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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14. Grounded

Chapter 11: Grounded

After two hours at my desk, hunched over my laptop, surfing science websites on the Internet, I had a pair of aching shoulders and only a marginally better understanding of the biology of the Nosferatu transition and what effects those physical alterations to Keel’s brain had likely had on his personality. More aggression, and less of everything that made the old Keel who he was. But that was only half of it: there was no way to know what fundamental changes the bond had wrought, and how those changes would react with our already-supernatural physiologies.

By the time I sat back and closed the lid of my laptop, I couldn’t even remember what I’d been hoping to find. My brain was swimming in medical terms and the hallucinatory haze of sleep deprivation. It was getting harder to hold onto my thoughts. I glanced longingly at my bed. I needed to sleep, really sleep, and have my own dreams.

How long can this go on for? I wondered, as I raised both arms above my head for a slow stretch. My back cracked audibly.

I stood up, stretched again, then walked across the room to my window. My muscles were tight and angry, as if I’d just run a marathon. I slid back the curtains and looked out onto a dark street. Only a few of the lights in the neighbouring apartment building were on. It was not yet human time. It was still the vampire hour.

What would happen if I closed my eyes? Another experiment? Something worse? I didn’t dare risk it. Not again tonight anyway. I feared what Keel might do and, even more, I feared that it might change me irreparably.

I shut the curtains and turned back to my room. The lamp on the nightstand along with the boxy furniture cast murky, rectangular shadows across the floor. I crossed to the doorway, flipped on the overhead light, then returned to my desk and powered my computer back up. Why had I shut it off? When? I couldn’t remember. I only recalled closing the lid.

While it booted back up, I made my bed. I needed to keep moving, doing, thinking: if I didn’t, I’d nod off or lose more time. Back at my desk, I typed “how long can humans go without sleep?” into the browser window and scrolled through the search results. There didn’t seem to be any definitive answer, but apparently seventy-two hours was enough for sleeplessness to start having ill effects. Most reports had people surviving eleven to eighteen days. Would my sorcerer constitution give me more resilience? How long had it been already?

I tried to count the days on my fingers; it took three attempts. It shouldn’t have been that hard.

I was losing it. Definitely losing it. Not good.

I got up again, ran my hands through my hair and paced back to the window, then over to the closet. I opened the door. A fresh spark of anger shot through me as my eyes were immediately drawn to the empty patch of rug where the other Nosferatu artifacts had been. But my exhaustion quickly doused it. It was like I’d been awake for a million years and been asked to balance millions of fates on my shoulders. And the latter wasn’t that far from the truth.  All I really wanted to do was to disappear for a while. It was all so much noise in my head. I stepped into the closet, my clothes rippling softly around me as the hangers slid to the sides to accommodate the newest addition. I stood there for a moment, expecting my claustrophobia to kick in. When it didn’t, I sank to the floor in the corner where the Nosferatu things had been. There, I curled my knees up tight to my chest and then leaned forward and pulled shut the double folding doors. A thin edge of light crept in beneath them.

In a few hours I was going to have to talk to Keel’s father – my kidnapper, the one who’d set all of this in motion – and I could barely think straight. I dropped my head to my knees and sobbed, unsure I’d ever felt this out of control, not even during the worst days of my imprisonment. I’d had hopeless moments at the compound, but I’d never, ever, lost myself. Of course, having Keel around had helped – even though that was doing nothing but biting me in the ass now.

Why hadn’t we listened? Why had we been so sure we’d known better? It ate at me that Ephraim had been right, that the Nosferatu and sorcerer law books had been right, that all that centuries-old xenophobia was justified.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, I chided myself, even though I was pretty sure I’d do it all over again, if I was back with that Keel again. Without him, would I ever have tapped into my magic or learned how to wield it? Would I have escaped from the compound? Unlikely.

Nothing was black and white. Nothing was easy.

I lifted my face to wipe my eyes on my pajama top and then tilted my head back against the wall. So tired… so desperately tired…

I knew I should probably be recording the latest dream in my journal, but I couldn’t work up the energy to care. I just needed to shut my eyes. Surely nothing bad could happen if it was just for a few seconds.

***

The hours that followed were like something out of a surrealist film. I drifted in and out of consciousness in that tiny, cramped space, my shirts and jackets tickling my forehead. I blipped between my body and Keel’s, never staying in either long enough to get any real sense of what was going on. In Keel’s world, I saw glimpses of Boras and Arthos and more of those boring compound spreadsheets. I also got a long-enough look at Keel’s chambers to see that both the dead body and the remaining prisoners had been removed. Keel didn’t attempt to communicate again, or if he did, it got lost in my rapid wake-sleep cycle, which was fine by me.

When I stopped seeing whatever Keel was looking at and started seeing myself during the flashes, I knew he was sleeping; the sun must have risen. Envy made a brief appearance – damn him for being able to sleep, and damn him for only ever dreaming of the happy times! – but my awareness began and ended there. I was still cycling between two bodies, two beings, two lives, two worlds.

And I couldn’t hold onto either one, not until I felt someone shaking my leg, dragging me back up to the surface, as if I’d been drowning. I blinked my eyes until they adjusted to the light and Bruce’s face wobbled into focus.

“Hey, hey,” he said. “Are you alright? What are you doing in there? I was starting to think you took off again.”

“I don’t know,” I offered, weakly. “I feel like I’m never alone anymore.”

“The dreams?” Bruce asked.

I nodded. “They can be… intense,” I said. “Do you ever see what Ephraim sees when you sleep?”

Bruce shook his head. “Not usually. Only when something really bad is happening, or if he’s in danger.”

“Is that why I’m seeing Keel? Because he needs me?” Yesterday all my secrets had still seemed so important; today, exhaustion and Keel’s experiment had robbed them of much of their value.

“We don’t know,” Bruce said, and I heard sympathy in his words. “It could be, but it could also be because of the distance between you two. Ephraim and I meet once or twice a week, to prevent our bond from beginning to exert its force.”

“You mean you guys knew this was going to happen to me when you brought me here?” I said incredulously, shoving his hand away from my leg. “Why wouldn’t you tell me? Why would you make me move so far away if you knew I was going to go through this?” Each word was louder than the last. They knew the whole time that the distance itself could kill me, and yet this is what they chose to do. “I hate you. Both of you.”

“We’d hoped it wouldn't have the same effect on you. We’d hoped that because you and Keel had bonded before he completed the transition, that his accepting of his Nosferatu lineage would sever or irreparably damage the connection. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“I’m not a guinea pig, you know.” I refused to look at him, afraid I would slug him if I did.

“We’re all just trying to do the best we can with the cards that we’ve been dealt,” Bruce said. “This thing you’re caught in the middle of is inexplicably dangerous and complicated and virtually unprecedented. You need to understand that.”

“You think I don’t?” I roared. “I’m the one living it twenty-four-seven. I’m the one who can’t even escape it when I shut my eyes.”

Bruce fell silent. Over the last few days something had changed between us, and in that moment I felt it profoundly. When he finally spoke again, it was only to relay information. “Ephraim called. He says he’s close to getting his hands on something that’ll help in the short term. He thinks he’ll be able to get it here by tonight.”

“Good,” I snapped. But was it good? What effect would severing our connection have on Keel’s reign? What if Garstatt had the answers, but Lucia and I didn’t hear back until it was too late? What if I made another wrong decision? When had my life become a ticking time bomb? “I need to get dressed,” I told Bruce and looked pointedly at the door.

“You are going to survive this,” he assured me as he left my room. “You’re too strong not to.”

I crawled out of my closet and closed the bedroom door behind him. Where ever that strength was, I needed it now.

A quick look at the clock told me it was 11:00 a.m. I still had a few hours before Lucia was due to arrive.

I dug my journal out of my duffel bag and made a few sloppy notes about Keel’s experiment. It barely looked like my handwriting.

When I was done, I flipped to the next blank page and wrote:

Keel  What do you want from me?

I lifted my pen from the sheet, then dropped it back down, repeating that motion twice more, before I laid the pen on my desk and closed the journal. There were more words, more questions, but they all depended on the answer to that first one. Of course, Keel couldn’t reply; he couldn’t see through my eyes.

I tucked my journal back into the duffel bag and then got down on my hands and knees and shoved it ever further under the bed. Now there was no chance Bruce or Ephraim would spot it from the door; I just hoped that since they’d tossed my bedroom yesterday, they wouldn’t do it again so soon.

Maybe Lucia would agree to keeping the charred remains of the Nosferatu text at her house; she’d likely have no problem disguising it amongst all her mother’s other old tomes.

Lucia… I needed to get ready.

I got back up and wandered out into the living room, collecting weapons and other difficult–to-explain items along the way. I tucked them into the hall closet and then made a sweep for more. Two hours later, the place looked about as normal as it could. This was for Bruce and Ephraim, not Lucia: they were the ones who needed to believe she was clueless and human.

Bruce emerged from his bedroom just as I finished showering. I didn’t know if he’d been hiding from me or from the sounds of housework. Both were equally likely. “What’s going on?” he asked, as he walked past me towards the kitchen.

“My new friend’s coming over. You know, the one I was with yesterday. You guys made such a big deal about it, I thought you should meet her.”

Bruce looked confused. I could tell he wanted to be angry – I was grounded, after all – but I knew he was also supposed to be one-hundred percent supportive of any and every human thing I attempted to embrace, and making friends, human friends, was right near the top of that list. “I don’t know...” he started.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “Ephraim only said I can’t go out. We’ll be here the whole time. You can supervise.”

I was actually counting on the fact that he wouldn’t, and I hoped that by putting the offer out there, the whole sudden visit would seem that much more innocent. Bruce would have a meltdown if he knew we were planning on contacting the ghost of my dead kidnapper – never mind, that we were going to do it here, where I lived. But Lucia had sworn it was urgent and this grounding was indefinite. It was this or break my word. This or lose my only true ally. I could already imagine Bruce reaming off all the sorcerer rules I’d be breaking and the number of ways I was compromising my safety.

“Don’t be surprised if I take you up on that.” I’d heard that tone multiple times over the last forty-eight hours; it meant that Bruce was done giving me a hall pass, even on the little things.

“Feel free,” I replied, nonplussed. Lying, it turned out, got easier with practice.

* * *

By the time Lucia buzzed up from the front lobby, I was marginally more together. I still felt dazed, but I hadn’t tripped over anything or lost my balance since my third cup of coffee an hour earlier. All things considered, that was probably the best I could hope for.

“Hey,” I greeted her, after unlatching all three locks and swinging open the front door.

She looked me up and down, frowned, and then stepped inside. “You look like crap.”

“Um, thanks?”

“Just calling it like I see it,” Lucia said, unzipping her coat. Once she’d removed it, she shoved her gloves and hat into the sleeves and deposited it on the bench next to mine.


Of course, she was right. I did look like crap. My yoga pants and oversized sweatshirt simply weren’t cutting it next to her long-sleeved, knee-length velvet dress. She was a vision in burgundy and I was a slob with sacks under my eyes. I let her comment go.

“Want to meet Bruce?” I asked.

“Sure,” Lucia said and followed me down the hall.

I knocked on the door of the workout room. “Bruce, Lucia’s here!” I announced.

I expected to see Bruce in his sweats and T-shirt, but he was wearing jeans and a brown wool sweater. He hadn’t been working out; he’d been doing something in his office. “Nice to meet you,” he said, extending his hand. I could tell he was searching for any signs that she wasn’t who I said she was. “How’d you meet Mills?”

Damn! We hadn’t planned for that type of interrogation. If Bruce was going to test us by double checking whether our stories matched, we were done for.

“We go to the same school,” Lucia said. “Or rather, did. But we really only got to know each other after getting stuck in line together at Starbucks last week. New barista – brutal.”

It sounded so mundane, so real; it was perfect.

Bruce looked between her and me. “I guess that means you won’t be helping me convince her to cut back on the caffeinated beverages.”

“Uh… no,” Lucia countered. “Nagging isn’t really in my job description.”

Bruce chuckled, and I knew then that she'd withstood his scrutiny. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Lucia. Have fun.” Then he turned to me. “You’re still grounded, remember. So stay in the apartment.”

“Can we at least go up to the roof?” I asked. Our building had a rooftop patio with some greenery and a few communal barbecues; it was largely abandoned at this time of year. It was the only place I could think of where we could get a bit of privacy and where Bruce might actually let me go. “I’ll take my cellphone and if you don’t trust me, you can come up and check. If I’m not there, you can ground me forever. Okay?”

“Why do you want to go up the roof?” He was suspicious again.

“Because I’ve been cooped up in here since last night; I had another bad sleep, and I could really use the fresh air.” Bruce knew I was exhausted and if I couldn’t appeal to his trust, perhaps I could convince him by making it seem like I was actually trying to play into the human charade this time.

“What if I promise we won’t go anywhere else?” Lucia piped in.

Bruce wrinkled his forehead, completely sideswiped by her question. “Fine. You can go up to the roof.” Then he turned to me again. “But absolutely no funny business, Mills. You understand?”

“I understand,” I parroted back, “and don’t say ‘funny business,’ it makes you sound about a hundred years old.” I grabbed Lucia’s arm and pulled her towards my bedroom.

“Are you trying to push your luck?” Bruce hollered after me.

I shrugged and left him staring at an empty hallway.

“I thought we were going up to the roof?” Lucia said.

“Soon,” I told her, as I shut my bedroom door behind us. “But first," I said, lowering my voice. "I need you to tell me everything you can about this ghost.”

There was no way I was meeting Keel’s father blind, not for a second time.

Lucia didn’t answer me right away. She just turned in slow circles, like she had when she'd been talking to the ghosts in the park, and took in my room.

“Not what I imagined,” she stated, when she was done.

“I’m getting rid of this stuff,” I said, bluntly.

Lucia raised an eyebrow.

“For that exact reason: it belongs to someone who doesn’t exist anymore.” I pulled my one and only straight-A report card off the wall where I’d pinned it when Bruce and I had first moved in, crumpled it in my palm and tossed it at the garbage can. I missed by half a foot and it rolled beneath my desk.

‘You’re wrong,” Lucia said. “She’s still here; she’s just different now. You have to make peace with that.”

“I like it better when you’re more snarky and less wise.”

“Then stop deflecting.”

“Why are we even talking about this?” I asked, crossing my arms across my chest. “I thought you were here about a ghost.”

“I am. But anyone can see that you’re losing it. I’m just worried.”

I turned away. Some things were easier to say when you didn’t have to look a person in the eye while saying them. “I am too,” I admitted. “And I don’t know what to do.”

I walked over to my desk, sat down, and hit Shuffle on my laptop’s MP3 player. I motioned to Lucia to grab a seat on the bed.

“In case Bruce is trying to listen in,” I explained, nodding at my laptop.

“Paranoid much?”

“In this household you have to be.”

“Sucks.”

“Yeah it does,” I said with a sigh. “Now, are you going to tell me about this ghost or not?”

“He showed up not long after I got home, right after dinner. Insisted that I get you right away – that the two of you needed to talk.”

“What did he look like?” I asked. Lucia could not only hear the dead and speak to them, but she could see them too.

“Like a vampire: tall, pale, dead-like but not dead. Or, in his case, dead-like but actually dead, yet still sentient, if we’re gonna get specific. But that wasn’t what made him so creepy – I’ve been seeing vamps and other supes since I started seeing the dead. This one was different. He hung around my window all night, then tailed me the entire way here. At least he shut up once I told him I was going to get you.”

“What was he saying before that?” I leaned towards her in my chair.

“Nothing really," Lucia said, fidgeting with the hem of her dress. "Just anything that he thought would get me here.”

It was obvious my last question had made her nervous, but I opted not to pry. "And where is he now?”

“No idea. I left him outside the lobby. Persistent or not, he’s never lived here, so he can’t come in.”

“And you're sure you don’t know what he wants?”

“Nope,” Lucia said. “He wouldn’t tell me, not even when I explained that he’d have to tell me to tell you anyhow. Stubborn dead coot.”

“Sounds like Keel’s father,” I said, though the reminiscence was far from warm. “I guess we’d better go get this over with.”

“Thank you,” Lucia said, standing up. She appeared to be as anxious about what we were about to do as I was, which was odd.

“But you have to promise that when this is all done you’re going to tell me the real, full deal about ghosts, okay?”

Lucia looked uncertain, but eventually acquiesced. “Like you said, I’m already in this deep, right?”

“Right,” I agreed, and stood up. “Okay, let’s go do this thing.”

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