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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7. Dead Famous

Chapter 4: Dead Famous

Despite my unplanned all-nighter, I threw myself into my schoolwork twice as hard as usual that afternoon; I’d thought myself around in enough circles over the last twelve hours that studying was the only thing I could do to shut my mind up. It wasn’t like sleep deprivation was opening any doors for breakthrough revelations anyway.

This was what it was, and no matter how I spun it, there was little good to be found in any of it, beyond the knowledge that Keel was alive, of course. Everything else I’d been holding out for was gone, and my hope right along with it. Fate was cruel. And real. And utterly contemptuous of sappy Hollywood endings.

My sudden studiousness elicited a smart-ass quip from my tutor, Mr. Smith, a stout older man with a greying beard, generous laugh lines and a limitless penchant for teasing, who wondered what had happened to “coax forth the Mildred he’d always known was in there somewhere.”

I rolled my eyes at him, and turned my attention back to the Civil War, as it was unfolding on the pages of my history text.

“No, I’m being completely serious here,” he continued, but the glint in his eyes told me otherwise. “You have to divulge your secret. Was it aliens? Is this the real Mills or are you merely occupying her body? Tell me, what is your interest in American history?”

I laughed. His expression told me he expected me to. But it came out clipped and insincere. His jokes were hitting far too close to home for comfort.

Stupid thing was, I’d been that girl once, back when I wholeheartedly believed I was human. I just couldn’t tell him that. I still remembered how important it had seemed to get good grades and make Fredrick and Estella proud. Now everything was different. The last time I was over at their house for dinner, I’d noticed they’d taken all my awards off the wall. I was still in the family pictures, but it was like the educational stuff had lost significance to them too. What was the point of it, really? Of all the possible futures open to me, I couldn’t think of one I wanted. Especially after last night. Nebulous, shapeless somedays didn’t have quite the same potency as blood in the toilet and Nosferatu Keel.

What was I going to do about Keel? It felt like I’d been asking myself that question ever since the moment he introduced himself, but since that dream-that-clearly-wasn’t-a-dream it had become a near-constant mental refrain. As Boras had rightly told him, the blood contract forbade him from coming after me, but it didn’t saddle me with the same restrictions. Still, if I acted against him – even to prevent the abduction of another sorcerer – I’d be squandering any protection the arrangement granted me. Catch-22. Even back in New York, I remained the queen of impossible situations.

I did my damndest to avoid any further non-academic conversation with Mr. Smith, and when he offered me a ride home at the end of the lesson, I politely declined. As his last student of the day, he occasionally gave me a lift back to the apartment, but I wasn’t in the mood for company or more idle chit-chat. Humans were just too much work right now.

Even so, as I started towards home, I found myself stealing covert glances at the windows of the houses and apartments I passed – some were curtained, but others allowed me fleeting glimpses inside. What kind of lives did the people behind them have?  Were any even half as screwed up as mine was? I doubted it. More than ever before, I envied their easy relationships and their painfully human problems, free of royalty and monsters and the ever-present marionette strings of the bond. No matter how optimistic Bruce and Ephraim were about my re-integration, there was no going back to that. Not entirely. Maybe I kept telling myself I didn’t want that life because even if I did, there was no undoing the events of last ten months, and certainly no convincing Fredrick and Estella that it was safe for me to live with them and Mikey again.

I turned the corner onto another densely packed residential block. Here, some of the windows already had colourful strands of Christmas lights strung along them, foreshadowing the holiday season; it was as if they’d been put there to taunt me, to remind me of what still could be mine if I fully embraced the charade and left Keel – and his unnatural desires, however they may play out – behind, for good. It wouldn’t be like before, but might it be enough? If Anna could flourish despite her absentee dad, why couldn’t I? But what if I dared do that, dared to let go, only to discover that destiny and the bond still had other plans? What if ultimately my decision didn’t even matter? How could I possibly plot my future when it seemed to hinge on everything and everyone else?

Just like that, I was back at the same mental dead end I'd been hitting all day.

“So it’s true.” The words came from somewhere on my right. I didn’t look, figuring I’d likely just glommed onto someone else’s conversation in passing.

“Hey, I’m talking to you,” the same voice shouted after me a moment later.

I kept walking. If I wasn’t up for small talk with Mr. Smith, I definitely wasn’t in the mood for it with some complete stranger. She probably wanted to hit me up for spare change or to shove a religious leaflet or store flyer into my hand.

“Hey, come on. Stop. Please?

The sharp, staccato slap of dress boots sounded on the sidewalk behind me, then a smallish but firm hand latched onto my wrist. I whirled around on its owner, my despondency congealing into stormy annoyance. “Don’t touch me!” I growled.

The fingers fell away immediately, as if my arm had scalded them. “Sorry,” said the dark-haired Latino girl they belonged to, her tone now meek and cautious. “It’s just… Wow, you really are her.” I watched awe war with apprehension for control of her facial features, as she seemed to shrink under my gaze, folding in on herself protectively. Something about me scared her, that much was obvious. I scoured my brain trying to recall if I’d seen her somewhere before, but drew a blank. School maybe? She couldn’t be more than a year or two younger than I was, if that.

“Pardon?” I said.

“You’re her. The one who shouldn’t be.

Shit. A familiar chill skittered up my spine; the way she said that last bit set off every one of my warning bells. I swallowed hard and gave her a confused look, feigning incomprehension. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told her, hoping to imbue my words with a confidence I wasn’t feeling.

“The bonded one,” she stated, more bluntly than I’d ever heard anyone refer to the connection between Keel and I. It would have been refreshing if it hadn’t been so absolutely terrifying. How could this person know about me, know about that?!

I felt like a deer caught in headlights – blind-sided, glued in place, heart pounding, utterly unprepared for this scenario – and this otherwise ordinary-looking girl was the semi that was rapidly bearing down on me, which was kind of ludicrous because we probably could have swapped clothes if we’d wanted to. What was I supposed to say? The supernatural world hung like a dead weight around my neck.

“I– I–”

“I’m not any threat to you,” she offered, withdrawing her hands into the sleeves of her three-quarter-length grey wool jacket, while scuffing her tightly-laced black granny boots against the sidewalk awkwardly and barely making eye contact.

We’ll see about that, I thought to myself.

“Who are you?” I managed to stutter out, forcing myself to stay and talk even though all I wanted to do was run home and tell Bruce that our cover had been blown. Why had no one warned me this could happen?

“Lucia,” she said. “My mom owns the psychic shop on the corner.” She nodded back in the direction I'd come. The three-storey storefront had a non-descript white-washed exterior, several large bay windows that hid whatever lay within behind multiple layers of gauzy, translucent curtains and, like most buildings in the area, residential units above it. I’d walked by the place dozens of times since we’d moved here and had never given it a second thought.

“I thought psychics were scams,” I said.

“I thought sorcerers were make-believe,” she retorted, and I shut up.

Was I supposed to deny it? Pretend like she was nuts and get the hell out of there? No matter what tactic I chose, it seemed like it would be a tell.

“Why do you think I’m a ‘sorcerer?’” I asked carefully, making sure to say that last word like it was a brand new idea to me, but as soon as it escaped my lips I realized I was still a horrible actress. Some things not even magic could change.

“I can read your aura,” Lucia said, as simply and openly as she’d announced everything else. Just another detail in a laundry list of already-accepted facts that only I was refuting. “The base colour tells me you’re not human; there are traces of humanity in it, but they’re all washed out and faded, like old jeans. I didn’t know that red meant sorcerer, but yours is also tinged with a dark purple. Like a bruise. And I know what that means: vampire.”

My jaw fell open, and I had to make a conscious effort to shut it. Lucia was reading me like a book, calmly and matter-of-factly, with little regard for who might be listening in. The only thing that seemed to excite her about any of this was me. I recognized that tone, that attitude. This was her world; she lived it, there was no need for sensationalism. While I certainly related to that, it did nothing to set me at ease.

“So how’d you get from vampire to sorcerer?” I asked cautiously. Could I really keep denying everything in the face of all that?

“Ghosts  talk – in fact they talk a hell of a lot, especially lately – and all they’ve been talking about is you: the sorceress who’s bonded with the new Nosferatu king.”

I cast a guarded, wary look around the block. Cars were rolling by us in a steady rush-hour stream, but it was otherwise empty of pedestrians. Thank god.

“You talk to the dead?” I said, lowering my voice to just above a whisper, hoping she would take the hint that these were not things we spoke about glibly in public.

She nodded, but ignored my vocal cue. “Listen, mostly. It’s my gift and my curse.”

I was stunned. Nothing I had read in either sorcerer or Nosferatu texts had mentioned this.  Yet I knew other beings, like weres, existed. Both Keel and Bruce had spoken of other kinds of supes in passing, just not in any manner that suggested there was even a remote likelihood I’d ever encounter one.

“What are you?” I asked.

She grinned; it was friendly and welcoming and made me feel guilty about my immediate and continued distrust of her. “Just a regular standard-issue human being, but instead of being born with five senses, I got a sixth. Like those people who get an extra finger or toe or parts for both sexes. Mine’s a sensitivity to the supernatural.”

“Doesn’t that put you in danger?”

“Not if no one supernatural knows about it.”

“But you’re telling me,” I argued. Was she stupid or really just this naive?

“You’re not just anyone, Mills.”

My reply died on my tongue. I was positive I hadn’t told her my name yet. No matter how I framed it. This was really, really bad. If spirits could talk, and certain people could hear them, then it didn’t matter where Ephraim and Bruce tried to blend me back into society, I’d always be courting disaster and putting innocents at risk. I’d have to change my name, dye my hair, have plastic surgery, move to some remote, uninhabited island, but even then –

The dreams. Keel. Our connection.

My heart constricted. What kind of life was I going to have? I practically saw my remaining freedom evaporating right before my eyes. If they shut me away in some remote location, far from even humans, that would just be another form of prison. Safety, at the expense of… well… everything.

“How do the spirits know all this stuff?” I wondered aloud.

Lucia hesitated. When she finally spoke, her words were quiet and directed at the ground. “Your victims have voices. It’s not just humans who have souls. All creatures do.”

I blanched and took a wobbly step backwards. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. I knew what I’d done, but it sounded so perfectly awful coming from Lucia’s mouth. It barely registered that her tone was more anxious than accusing.

“I should go,” I said numbly, unsure of how to explain away all those who’d died at my hands and desperately wanting to put as much distance between myself and the strange girl who knew far too many of my secrets as possible.

“Wait,” Lucia said. “You don’t have to go. I don’t think you’re evil.”

“I don’t know what I am,” I admitted, then I turned and started walking, leaving her standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring after me. I probably should have hung back and found out more about this network of the gossiping dead, and made Lucia swear she wouldn’t tell anyone – human or spirit – that she’d met me, but I just wanted to get home, to where things still kind of made sense.

While I didn’t think it was possible to be suffocated by one’s own secrets, that didn’t mean all my carefully constructed lies weren’t crumbling down around me like poorly mortared walls. And all it took was one lone teenage girl and a bunch of bitter ghosts, who no doubt blamed me for their own unfortunate circumstances.

Yet, there was barely time to worry about, or them, because the sun was already setting in the late-afternoon sky, and there’d be no chance of avoiding sleep for a second night in a row.

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