though Laura's voice underwent a rather deliberate softening I could hear the irritation strengthening, as if she resented—no, loathed the idea of having to defend her bravery.

It's been a long time since she had to prove herself emotionally worthy of information and she despises it every time—but not anywhere near her hatred for those who put her to the test, I thought, and knew that I was right.

"We are miles beyond a madman threatening your town," I said quietly. "Adam's plans affect far more than this city and the people living in it. He wants to include this whole planet in his vision of a 'perfected world'. But you also have to understand that I didn't hide anything from you; this information is almost as new to me as it is to you."

"A perfect world," Laura repeated, her voice all but swallowed beneath the howl of the wind as it lashed us once again. "What the hell does that even mean?"

I thought of the terrifying yet strangely pitiful Lupines waiting desperately for Arthur's return to the Quinn farm; immortal mutants born of Adam's perverse experimentation into the lycan bacteria and its properties, and the gaseous results of that research, stored and ready to blanket the major cities of the world.

All of these things seemed to tangle in my mind. A perfectly understandable, if horrible, progression of circumstances, individuals, locations and consequences for one who had seen them and been a part of them. But explaining it all to someone else seemed like an insurmountable task.

"What is he going to do to bring about that vision?" Laura asked. The clipped pennants of her hair swung against my cheek as she turned her head towards me. The movement created an uncomfortable intimacy, our faces separated by little more than inches.

Her curiosity had given her face a predatory aspect despite the ashen pallor of her skin and the dark circles under her ice-blue eyes. If anything the signs of injury and shock seemed to augment her resolve.

More than ever I was aware of her scent as the wind fanned it into me like a physical assault. It began to torture me, the thought of how easy it would be to wrench her head back and sink my teeth deep into her neck, chewing through the flesh and arteries. The nourishing pleasure I had known thousands of times over—except Laura was different.

Arthur's mother—she is Arthur's mother!

However in a perverse way that added to Laura Beck's appeal. The blood that had generated Arthur's blood, the blood that had nourished him long before he had even taken his first breath of air would be mine. It would quench the thirst that seared the lining of my throat and was already in the first stages of its agonizing blaze through my veins.

Then, gradually, I became aware of the strange aura that was a part of all azka. It hovered around Laura in the same way it had with Roland, and of course with Arthur. It taunted my eyes, challenging them to determine its exact nature. That curiosity returned the thirst to its familiarly urgent but controllable state. "No, I'm not telling you anything else about Adam or his plans," I said, my eyes shutting briefly against another onslaught of wind.

"What are you—?" Laura started, but I continued, my voice drowning out hers as I raised it above her protest.

"I've told you almost all that I know, and you have given me nothing—but then again, I didn't expect you to," I continued, trying not to breathe in her scent or listen to her heart, focusing only on what I wanted to say.

"All I know about azka are the legends among my kind. Humans who can communicate with werewolves on their level. That's why when I saw Arthur's power to understand werewolf thoughts, I knew what he was. But it's more than that, isn't it? I have seen Arthur use his powers to turn a monster back into a human girl. I saw you kill a man with your mind. There's far more to azka than receiving and sending psychic signals. You will tell me everything about your kind before we discuss Adam."

Laura jerked back from me, her arm first straining and then breaking free entirely of my grip, panic lending her the power to defy both pain and weariness. She darted sideways even as I spun around to face her, her boots scratching loudly against the snow-dusted asphalt. For a moment I merely stood there, though every instinct screamed at me to grab her.

I held back, partially because I knew the physical damage she would sustain in a struggle with me. But also because I truly had no idea what to make of the way she looked. Though Laura stood without support, her shoulders hunched inward, her arms wrapped around her shuddering torso.

"I won't!" Laura said. "You're talking about my childhood, my past. That is something I never share! I can count on my fingers the number of people I have let into that part of me, and that number will never include a vampire."

Anger surged through me and I attacked her before common sense could intervene, gripping her bloodstained collar and pulling her sharply out of her hunched position.

"How dare you refuse me?" I hissed into her face, my lips curling back from my teeth. "I protected you from people who would have used you and thrown you away like trash. Your hopes, your dreams, all you hold dear are meaningless to us. To my kind, you humans are nothing more than food and occasionally slave labor.

That is the life you had to look forward to—just ask Arthur! I could have given you to Roland and been welcomed back with open arms. Whatever his personal agenda was, that's the one thing he didn't lie about. So, the least you can do is tell me what I want to know."

I could hear the rage coloring my voice. But beneath it was outraged hurt—something that only added to my anger at the thought of yet another human inflicting that emotion on me, let alone one from the same family.

"You don't know what you're asking me," Laura insisted. There was a limitless wariness within the pale blue labyrinth of her eyes. It deepened the furrows of age in her face.

"I have hidden my…my power from everyone I've ever known for close to half a century. I never wanted to tell anyone about it except for my children if they were ever unfortunate enough to inherit these traits."

"Like Arthur," I responded. "Who you let struggle on his own to figure out his nature!" Now that I had recaptured her, so to speak, the anger was rapidly fading, replaced by something akin to embarrassment. I could feel the emotion trying to resurrect itself by feeding on the perceived injustice of Arthur's lonely quest to understand what he was—before the enigmatic Society had taken him in, of course.

"I didn't know Arthur had the same abilities until tonight," Laura said. "No…" her voice trailed off and it seemed that she was looking into the past for a brief, unguarded moment. "I never knew. I never dreamed that it would be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this!"

"Like what?" I demanded. "What are you talking about?"

"Tell me what you plan to do with the information and I will decide what I'll tell you based on that alone," Laura said. "Lay out your reasoning or I'll tell you nothing."

"My reasons…" I trailed off. My reasons for wanting to know —what were they, besides eagerness to at last have all the answers about these extraordinary humans who lingered at the edge of the supernatural world? A number of justifications tumbled through my mind, as useless as they were false.

But one stood out among all the others, gaining influence as I pondered its perfect pragmatism. "If there is a way that your power can be transferred, outside of genetics, then I can steal a substitute."

Laura looked a little surprised, her eyes slightly questioning behind their veil of caution.

"We can find a human woman and transfer your powers to her!" I elaborated. "If I can turn her over to the forces of my coven and Alveria they will leave you alone. They'll have their breeder; it doesn't matter who it is, as long as she possess the psychic skills you do. So if you won't give me the secrets of your power for my personal knowledge, do it to save yourself!"

"You would…do that? You would casually condemn another woman to a life of servitude to monsters that would want her and whatever children she was forced to produce for nothing more than some war with other monsters? You would give another human being over to that?" Laura asked, but her voice lacked the mingled relief and curiosity I had expected. Instead the question had the tone of an accusation, laden with disappointment as though I had failed some secret test of character.

"I think that you've forgotten that I am not a human being," I reminded harshly. "I would find a spare body for them to use without hesitation. Because you are Arthur's mother, and I will not allow anything to happen to you. I will not! I will kill anyone who tries to harm you, human, werewolf or…even if they are another vampire. Now, stop stalling and tell me!"

Laura said nothing, but I could see her face changing. The disgust produced by my answer was still there, but it was mingled with an underpinning of respect.

"You truly are a monster, aren't you?" Laura asked, but there was no malice behind it. "So my son fell in love with you, at least for a short time, invited you into our house. And while you played the part of his dazzling first girlfriend, you secretly killed humans in the streets of my city and left their corpses for the police to find."

"I didn't play the part of anything. Arthur and I really did have somethi—" I started, but Laura went on, ignoring my interruption.

"You already know why I am the way I am," Laura said. "I saw through Arthur's thoughts that you know what gives azka our powers. But to answer your other question, it can only be inherited through genetics. So you will never find a victim to host my gift; I'm sorry."

There was such sincerity in that two-word apology that I almost forgot the disgusted condemnation of seconds earlier. "It was just an idea," I sighed, relaxing my hold on Laura's collar as disappointment smothered any remnant of anger. Now it was no longer fury that kept me from releasing her, but fear that she would collapse if I did. "But if it's passed on through genes…" I trailed off, but only because the implications of her words had sired a brood of new questions.

"Who was my azka parent?" Laura asked. "Who taught me about my abilities and gave me the information I'd need to survive with them?" she let out a short, mirthless laugh. "No one related to me, I'll tell you that." She stepped back with surprising suddenness, the stretched and bloodstained fabric of her collar sliding through my fingers. Yet her eyes never left mine.

"I never knew my father," Laura went on. "He died when I was only a year old. All I have ever had of him is pictures, many of my own and even more that became mine when my mother died. But not being there to guide me in the use of supernatural powers is the least of the hardships I had to endure because of his absence. His death forced my mother into early widowhood when she had seemingly just married the man of her dreams, the prince to our princess. The one all we little girls dream will carry us off to a magical kingdom to live happily ever after. Early widowhood and a screaming infant barely able to care for itself. Can you imagine the shock she had to deal with? The anger?"

"She took out that suffering on you."

"My mother poured her heartache and her anger, all her emotional trash into either her secretarial work or a container of alcohol. Any that she could find, she swilled down to fill the hole inside her." Laura's voice took on a strangely speculative tone, though it did nothing to dull the rush of her words.

"I don't know if she was an alcoholic in the truest sense of the word; I'm honestly not sure. Never once did I ever see her truly drunk. At most she came home tipsy. She had limits that she set for herself, and wouldn't cross them to save her own life. Maybe that's what made her cruelty to her daughter far harder to accept."

Again Laura moved without warning, but I predicted her action this time and stepped forward as she slowly looped her right arm around my neck once more, nodding silently to me, speaking once again as we began to move beneath the pale lights.

"She was never able to show true affection for her daughter, because in truth she had none at the time. All Laura was, was a reminder of just how hard things were for her. How her dream life had become a nightmare. Laura was a cruel leftover from that shattered relationship as well as a chain that held her back from moving on with her life, tying her to her husband's corpse. Nature even had the audacity to give the infant her father's blue eyes, so that every time she stared her mother, she would see her husband looking back at her."

There was something unpleasant about this sudden, causal shift into third-person and in spite of my interest I felt the hairs standing at attention down the length of my neck. It was such a complete separation, as if Laura was trying to dissociate herself from the helpless, unwanted child of so long ago.

If Arthur's mother felt my discomfort she paid no attention to it. It was as though nothing had changed, as though we had never disconnected our awkward embrace. We moved at a slow, almost agonizing crawl between the ranks of glittering steel street lamps, their pallid light throwing our wobbling shadows back across the smooth snow-dusted surface.

"I lived my early childhood in cycles of cruelty and pampering," Laura continued. "There were wonderful times when my mother would take me out for ice-cream for no reason whatsoever braid my hair or simply hold me and tell me how much she loved me. But more than that, there were the bad times when she was displeased." Laura raised her left arm so that the light sparkled off her clipped nails. "When I was seven years old, I have a very distinct memory of her grabbing three of my fingers and twisting them as hard as she could. I screamed, of course…but that only resulted in a tirade of why I shouldn't embarrass mommy at the store. Because I did embarrass her—I told the cashier that taking my mother's money and putting it in his pockets wasn't what you were supposed to do. Because he was certainly thinking about it."

"You read his thoughts."

"Yes," Laura said, shaking her head with a bitter smile. "As I've been able to my whole life. I could receive their thoughts like static. There was never I time when I couldn't; as far as I know I came into the world hearing them.

But because I was a child, I didn't know the difference between thoughts and spoken words. That led to so many errors and I was punished harshly for them…" she closed her eyes as if the effort of remembering was a grueling physical task. "You reprimanded me earlier for being a 'stoic heroine', but that was how I endured, how I kept from losing sight of myself."

"I'm not judging you," I elaborated. "I'd just prefer you not pretend to be in perfect health when your ribs are broken and you're gasping for breath."

"But what good would it to do express suffering?" Laura pressed. "That is always how I have operated. That wouldn't do anything to get us to the Cress Green faster, it wouldn't help Arthur faster. All it would be is a loud and obnoxious indication of pain. Reality is always cruelly moving forward; the most I can do is move with it with dignity."

Well, aren't you the philosopher, I thought.

"That's not to say that I am fatalistic," Laura said. "I'm just saying that it has never been my way to make a large deal of things. I am far from a doormat. Anyway, by the time I was twelve, I had learned that what I heard were people's thoughts.

I learned that I couldn't hear everyone's mental voices; in fact I soon realized that there were actually very few people I could listen in on—at least when compared to the total population of Purfleet. And as I got older, my tolerance for my mother's abuse waned until the two of us finally came to blows. It resulted in being pushed down a flight of stairs and breaking my leg. That was the last time I saw my house; I became a ward of the state. And it was how I learned how to gain full control of my power.

I expected to be taken to a State Home—and indeed I was; I spent five years there until I was taken in by my aunt and uncle, my mother's brother and his wife. But before that, a man came to see me. He said that he was a social worker, but…" she trailed off.

It occurred to me to ask what had happened, but I decided against it. Still, I could see the emotional stress departing, leaving only the physical strain of her current pain.

"Alastair," Laura sighed the name. "He never told me any more of himself than his first name, and I never tried to gain more from his mind. I don't think it would have worked. He knew what I could do right away and wasted no time in telling me that he could read minds also, and that he was something called an 'azka' and I was too.

He explained that I was going away from my mother and that I would be safe. He didn't speak to me like a child; he acted as though he was consoling a grief-stricken adult. That was how I knew he was lying about being a social worker. He had no real understanding of how to talk with children in crisis. But he seemed to have some sort of influence because he gained access to me so easily. I didn't really question."

"So he taught you?" I asked. "He taught you how to…be an azka? But why would he do something like that?"

"I don't know," Laura said. "We started the day he met me, and every day he would sit at my bedside and teach me. We started with the mind-reading. He taught me to distinguish whose minds I could and could not read far more precisely than my self-teaching had. Then he trained me to wall my mind off, so that no outside 'voices' could invade unless I allowed them to. He was both a brutal teacher, and a kind one. He would invade my mind, crawl through my memories and force me to relive some of the worst abuse my mother had given me—he made it unpleasant so that I would have incentive to block him out. Again, he had some sort of authority, because these episodes would reduce me to a sobbing wreck and yet no one would interrupt. But he hugged me after these lessons, and when I first succeeded in repelling him, he bought me a full set of toy cars." She smiled fondly at the memory. "They were stolen from me my first week at the Home…but I never forgot them."

"This Alastair was a member of the Society of Whispers," I said, though I had no idea what I was using to base this theory on, only that it seemed right. The same Society that Roland betrayed, the same Society that swore Arthur to secrecy about the existence of the azka species. What the hell is going on here?

"Why didn't he tell you about the Society?" I asked.

"When Alistair left me, after four weeks of teaching, he said never to try and find him again. He said to never trust any other azka, to shy away from them and wall my mind off as hard as I could if I ever sensed the presence of another. He never told me about the nature of the minds we read. I understand know that the minds I sensed in Purfleet were werewolves—you have no idea how it feels to say that, to acknowledge such things exist. But why he wanted me to be afraid of others like me if there is supposedly an organization that cares for my kind around the world, I have no idea." She stopped talking, and I realized she was finished.

I thought of the dome of devastating power that had unfolded from around her body and hurled Roland back into the trees with fatal force. What about that ability? Had this gentlemanly guardian trained her to use her powers to affect the physical world with lethal results? I doubted it, but for some reason I could not find it in me to ask anymore.

Perhaps it was because I had felt the immense emotional energy it cost her to dredge up those memories. Perhaps it was also because I felt suspended in them as well, the information I had absorbed adding to my sense of overall fatigue.

It was the wind that alerted me to the situation as it blew into us again, acidly cold without the miniscule sting of snowflakes. There had been no snow for quite some time now, the blizzard having tapered off into a period of calm that I assumed lay between the next onslaught—but no.

The sky reared above us like a lidless obsidian eye, peppered with the luminescent sprinkles of stars, devoid of even the smallest wisp of cloud. "No, no, no! Damn it, no!" I hissed.

I barely felt Laura flinch next to me at the volume of my voice. "I-I understand if you want to know more of my story, but that is all I'm willing to tell—"

I could hear the gathering resolve in her voice, but I was already shaking my head. Terror was thrumming through me, obliterating all interest in her history, all thoughts occupied with the single horrifying truth that hung above me like the sky itself.

"The sun," I whispered.

"What about the sun?" Laura asked. Again her hair caressed my cheek as she looked up into the sky. "Are you telling me the sun will destroy you?" she demanded. "You came to our house during the day twice; I remember it was one of the many reasons I doubted you were anything close to a real vampire."

"If you remember, I came to your house during the evening and it was overcast," I reminded, feeling Laura cringe. I knew that I had increased my speed, but this time I made no attempt to slow down. Though the sky remained black above us, I could see dawn coming in the almost imperceptible dimming of the stars, a faint but unmistakable sign of the coming day.

"So you can survive as long as the sun is completely hidden behind thick cloud cover," Laura observed.

"Yes and no," I corrected, fighting the fear that threatened to drive me into a desperate run to secure shelter, regardless of Laura or even Arthur himself. "Cloud cover makes a difference but not as much as you think.

No matter how thick the clouds are, we still burn, just far more slowly. It was thanks to your overcast Maine autumn that I was able to play the part of a high school student during the day, though it was painful. Suffice to say the light of day does not agree with my kind in any form, and direct contact will be the end…" my stomach twisted painfully.

"Do you know how long we have until dawn?" Laura asked, and I was surprised to hear the worry in her voice, though, I wasn't sure whether that concern lay with my personal safety or the possibility that I would bolt.

Either way, I knew that she could feel my desperation in the rapid shallowness of my breathing and the darting of my eyes as they swung continually from earth to sky.

I couldn't help but feel a flash of amusement within my alarm as she once again demonstrated her ignorance of vampires; I wasn't wearing a watch, so she must have guessed I would know the sun's cycle either by concrete memory or by the same mystical forces she had assumed would guide me perfectly to the hotel.

"I have no idea," I responded, looking up again at indifferent stars as the still invisible sun bled out their light by increments. "I imagine we have maybe an hour or more. We weaken near daybreak, and I'm not even close to that point yet. It isn't the time that I'm worried about, not exactly. It's the fact that I don't have a safe resting place for the day. This wasn't supposed to happen! Arthur was just supposed to…" It was meaningless to state what should have happened; the situation had spun out of control long ago, and all I could do was flow with it, trying to keep my head above the currents.

Reality is always cruelly moving forward after all, I thought grimly. Laura's expression echoed in my mind and I felt that I had a deeper understanding of its bitter wit.

Hello! So sorry for the lack of updates; it's been almost a whole year D: Anyway, I have to admit that there is, yes, one more Fen chapter coming up after this. Though to be fair, this is actually one chapter just broken up into two because otherwise it'd be hellishly long. That out of the way, FINALLY! I finally got to the part where we hear Laura's backstory and explanation for her azka powers. There's more to it than that, but this is the most we'll hear for now...