Letters from New York [Blood Magic, Book 2]

Until Mills and Keel, the sorcerer-vampire bond was solely the stuff of folklore and legend – a whispered myth with one hell of a body count.

Now Mills has returned to New York City, to human life, but the bond is reawakening.

And someone knows her secret.

All her secrets…

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20. A Date With History

Chapter 17: A Date With History

“You are so unlike Etan,” Garstatt said, from within his Lucia suit.

When Keel’s father had possessed her, it’d been nothing short of terrifying, but Garstatt was different, and I found myself at ease with him – or at least as at ease as I could be, with six rogue sorcerers outside planning who knows what.

“Who’s Etan?” I asked. Garstatt was sitting on one side of Lucia’s mom’s desk, while I sat on the other. It seemed strangely formal, as if I was at a job interview, especially with the way he was scrutinizing me. But the reality was, the office wasn’t particularly big and these were the only chairs in it.

“The one I was bonded to.”

“Oh.” This was the first time I’d heard the sorcerer’s name; it had been all but scrubbed from the history books – of both species.

“The stories didn’t survive?”

I thought about what knew about Garstatt and Etan. “Stories of the deeds did.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected,” Garstatt said. For the first time, there was a trace of bitterness in his voice.

I leaned forward across the desk and grabbed Lucia’s forearm. It felt normal, like it should have felt. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting; witnessing someone else inhabiting my friend’s body wasn’t something that was particularly easy to get used to, even if the occupant was civilized.

I met Garstatt’s red eyes with my red-ringed ones. “I want to hear the story.”

“I thought you would,” Garstatt said, sounding pleased. He gently slipped his arm out my hand and settled back in Lucia’s mom’s chair, closing his eyes. He didn’t speak for what felt like a long time. During that lull in our conversation, I strained to hear what the rogue sorcerers were up to outside, but the only sounds bleeding into the shop were normal Sunday sounds: humans going about their business blissfully oblivious to the supernatural standoff occurring in their midst. I wished Garstatt would hurry up; we were on borrowed time as it was.

“When I met Etan on that rural roadside,” he began, at last, “he was already half-mad with anger after being rejected by his people. Like you, he wasn’t pure-blooded; he had the taint of humankind within him. He was ranting at the trees, the rocks, anything unfortunate enough to come into earshot. If he’d identified me as a nightwalker, that would’ve been the end of it, I am sure. In those days, your kind hunted my kind for sport, and profit, and infamy. I’ve heard things are more civilized now.”

I cast a sidelong glance through the doorway to the main part of the store. “If you say so.”

Garstatt ignored my comment and continued. “I was someone he could tell his woes to, and, while he did, I lured him back towards the cave in which my clan nested. I couldn’t believe my fortune: such a delicacy and no hunting required. The gods, it seemed, had favoured me with a gift.

“As it happened, we were set upon by small but wily group of hunters – not woodsman, but humans that had taken up the cause of eradicating Nosferatu –  in the forest before ever reaching my settlement, and one got lucky with a stake. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw the towheaded man I was leading to his death wielding magic as if it were a blade and he were a practiced swordsman. Every motion he made, every spell he executed was swift and deadly. He was no amateur, even if he had somehow become a little soft in the head.”

Garstatt kept his eyes closed as he relayed his tale. I wondered if he could see it unspooling on the backs of his eyelids, as if it had just happened, rather than being hundreds – or maybe even thousands – of years in the past. Was that all there was to existence? Would I be floating around formless someday, just like Garstatt, replaying my living years over and over again in my head, like a DVD on endless repeat? If so, I pitied Garstatt, and me, and everyone else consigned to that interminable fate.

“After making short work of the others,” he continued, “who were human, and no match for a sorcerer – even a half-breed – he came toward me. I watched him helplessly from my prone position on the mossy forest floor as he approached. The stake had missed my heart – just – but it had done its damage. I was sure he would finish me for my trickery and, if not for that, than simply for being what I was, although the stake would have done that anyway, in time; it had clipped an artery and I was bleeding out – a slow and painful way for a Nosferatu to go, I assure you. But instead he dropped to his knees beside me and examined the wound.

“I don’t remember much of what came after that; I lost consciousness when he yanked the chunk of wood out of my chest. Years later, my actual death hurt less than the removal of that stake. The memories I do have of those hours are mostly formless, vague imprints of physical sensations and not much more, but when I eventually came out of my fugue, the wound was healed and my body had been draped in animal hides to protect me from the sun. I peered out from beneath them. The corpses of the vampire hunters still lay in the clearing where we’d been attacked, but now flies buzzed over them and they were engorged with the bloat of decay, egged on by the fiery summer sun. Etan was lying a short distance away unconscious. I was confused. He had saved me, and that went against everything my people knew about his kind, which left me conflicted. I wanted to use the hides as a shield against the sun, and leave this stranger far behind, but I was also curious as to why he had done what he had done.

“Even though I was ravenous, and knew I’d be missed by my clan, I became determined to stay. I wanted answers. Eventually Etan woke up, and offered me a drink of his own blood.

“It started then. All the madness. I thought he had been my prey, but over time I realized I was his. It had all been planned: he had trackers find a nightwalker who fed along a regular route and schedule; he hired and trained the hunters, and paid them enough to stay loyal; he’d even arranged for someone to come by afterwards with the hides, to ensure my safety. I don’t know how he knew it would work, if he even did. There were many things Etan never told me. Despite the bond, we were not friends. I was a means to an end for him.”

I sat there, soaking up Garstatt’s story, not knowing what to say. I knew that was how the bond worked, a lot of the time. Ephraim and Bruce had been strangers when they became bonded, but for me, it was unfathomable to imagine permanently linking myself to someone for such selfish reasons. Of course, that could just be the whole raised-by-humans thing rearing its head again. And if it was? Well, in this instance, I was perfectly fine with it.

Garstatt was studying my expression. “But you are different,” he said, as if he knew what I’d been thinking. “I thought I felt it when you were casting. You are still light.”

He said the word with great reverence, which was about as confusing the statement itself. It suggested that Nosferatu – or maybe just this long-dead Nosferatu – placed some value on concepts of good and evil. It could be possible, I thought, but since I wasn’t sure, I played lost. It wasn’t hard to do. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“When I met Etan, he was already set on a path of vengeance. He wanted to rule over those who’d rejected him and nothing else. I was his means of gaining the power to do it. Though, of course, I gained power as well.

“Over time we each climbed to the respective seats of power within our tribes, lording it over our people and many others, but everything we achieved – every victorious battle, every conquered land, every pillaged village – was born of Etan’s darkness, and the bond fed off that.”

“And the two of you became darker together,” I said. It clicked: this was what everyone was scared would happen with me and Keel: that the bond was a dark thing, more powerful than either of us, and would consume us just as it had with Garstatt and Etan.

And it might be. I could not deny the allure of the way the bond’s power had thrummed within me, as Garstatt had guided me through his protection spell. I hadn’t wanted to let it go; it had made me feel as though anything was possible. And maybe, with the bond, it was. The idea of that was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.

Garstatt gave a slight nod. “By the time I realized where the end of that path lay, it was too late. Etan killed so many trying to stop it. But his sanity died long before most of the innocents did. Yet I couldn’t leave; the bond drew me to him as if he were the most powerful lure in the world.”

He opened his eyes, and levelled them across the table at me. When he spoke his voice was hard and serious. It was obviously important to him that I heard this and understood it.

“In the end, I’m the one who stopped him, but I doubt they teach you that either.” He was right: this was the first I’d heard of it, but so much of Garstatt and Etan’s history was shrouded in mystery that that in itself wasn’t particularly shocking. “I turned myself over to the people whose lands we had conquered and stripped of resources, and allowed myself to be tried and executed.” Garstatt paused, either to let that sink in, or to centre himself again. His tone didn't waver as he continued; maybe in the centuries that had passed, he had made peace with his part in history. “One way or another, I knew that would be the end of Etan’s reign. It would either kill him outright, or weaken him enough for a civil revolt to overthrow him. Either way, his madness would be assuaged.”

“You sacrificed yourself to stop him?”

I hadn’t believed a full-blooded Nosferatu capable of such selflessness. If this was true, I’d have to re-adjust my entire worldview – again. Garstatt had been a victim, then a villain, but he'd died a hero, even if history omitted that bit. I found myself overcome with newfound respect and admiration for what he had done.

“Yes,” Garstatt said. “And I came here to tell you this to give you a chance that I didn’t have. You are not Etan, however. Your light may steer your course elsewhere.”

“But what if Keel is... dark?” I forced myself to spit out the question, even though the prospect of learning its answer made me queasy. I had to know, because if I knew, I could act instead of react, though I refused to think of what “act” would mean.

“What’s your evidence?”

I reamed off a laundry list of all of Keel’s recent mind games and indiscretions. When I was finished, Garstatt laughed, as if I had just told him a great joke.

“Your Keel is not evil,” he said, still grinning. “He is Nosferatu.”

I sighed and slid down in the chair. “Until I met you, I was half-convinced they were one and the same.”

Garstatt looked surprised. “And how exactly did you become bonded to a creature of whom you think so little?”

I blushed. “By accident,” I admitted. “Before he transitioned. When we were… umm…  friends.”

“You bonded before he matured?” Garstatt said. I could tell he was shocked.

“I know Etan calculated the consequences of your bond, but I just didn’t want Keel to die saving my life. We didn’t even know this bond thing was real.”

“You cared about him,” Garstatt said, as if that possibility had never occurred to him.

I nodded.

“Extraordinary.”

“That’s not what everyone else says.”

“I see now why the other spirits talk,” he said. His fascination with me had clearly intensified. “You had a deep connection, before you formed the bond.”

“I don’t see what difference that makes,” I said, plucking a pointy purple rock off of Lucia’s mom’s desk, and running my finger along its ridges. Outside, the sorcerers had magic and weapons; in here we had magic and rocks. If the standoff escalated into a fight, it’d never be a fair one.

“You are a first,” Garstatt said.

“Great. So what you're telling me is that I'm an anomaly amongst anomalies?” It came out much whinier than I had intended, but every time I started to think that I knew for sure who I was and where I fit, the certainty got yanked away. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Explore the bond. Nurture it. But do not abuse it. It is very powerful and capable of being used as much more than simply a weapon.”

“How?” I said, putting the rock back on the desk. “Keel isn’t exactly the same Keel anymore. He’ll kill me if I go back.”

“He won’t.”

“He might do worse.”

“Only if you allow him.”

“But... But...” I told Garstatt about the incident on the roof. “I had no control then. He could have done anything.”

“Not to you. Not while sharing form with you. A connection is a connection. If he kills you while sharing your form, he will share your fate. You are bound.”

“What if I don’t want to explore it? What if I run to the other side of the Earth?” This was the course of action Bruce and Ephraim had planned for me. They had made it abundantly clear that they would never allow me to return to Keel – if I so much as tried, my pardon from the League of Sorcerers would be forfeit and my death sentence reinstated. I figured if anyone would know whether their avoidance plan was viable in the long-term it would be Garstatt.

“You can't fight the bond forever,” he said. “You can clip away at it, but its cords will reknit, each time stronger and in a new configuration. It will wear you down until you have nothing left to fight it with. I tried to leave during those last years with Etan. I tried to destroy it. Tried everything to destroy it. It is not possible.”

My heart sank. Regardless of what I felt about Keel, my freedom to choose my own future was illusion at worst and a short-lived proposition at best, just like I'd worried it was all along. Was that why Keel had seemed so utterly uninterested when his father wanted to bring me back to him? Had he known it would only  be a matter of time, before I would have to come anyway?

“The bond is the ultimate oath,” Garstatt continued, “but what you do wi– ”

Something  – or from the sound of it, more likely someone – crashed against the front door of the store and stopped our conversation dead. Our heads turned simultaneously towards the doorway, but there was no indication of what had made the impact. If someone had attempted to breach my magical barrier, they’d failed.

When a second thump rattled the door in its frame, I jumped to my feet. My chair tipped over backwards behind me, with a clatter. I immediately began to move towards the front of the store, desperate to see what was going on, but before I could leave the office, Garstatt placed a firm hand on my shoulder and stopped me. “Too dangerous,” he warned. “Look from upstairs.”

“But you can’t –”

“Don’t worry about me. Go up, take a look, then report back.”

I took the steps to Lucia’s apartment two at a time. Figuring I didn’t need to go any higher than the second storey, I dodged the antiques Lucia’s mom had crammed into the living room and made my way toward the window. I peeped out, careful not to expose enough of myself for anyone to shoot at. In many ways, traditional weapons scared me a hell of a lot more than magic.

The street below looked normal. I couldn’t see Ephraim or Bruce, even though they should have arrived by now. There was no sign of the rogue sorcerers, either, nor could I get a glimpse of who or what was trying to get inside the shop.

Damn, I cursed, and returned to the stairs. I decided to check if the sightlines were any better on the third floor. They were. I crouched in the small space between the bed and the window in Lucia’s mom’s room which made me vaguely uncomfortable. I was sure this was someplace she didn’t want me; the closed door had emphasized that. But from this higher vantage point, I could see Ephraim and Bruce tucked behind a car near the end of the block, while the majority of the six sorcerers were convened in an alleyway across the street. There were still two I couldn’t see. I wondered if they were ones responsible for the racket downstairs.

For a long time, everyone held their positions, including me. A heated conversation appeared to be taking place between the vigilantes; it involved a lot of dramatic gesturing and grimacing. I assumed it was about me – in particular, about how to kill me and get away with it. I bristled with fresh anger. This garbage was getting really, really old. Couldn’t anyone just live and let live?

Then, one of the creeps from the alleyway stepped into the street and raised his weapon. I knew virtually nothing about guns, but I was sure that the one he was levelling in the direction of Ephraim and Bruce was a semi-automatic, if not a full automatic – probably military grade. I had all of two seconds to panic – then the shooting started.  The car Ephraim and Bruce were pinned behind exploded in a cascade of flying safety glass as all of its windows were shot out. The hail of bullets left multiple trails of uneven pockmarked lines on the side of the vehicle’s body. And suddenly I couldn’t see Ephraim or Bruce anymore, no matter how hard I scoured the area. Had they been hit? My stomach lurched sickeningly, as I imagined my father’s blood spilling out into the street. I’d wanted so badly for him to act more like a proper dad, but what if the first time he actually did that, actually came running to save me, I got him killed?

No, I told myself, you need to stop thinking like that. There’s no time to break down.

The gunman finished spraying bullets in the direction of my family and turned his weapon on the psychic shop, unleashing a barrage directly into the front of the store. I dropped to the carpet, and held my breath, expecting the window above me to blow out at any second and shower me in glass. When it didn’t and the gunfire ceased, I crawled on my hands and knees back to the door of the bedroom, way too freaked out to even consider standing up. Only once I’d cleared it and kicked it shut with my heel did I get to my feet and dash back downstairs. Lucia – and her passenger Garstatt –wouldn’t have been able to flee upwards; there were rules, after all, about ghosts and dwellings.

I hit the final turn of the staircase at breakneck speed, sending the rag rug on the landing skidding into the wall and completely losing my balance. My right hand shot out to grab the banister, but I still rolled halfway down the stairs before managing to stop myself. I hung there for a moment awkwardly, foot pinned under my butt, arm overextended and desperately clinging on. I hadn’t broken anything, but every single part of my body that had clipped the edge of one of the steps or had collided with the wall throbbed angrily. I was going to have one hell of a network of bruises tomorrow – if I survived that long.

I pulled myself back to my feet and limped down the rest of the stairs. As soon as I turned the corner into Lucia’s mom office, all my worst fears solidified into a waking nightmare. Lucia was lying in a dark red puddle between the two rooms, eyes wide open, glassy and unblinking. I screamed.

Then I threw up my shield and bolted to her side, extending my force field over her as soon as I was close enough to do so.

She’d been shot in the chest. Her clothes were drenched in blood. So much blood.  It was bad. It was worse than bad.

Without even thinking I ripped her shirt open and rent my arm from wrist to elbow, splashing my own blood down onto the entrance wound. It seeped over her pallid flesh and mingled with hers. Then I threw all my grief and horror at her injuries, commanding my magic to heal them. She had my blood in her, on her: this had to work. Come on, Lucia, I thought desperately. Fight!

She remained corpse-still. Maybe she was already gone. Maybe I’d used up my bring-a-gravely-injured-person-back-to-life card when Keel had almost died. Goddamnit. I let out a shrill, anguished howl that didn’t even come close to sounding human. This was not happening. This was not happening!

I’d been so worried about vampires and possession, and she’d been felled by a completely human weapon, wielded by a sorcerer.  It was like some sort of sick, twisted joke, in which my uselessness was the punch line. I’d killed so many times, but I could only save once? Really?!

My shield sparked and flared around me, feeding off my turbulent emotions. Why couldn’t my healing power tap into that?

Face it. Maybe it’s just too late.

But I didn’t want to face it, couldn’t face it. I couldn’t bear to lose any more than I’d lost already. And certainly not Lucia.

That’s when I remembered Garstatt’s protection spell. He’d had me tap me into Keel’s energy when we’d cast it, and that had made it all the more powerful. Would that work with healing as well? Garstatt had said the bond’s magic could be used as more than simply a weapon. I wondered if the bond made that spellcasting link possible, even if I didn’t know the proper vamphyrric words to summon it. Regardless, I had to try. I knew it would mean using Keel and draining some of his essence – sort of like what he’d done to me on the rooftop, and I had a very good idea of what that made me, but I figured I could mentally whip myself for hypocrisy later, when Lucia was out of danger.

I closed my eyes and took several deep, focusing breathes; I needed to get my own magic and my own emotions under control first. The bond magic was inherently unstable, and without the proper concentration, who knew what I’d unleash? What if I took more human lives while trying to save Lucia’s?

Once my blood magic was coiled back into a tight, prickling sphere in my gut, I reached out to the parts of my consciousness that I’d felt Garstatt’s spell tap into.

There was nothing there. Whatever fount of power he’d opened earlier was closed to me now. Corked tight.

I pushed harder, willing it to allow me access.

One more time. Please. I begged – myself, Keel, the bond, I really had no idea; I just hoped someone or something was listening. She can’t die.

The first tickle of that unfamiliar force stirred within me. That's it! my mind shrieked. I honed in on it like a swooping hawk and pulled. It gave a little more. Almost there, I thought. You can do this. I imagined my body opening up and inviting it in, then I yanked again. A moment later, the floodgates opened and the raw, vampiric power filled me, as if I were the sail of a sailboat and it was the gusting sea breeze. Then Keel was there again, on the edge of my consciousness, still sleeping. Better that way, I thought. God only knows what he’d do if he wasn’t.

Only when the magic within me had swelled to the point where I could barely contain it, did I open my eyes. I felt utterly invincible: if those vigilantes decided to pepper the place with another round of bullets I was sure I could pluck them out of the air with my bare hands. My normally invisible shield glowed white-gold around Lucia and I as if it were a beacon in the night, casting off twinkling flecks like embers from a roaring fire. I thrust my palms down onto Lucia’s sticky, wet chest and shouted, “HEAL!” The furniture in the room shook, and the overhead lights flickered wildly. Lucia’s back arched and she sucked in a ragged, rattling gasp. I held my hands firmly in place. “Heal,” I said again, quieter, but no less forcefully. More of the magic bled out of me into her. It was working. It felt incredible, as if my casting had become a force of life itself.

I was more than a conduit now. The bond made me a conductor.

And I could stop death.

Holy shit. 

When the last of all the power I’d summoned had been siphoned into the healing spell, I slumped over, exhausted, not caring that I was half lying in a pool of my friend’s blood. Tapping into the bond might not have ravaged me, but fortifying it with my own magic, adrenaline and sheer terror had. I hoped what I’d done had been enough. Lucia was clearly breathing again – but I didn’t know for certain.  “Humans are fragile,” Garstatt had warned. His words came back to haunt me.

I heard the sound of sirens in the distance and felt Lucia’s hand close around mine.

“What happened?” she mumbled groggily a few moments later. Her voice was entirely her own again; Garstatt was gone, perhaps forced out by the bullet wound.

“You almost died,” I told her, as the sirens neared. There was no doubt they were headed our way.

“Oh. Is that all?” she quipped, and I laughed. It hurt, but I was thankful for her levity. I wasn’t so sure I’d be slinging my wit around if our places were reversed. But, damn, I loved her for it.

“Actually no: your mother’s store got shot up real good.” Unfortunately, neither Ephraim nor Garstatt’s spell seemed to be able to withstand modern firepower.  I didn’t even want to estimate the amount of damage that had occurred to the building and its contents. Most of the gauzy curtains now hung in shredded tatters, and bits of candle wax and shattered crystals dotted the floor.

“I hate you, Mills,” Lucia said weakly, as if that was worse news than hearing that she’d almost died.

“You don’t really mean that,” I told her, though I secretly worried that she might.

“You’re right,” she said. “But understand, I may just be grounded for the rest of my life.”

 

NEXT CHAPTER COMING YOUR WAY ON MONDAY, AUGUST 19!

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