Chasing the Shadows
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They walked out onto the street then down towards the Aquatic Park. The buzzing in his head was getting stronger, until it felt like there were hundreds of bees swarming through his mind. He gritted his teeth, battling to keep control as he marched Farmer in front of him. All the while he searched the buildings around them, looking for some place that was empty. Looking for some place were he could quickly and safely destroy Farmer without the risk of involving others. But every step pushed the drug further into his system.
Every breath became harder.
And though he was a vampire and didn't really need to breathe, his body still seemed to crave air. He blinked sweat away from his eyes and forced Farmer to the right. His gaze swept the buildings on both sides of the street until he found one that showed no life—a restaurant in the process of being renovated, by the look of it. He hurried them both toward it.
He thrust psychic energy at the door. It flew inwards, shattering as it hit the floor. People around them stopped and briefly stared, but none saw them enter. He had enough strength left to ensure that. The interior shadows wrapped around them. Michael stumbled as he came through the door, his feet suddenly blocks of ice that refused to obey his commands. His psychic hold slipped, and Farmer swung around, lashing out with a booted foot. Michael avoided the blow, but only just. His reactions were slow. Far too slow. It felt like he was moving through glue while Farmer danced around him on high speed. He tried to reach out and recapture his hold on Farmer's mind, but the bees were buzzing so loudly he could barely even think let alone control his psychic abilities. Farmer danced in close, fist swinging. Michael ducked again then lashed out with his fist, connecting with flesh with a satisfying thump. He stumbled forward, reaching for the younger vampire, trying to get a grip on his neck. He needed to break it. Needed to kill.
His fingers slipped across leather, then cloth, but oddly could find no purchase. The darkness had closed in, and he realized he couldn't see. He blinked, switching to his infrared vampire vision. Farmer was a red haze who laughed insanely several feet in front of him.
He dove forward, knocking the younger vampire down, dragging them both to the ground. Farmer hit hard, his head smacking against the rough tiles. Curses flew from his lips, singing through the night. Michael ignored them, wrapped his arm around the younger vampire's neck and twisted hard. Realized in that instant he didn't have the strength required to complete the act. Anger rushed through him—anger and fear. Not for himself. For Nikki.
As the bees grew more frenzied and the night began to blur into nothingness, he knew he had to do something, anything, to at least maim Farmer and give her a chance. He moved his grip from the fiend's neck to his elbow and snapped it back as hard as he could. There was an unmistakable pop of bone and sinew, and relief swept through him. It was something. Not much, but something. Farmer's howl filled the night, a dog baying at the moon neither of them could see. The buzzing got louder and louder, all but consuming his mind. Farmer's face loomed into focus, his expression contemptuous as his fingers brushed the chain at Michael's neck. Realizing what he intended, Michael reached up, trying to stop him from wrenching the cross free. But his strength had slithered away. The smell of burning flesh briefly stung the air, followed by a sharp curse. Then the warmth of the cross was gone. A second later, it hit the floor with a gentle ting. The night blurred, and he found himself on the floor, his body shuddering with blows he couldn't even feel. He scraped his hand across the tiles, trying to find the cross. Tried to reach for Nikki, to warn her not to come after him, but that only made the bees react in fury. After a while, he stopped trying to do either.
Yet it seemed an extraordinarily long time before the night became a smudge of blackness and consciousness receded.
* * * *
"They will not hurt you.” The old woman's melodious voice was far from reassuring. Nikki flexed her hands, battling the urge to use the energy that danced across her fingertips. Would energy even hurt ghosts? Somehow she doubted it.
The ethereal faces that surrounded her were none she knew. Yet she felt their sorrow, their pain and anger, as if it were her own. It stabbed deep inside, settled like a weight in her stomach. She tore her gaze away from them and looked back up the hill. The old woman was just as flimsy as the ghosts around her, but for some reason, she held color while these others did not.
"What's going on here?"
Her voice jarred uneasily against the strange hush surrounding them. The ghosts stirred, the delicate gowns that were their bodies dissipating then gathering close again.
"That is what I am here to explain.” The old woman motioned her forward with a quick wave of her cane. “Come. Sit in front of me on the grass, and we shall talk." Nikki's hesitation was only brief. She had a feeling choice was something she'd left behind when she'd followed this woman through the oddly thick fog that had surrounded the church. She walked up the hill and sat down cross-legged in front of the old woman. The grass wasn't really grass, but a smoky echo that felt oddly warm. “What's going on?” she repeated softly.
The old woman nodded, the black holes that were her eyes seeming to bore right through Nikki's soul. She shivered, but resisted the temptation to rub her arms.
"Consequences of actions taken,” the old one continued. “Sometimes they are not apparent right away. Sometimes they must wait before they can be revealed."
This old woman and Michael had one thing in common—neither of them could speak plain English.
“What do you mean?"
"You were dead,” the woman said. “Your soul had consigned itself to the light, had it not?" Fear pulsed through her. Nikki closed her eyes, remembering the light. Remembering the feeling of joy and peace as she bathed in its warmth. Oh Lord Michael, what have you done ... ?
"Yes,” she somehow managed to croak.
"He pulled you back. He gave you part of his energy, made you as eternal as the night and himself." She nodded. Fear had become a fist squeezing her heart tight. She could barely even breathe.
"But he could not fully undo what had already been decided." Her breath stuttered to a halt for several seconds. She stared at the old woman, not sure what she meant. Not sure she even wanted to know. The silence seemed to stretch until it sawed at her nerves. The ghosts around them stirred, restless slithers of fog that brushed warmth across her icy skin. They were waiting for her to speak, she realized. She licked dry lips and somehow found her voice,
“What do you mean?"
"He gave you new life. But a small portion of you will always remain on this plane. That cannot be undone. Death is a part of you as much as he is now."
Oh God ... “Meaning?"
"Meaning you can walk this plane almost as easily as you walk the other. Meaning you can call forth those whose untimely deaths forced them to remain rather than move on." She stared at the woman for several seconds, mulling over the implications. Wondering if this was real. Maybe she was tucked safely in bed, with Michael's arms wrapped around her. Maybe—hopefully—this was nothing more than some strange nightmare.
"This is real, young woman. As we are real."
"You're a ghost. As are those who surround us."
"That doesn't make us any less real."
No, she supposed it didn't. And considering what she'd seen over the past four months, ghosts were way down on the list when it came to ghoulies to be wary of.
She took a deep breath and released it slowly. It didn't do much to ease the grip of fear squeezing her heart tight.
"So you're saying I can now see ghosts?” Just like the movie. Great.
"Yes.” The melodious voice was soft. Sympathetic.
"And you're saying I can talk to these ghosts if I choose to?"
"I'm saying you can call them and bring them into being. Give them the power to react with your world." She wasn't sure she understood what that meant. And right now, she really didn't want to know. “It's been eleven months since Michael brought me back from the dead. Why have you come to me now and not before?"
"On this plane, time is meaningless. A breath can take a second or a century. It matters not."
"That's not much of an answer,” she grumbled.
The old woman's toothless smile flashed. “No. But until now, the results of his actions had not begun to appear."
She remembered the whispers she'd heard down in the sewers. The nebula cloud that had briefly appeared before the vampires attacked. Ghosts? Or the imaginings of a fearful mind? Despite what the old woman was saying, she wasn't entirely sure she could believe it was the whispers of the dead she'd heard.
"So how am I supposed to empower these ghosts of yours?"
"Reach out psychically. They will connect with you and draw on your strength to gain substance."
"That sounds dangerous."
The old woman's smile was wry. “So is taking a walk across the park these days." True. But muggers she could cope with. She wasn't so sure she could handle nebula bits of mist sucking at her energy to gain form. It reminded her too much of vampires. The old woman climbed to her feet. “I must take you back,” she said. “You cannot remain long on this plane. Remember that in the future when you roam this world." Nikki frowned as she rose. “What do you mean?"
"I mean your soul was never destined to stay on this plane. You were meant for the light. The longer you remain here, the more it sucks your strength. The more it sucks his strength." She stared at the old woman as the implications of her words sank in. “What? How is that possible?"
"Your energies are linked. He is your strength, and you are his. You are two halves of a whole and function as such."
Oh god ... Michael was meeting with Farmer. And she was here. Sucking his strength when he needed it most. “You have to get me back. Quickly."
The old woman nodded and walked down the hill. The ghosts parted, an unearthly wave that made no sound and yet whose whispering filled her mind.
Then their presence gave way to the damp touch of real fog. The tingling hit her, burning across her skin, through her mind. Then she was stumbling forward, landing on her hands and knees, her fingers sliding against grass that was real and wet rather than ghostly.
She looked around quickly but couldn't see the old woman. But Nikki had a feeling she would be there, on the other side, if and when she chose to go back.
She thrust upwards, but at that moment, pain hit her, so thick and fast it snatched her breath and drove her face-first back to the ground.
For several seconds Nikki could do nothing more than lie there. The simple act of breathing had become a struggle, and fire burned through every fiber of her being. Her muscles thumped and quivered, as if someone was kicking and punching her. And she knew what she was feeling was merely an echo of what was actually happening to him.
Michael? She thrust the link wide and called with every ounce of strength she had. There was no response. His mind wasn't shuttered, simply lost in a fog she could not traverse. A fog she'd felt once before—when Jasper had drugged her to stop her using her talents to contact Michael. If she'd sucked away his strength, if he couldn't use his talents because his mind was warped by drugs, he couldn't protect himself—not in any way.
Panic tore through her heart. He couldn't die ... not now, not when there were so many things left unsaid between them.
Tears stung her eyes. She took a deep breath and tried to regain some sense of control. Don't think. Don't feel. React .
She pushed to her knees and grabbed the cell phone from her pocket, quickly dialing Jake.
"Where are you?” she asked, the minute he answered.
"Down at Fisherman's Wharf.” He hesitated, and concern touched his voice as he continued. “Why?"
"Because Michael's in trouble. Meet me near the Hard Rock on Van Ness Avenue." She hung up and climbed to her feet. She thought briefly about catching a cab but knew it was probably faster to run, even though the peak of rush hour had come and gone. So she ran. The fog slapped wetly against her skin, soaking her hair and dribbling down her face. Or maybe that was tears. She didn't know. Didn't care. Her heart pounded a rhythm that was as fast and fearful as every step, yet deep inside she knew no matter how fast she was, it was never going to be enough. Not to save Michael from the damage Farmer was inflicting.
Maybe not even to save his life.
A sob escaped her lips. She put a hand to her mouth and kept on running. The streets, the lights, the people still out and about, blurred around her. All she wanted—all she could think about—was Michael. She swung onto Van Ness. Heard rather than saw the Hard Rock. Did see Jake, pacing impatiently out front. She slowed, then stopped.
He took one look at her face and swore softly. “Where is he?"
"Not here.” She bent, leaning her hands against her knees, her entire being shuddering as she sucked in great gasps of air. “But close."
"If there's any hope of rescuing him, we have to hurry, Nik." They didn't have a hope of finding him let alone rescuing him. Not right now. She knew that without a doubt. But they had to try. She'd never forgive herself if she didn't at least try. She pushed upright and studied the night. The pull of his presence came from up ahead. “This way,” she said.
"What's happened?” Jake's quick steps seemed to echo against the sidewalk while hers made no sound at all. It was almost as if she were part of the night, as silent as the breeze. Or Michael.