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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12. Coming Clean-ish

Chapter 9: Coming Clean-ish

Standing in Central Park watching Lucia talk to the dead was like peeping in on someone having a conversation with an entire cadre of their imaginary friends – in a blizzard. Lucia’s powers required no special ingredients, just the right locale and some will. Any “normal” – as she called them – who walked by would think she was a lunatic, but there wasn’t much traffic in the park tonight, especially not in the wooded area she’d chosen, which was a considerable distance from the nearest footpath. The weather seemed to be keeping everyone, even the homeless and the junkies, at bay.

Lucia was turning in slow circles, occasionally pausing to issue commands, instructions, pleas. The snow whirled around her, making her seem ethereal, and the waning light of dusk only increased the otherworldly effect; it was murkier than usual thanks to the dense cloud cover and the storm.

We couldn’t contact the dead at Lucia’s house. On our way here, she’d explained that it was one of the few rules that could not be bent: spirits weren’t able to enter private residences unless they had died there. Plus, we needed a lot of ghosts – as many as we could get – which was what had brought us to the park. Just like the living, the dead saw this as a place to gather and commune.

Observing Lucia work made me feel less freakish, even if I was allegedly one half of a supernatural nuclear weapon.

But I wasn’t thinking about that, or about what it meant. Because whenever I did, I was haunted by that line that Fredrick would always quote when some evil dictator or warlord did some horrible thing to his or her people: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Look at what Garstatt and his sorcerer had ended up doing with their power. All that death, all that pain…

Yet here we were reaching out to him. It was madness, and what was it going to prove? There was no knowing if he would answer my questions, let alone have the answers I was seeking.

I yanked my cellphone out of my coat pocket to check the time; not only was the cold wind biting at my bones, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stay upright much longer. Exhaustion dragged at me with each cloud of breath I exhaled. As my eyes flickered over the screen, a hard knot formed in my gut: half a dozen missed calls and twice as many frantic texts from Bruce. Oh no! I’d completely forgotten to turn the ringer back on after I’d muted Mikey’s incoming message, and Bruce had been trying to reach me – for hours. There’d be all kinds of hell to pay for this. I’d just broken rule number one: Don’t be out of touch, ever.

I had to get back to the apartment. This wasn’t something a phone call was going to fix. This required grovelling, begging and apologizing – and I still might end up back in Pennsylvania.

“Listen, Lucia,” I said, loathe to interrupt her. “I have to go. Some crap’s going down at home.”

“That’s okay,” she replied, and stopped spinning. “I’m done. The dizziness should pass in a minute or two, then we can get out of here.”

Standing still like that, Lucia could have been an illustration on a blustery Christmas card or a tiny, lonely plastic figure in a violently shaken snow globe. She looked so much younger bundled up in her oversized winter coat and cap, with the ends of her scarf whipping around like a pair of long, errant woolly tentacles in the wind. I walked over to where she’d been holding court with the dead. The air grew colder as I approached. I wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the storm or a physical remnant of the spirit communication that had just taken place.

“I sent your request out through multiple channels,” she said. “It’ll better the chances of it getting to him fast and intact. I get the feeling that intact is important with this one.”

I nodded. Ghosts may be chatty in general, but I couldn’t exactly imagine former Nosferatu kings growing into that trait. If Garstatt was going to agree to talk to me, it was all-important that he knew exactly who was looking for him.

“Now what?” I asked, as we made our way back to the path.

“Now nothing,” Lucia said. “We wait. You go home and deal with whatever you have to deal with. I go home and eat dinner. We go on with our lives.”

“Oh,” I said, unsure of what I’d been expecting. It all seemed so normal, like nothing had been accomplished. Doing magic always had a noticeable effect – this psychic stuff apparently didn’t, unless you counted the chill, which I could've imagined.

“Give me your phone,” Lucia demanded when we emerged from the park onto W. 110th St. I slipped my hand into my parka pocket and passed it to her. A second later she gave it back. “Unlock it,” she told me and I did. I watched as she programmed her number into my address book, then retrieved her own phone. “Now, tell me yours.”

“I’ll call you,” she said, once I’d relayed the digits. Then she turned and left, barely allowing me the chance to say thank you and good-bye. I shouted both of those things after her as she disappeared into the snowy night.

Then I high-tailed it home, damage control on my mind the whole way there.

* * *

When I got back to the apartment, it was a million times worse than I’d expected. Bruce was waiting for me on one of the living room couches, and Ephraim was on the other one. I honestly couldn’t tell which of them looked more pissed off. I dropped my duffle bag at the head of the hallway and slung my parka over it, dropping my hat and mitts on top. I tried to make it look casual. If my father got a glimpse at what was inside that bag, this very bad situation would become downright catastrophic.

“Where have you been?” Ephraim demanded, standing up. The small living room made his dense, stocky form even more opposing. Fredrick had told me that he worked as a “fixer”; it wouldn’t have surprised me if that was a gentle euphemism for “hit man.”

“Hanging out with a friend,” I said. “I’m surprised that Bruce doesn’t have my phone’s GPS permanently routed through his laptop.”

“I do,” Bruce noted. A hint of embarrassment coloured his anger, but only for a moment. Great: more surveillance and more they weren’t telling me.

“So why the big production then?” I asked both of them, before turning to Bruce. “Why didn’t you just drive over and drag me home?”

“Because the lies have to stop, Mildred,” he said, sternly. “And I know they will stop for him.”

My father was frowning at me. I was disappointing him again, just like I had been since the day we met, which, of course, was some sixteen years after we should have. But that one was on him. Whatever happened next, it wasn’t going to be pretty. I forced myself to sit down in the armchair between the two of them – the hot seat. Ephraim remained standing.

“How often were you sick before you began using magic?” Ephraim asked.

“A few times,” I said. This wasn’t what I had been expecting to be grilled about.

“And after you tapped into your power?”

“Once.”

“I’ve asked you two questions, and already one of your answers is a lie.”

“I’m not lying,” I insisted. If anything, I was stretching the truth a bit. Sleep deprivation was kind of like sickness, wasn’t it?

“The only illnesses sorcerers get are supernatural ones.”

“But I’m not practicing. I’m exiled, remember? Doing what you want: playing human.”

“I highly doubt that,” Ephraim said. “But just so we’re clear: what you’re telling me is that you’ve done absolutely no magic since you made your vow to the sorcerers.” Did he know? Could he read my mind? Did he have the little arrangement between Bruce and I all figured out?

I looked at Bruce, who ignored my desperate glance. Was he bowing to Ephraim’s will or was he willfully feeding me to the wolves?

“Do you think anything happens without my knowing about it?” Ephraim asked.

I shook my head.

“If you have magic books on a laptop, it’s because I’ve allowed it; if you think they are there because of some deal you have with Bruce, it’s because that is what I wanted you to think. Do you understand?”

“I didn’t –” I wanted to be furious at him. It had been one deception after another since my birth, but I was still trying to wrap my head around the revelation that Ephraim was responsible for my sorcery library. It couldn’t be. He’d been the one who’d adamantly forbidden me from using magic.

“Now tell me,” he said, “and let’s try some honesty this time. Have you or have you not been using magic?”

My eyes flitted back to Bruce, this time he tilted his head, almost imperceptibly. He wanted me to come clean.

“Yes, I have,” I confessed.

“And have you or have you not been sick?”

He’d caught me. And ironically enough, now I really did feel sick to my stomach. Why I hadn’t I researched sorcerers and sickness before I’d trotted out that old excuse? Because I’d been playing it human, and here was yet another neat, ribbon-wrapped reminder that I was anything but.

“No. I haven’t.” I said, staring at my socks. The one on my right foot looked greyer than the one on my left.

“Then what’s been going on?” Ephraim demanded.

Bruce was right, I couldn’t think of a single lie or excuse that would stand up under his scrutiny. I was out of options.

“The bond is back.” I tried to say it matter of factly, as if it were no big deal, but I felt the tension in the air ratchet up as soon as the words left my mouth. I looked past my socks at the uneven ridges in the hardwood floor and wished I could get lost between them, or maybe under the throw rug. Not only had I been keeping secrets, I’d been keeping them about the bond.

“And you didn’t speak up about this? Why?” Ephraim stormed across the room, his black dress shoes coming to a halt on the floorboards I’d just been seeking refuge in.

Careful, Mills, I warned myself. What you say next could result in either a controlled blast or an explosion that levels every single one of your good intentions.

“It wasn’t doing anything particularly concern-worthy,” I said. “I just see Keel in my sleep, is all.” I was trying de-escalate things, but my guardian obviously didn’t get the memo.

“I see plenty that’s ‘concern-worthy’ about you waking up screaming and hallucinating in your bed,” Bruce retorted.

“It just took a bit of time to adjust,” I said. That’s when I made the mistake of looking up. Ephraim was looming over me, easily as angry as he had been the night he discovered who Keel actually was, and what Keel and I were to each other. This time, I was facing that anger on my own. Not even Bruce had my back. I shrank deeper into the chair.

“How long has this been going on?” Ephraim asked.

“Not even a week.”

“Do you know what can happen in a week?” Ephraim shouted. I was sure everyone who lived on our floor heard him.

“Not much, apparently,” I said. “I go to sleep and I watch him work, I watch him eat, I watch him rule the compound.” I decided to leave out the whole “and while that’s happening we share a body” business, as well as any mention of my doppelganger or our attempts at communication. Any one of those things would be enough to make Ephraim go from volatile to downright ballistic.

“And what of its effects on you?”

“You mean the nightmares Bruce mentioned? I think that was just the shock of bond coming back. I was going to tell you both about this – honest.”

Ephraim didn’t look the slightest bit convinced. “Are the nightmares also responsible for the circles under your eyes?” he said pointedly. “Or for how you’re sitting in front of me right now barely able to keep your lids open, despite Bruce insisting that you’ve been in your room sleeping the last few days away?”

“No,” I said. “That is the bond. When it shows me the things it shows me, I never seem to get a decent rest.”

“And you didn’t think this was worth mentioning?” Ephraim bellowed.

I shook my head. I wished he’d stop yelling; the first pinching pains of an oncoming headache were flaring between my temples.

“You do realize that if your body isn’t allowed to rest and regenerate you will die. As a sorcerer, you may be impervious to human disease, but many of the same things that kill them also kill us: bullets, fire, this. Sorcerers’ require sleep – normal, healthy sleep – as much as humans or, for that matter, Nosferatu do.”

“Then how come this isn’t affecting Keel the same way?” I asked.

“How should I know?” Ephraim said.

“Because you know more than you’re telling me, more than you’ve ever told me.” I paused and girded myself for what I was going to say next; I had no doubt it would create another seismic shift in tension between us, but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since Bruce had slipped and brought it up over breakfast. “Tell me what happens to me if Keel dies.”

The creases on Ephraim’s brow deepened and he swung around on Bruce. I could only imagine the look he was giving him. This was obviously something he wanted left unspoken. And that bothered me – a lot.

I straightened in my chair. “That’s the problem,” I started, my voice taking on a hard, unfamiliar edge. Ephraim forgot about Bruce and turned back towards me. “You want absolute honesty,” I went on, the words were coming faster and louder now, “at the cost of my privacy, my freedom, everything, but you refuse to give it – or hell, for that matter, even a fraction of it – in return. You want me to live a certain way, be a certain way, but you don’t give me the tools to do that or any good reasons why I should. It’s always just ‘Do this. Do that. Why? Because I say.’”  I stood up. Ephraim and I glared at each other as if we were a pair of boxers about to throw our first punches. “How am I supposed to trust and respect you if you constantly treat me like a liability?”

“Trust and respect have to be earned,” Ephraim said.

“And I’ll never earn them, will I?” I replied, emotion driving my voice up an octave. “Not while this –” I reached up and popped out my contacts one at a time, dropping them onto the floor at my feet “– is who I am. You want me to shut out Keel, shut out the bond, but that isn’t how it works, is it? If I’m such a danger to everyone, such a traitor to my kind, why don’t you kill me? Why don’t the sorcerers? Wouldn’t that be easiest for everyone involved? Then you all could stop worrying about what I do and don’t know, and what I’m up to every second of my life.” I could feel hot tears streaming down my face, and they only made me angrier.

“I think you’d better sit down,” Ephraim said.

“Why?” I sobbed.

“Because you want the truth, don’t you?”

I didn’t obey right away, mostly out of sheer stubbornness. I didn’t want to fold under Ephraim’s orders, but it didn’t take long before I started feeling foolish about standing off against the very thing I wanted, so I plunked myself back down in the armchair and wiped my eyes on my shirt sleeve.

Ephraim motioned for Bruce to leave. He didn’t even look at me as he walked past. Ouch. Thirty seconds later I heard the door of the exercise room click shut. Once Ephraim and I were alone, my father returned to the couch he’d been sitting on when I’d first arrived home.

“Over the last few months, I’ve been scouring the oldest, darkest recesses of the sorcerer libraries seeking some way to undo this.” He motioned towards my eyes. “I’ve come up empty each and every time. We cannot separate you from him, any more than I can excise my connection with Bruce. The bond is the ultimate gift – and sacrifice. It’s the gift of life for the span of one’s own life, and like all potent magic it comes with a cost. And that fee is paid in death.”

“Explain,” I said, leaning towards him in my chair, hanging on his every word. Finally I was hearing some truth.

“We cannot kill you. Even if the Nosferatu king hadn’t bartered for your safety with the League. As to do so would also consign him to death,” he continued. “Not immediately, perhaps not for some time, but his decline would be inevitable.”

Hold up, what? If I die, Keel dies? How could that be? He himself made me adamantly swear to kill him if he ever came after me. Maybe he doesn’t know.

“But you hate Keel,” I said. “So why do you care what happens to him?”

“Because he’s still the best chance we have of quelling a vampire uprising in the northern states.”  I thought of my doppelganger, Boras’ and Arthos’ warnings about continued unrest at the compound, and Keel’s difficulties slipping into his new role as ruler; what if this “best chance” was just another thing the bond was laying waste to? I didn’t dare say anything about that though. If a vampiric revolution was seen as unavoidable, what would that mean for my life, for Keel’s?

Helping Keel become the king he needed to be suddenly had much higher stakes, for both of us.

“And if he dies, that slow, inevitable decline is mine?” I asked, carefully steering our conversation away from the secrets I wished to hold onto a little longer.

Ephraim nodded. “The bond will tear part of your magic away with it when his soul departs this mortal coil. After that, it’s more of a slow leak. Imagine it as a wound that will not be healed. First comes madness, then death.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of what the bond is,” Ephraim explained. “Keel lives because you gave a portion of your magical lifeforce to save him; that’s something only sorcerers can do. As that lifeforce left your body, part of his vampiric essence flowed in the opposite direction, into you, taking up residence in the vacancy left behind in yours. The biological changes begin almost immediately. It is a promise that cannot be broken.”

“So it’s till death do us part, then?” I think on some fundamental level I already knew this, but it didn’t truly sink in until I heard it verified by Ephraim. The bond could not be undone any more than Keel’s transition could be. Whoever we had been, were now and would someday become, our trajectories would always be linked to each other’s orbits. “What happens if everything that’s happening right now – these dreams, this sleep deprivation thing – is because you won’t let me near him? What if that alone is enough to kill me? How’s that maintaining the supernatural peace?”

“The dreams we may well be able to do something about,” Ephraim said, cryptically. “But I’ll need to do some research first and talk to a few associates. The rest is untenable. Even indirect contact between the two of you is ill advised, and could have far worse consequences for this world than both of your deaths.” He stood and made his way to the apartment’s entryway before I could confront him about what exactly he was implying with that. “In the meantime, you are not to leave this building without supervision and you are to obey Bruce. Do you understand?”

“What if I have more questions?” I asked.

“Then they’ll have to hold,” he said. He’d already slipped into his long, brown wool coat and had the door propped half open. Before he disappeared into the hallway, and the night beyond it, he paused and turned back to me. His eyes had softened somewhat, though his facial expression remained stony and annoyed. “I know what you think, Mildred, but I don’t want to be your enemy. You’re too young to understand all the forces at play here, everything that’s at stake.”

And with that, he was gone.

I stared after him, into the white blankness of the closed door. He was wrong. I did know what was happening – just not all the names and faces of the players. This was a power struggle. And as long as Keel and I were kept apart, the power was still in everyone else’s hands and the status quo would be maintained.

When I got my bedroom, it didn’t take more than a quick glimpse to know that Bruce and Ephraim had tossed it. I dropped my duffle bag on the floor by the bed and went straight for my closet: sure enough the remaining Nosferatu artifacts I’d collected from the husk of the motel guest house – the ones I hadn’t taken with me that morning – were gone. I cursed and slammed the door. It’d been stupid to trust Bruce, even if he’d let me hold onto them this long.

I paced back to my bed and kicked the duffle bag underneath it; a tremendous wave of déjà vu overcame me. Keel had done this exact thing with his medical bag. Just a coincidence, I assured myself, even though I couldn’t remember the last time a coincidence for us had actually been just that.

I sank down onto the corner of my mattress, Ephraim’s words still front and centre in my head. When I’d given part of myself to save Keel, part of him had also made its way into me. Was that why Lucia had seen more Nosferatu in my aura than humanity? Was that why Keel could imbue me with vampire traits for short periods of time? If we were together again, how much more would I change? How much would he? Could Nosferatu Keel even handle the kind of power everyone thought we had without turning into an even more demented version of his father? Could the bond help stop that? Could I? These questions circled my brain like hungry buzzards.

I shed my clothes and climbed into my pajamas.

Then there was that other revelation: I was alive mostly because Keel needed to be king.

That knowledge hollowed me out in a way that the bond – and even the temporary loss of the bond – never had. I may be Ephraim’s daughter, but in the end that had little to nothing to do with why I hadn’t been executed for treason. I was merely a pawn. Everyone needed Keel: no one – except maybe Keel – needed me.

Yet, it had been Ephraim who’d instructed Bruce to give me the magic books.

I yanked back my bedsheets angrily. None of this made sense. Not at all. Who were my allies? Who were my enemies? Who could I trust?

At least in a few minutes I’d be with Keel again; for all the things he was and wasn’t, this Nosferatu incarnation was pretty much black and white. Or so I thought.

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