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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10. Ill Communication

 

Chapter 7: Ill Communication

 

I thought I might have a hard time disappearing back into my bedroom after lunch, but as it turned out, Bruce actually suggested it.

“You still look tired,” he told me. He’d traded relief for concern again, shortly after I’d finished my salad.  “Are you sure there isn’t more to this than you’re telling me?”

“No,” I said, drawing the word out into a yawn, though not a big enough one to look fake. “I’ve just been feeling under the weather, that's all. But I’ve got my appetite back now. So, it looks like I've kicked whatever it was.”

Bruce gave me a scrutinizing look. I stared back at him openly, as if I had nothing to hide. Lying had become easier once my reasons for keeping secrets weren’t purely selfish ones. If I didn’t keep them, Keel wouldn’t just be battling the side effects of the bond: he could be facing down a paranoid, bloodthirsty mob of sorcerers as well.

“If you’re still feeling off tomorrow, we’d better call Ephraim,” Bruce said. “Illness is extremely rare among sorcerers. This could be a sign of something else going on.”

Crap. That couldn’t happen. It’d ruin everything.

“I’m fine,” I assured him, as I shoved my chair back and stood up. If my lies were the elephants in the room, they were pushing its walls to the point of near splintering.     

I went back to bed with a mission, rejuvenated not only by my decision to take this situation by the reins, but by the itching anxiety that the threat of bringing Ephraim into it evoked. He wouldn’t understand; he wouldn’t even try to. He’d simply see this as another problem to be solved, in the most perfunctory way possible. I needed to try to repair this mess before he got dragged back into it.

Of course, I had no idea what “repair” meant, but I knew it would have to begin with either communicating – a thought that both repelled me and made my heart thump furiously against my ribcage – or by putting an end to these dreams, for both of us.

Despite the uncertainties, this was the most right I’d felt in a long time. I had purpose again, a raison d'être.

I set my alarm for 7 a.m. instead of dusk. I’d been avoiding Nosferatu Keel, but not anymore.

If we could still communicate through the bond, I doubted it’d be during the cavalcade of disjointed memories. Realistically, the only Keel I had any chance of talking to was King Keel. The Keel of here and now.

While I still feared him, I no longer feared the manifestation of him that appeared when I slept. We remained separated by a considerable distance in the waking world, and I’d gone into Keel’s head enough times now to realize that whatever the nature of the psychic link was, it wasn’t inherently dangerous, outside of pitching emotional shrapnel and the occasional hallucination. And that was something I was just going to have to learn how to weather.

As I drifted off to sleep, my room faded and was replaced with Keel’s — his old one, not the black-on-black travesty he occupied now, with all its gloss and sharp edges. It spoke more to his father’s personality than his own; of course, he’d only just transitioned so maybe he hadn’t had time to redecorate yet. Unless that was just what Nosferatu royal chambers looked like. There was so much about the vampires I still didn’t know.

Keel was sprawled leisurely across his bed watching me pluck books from his heaving, overstuffed bookshelf. Many of the tomes were ancient; the leather they were bound in was cracked and crumbling after centuries of use. I slowly flipped through each volume before gently putting it back in its place. I’d scoured Keel’s library often, so I couldn’t immediately pinpoint the day I was watching. My interest in his people and culture matched his interest in the human world, but for vastly different reasons; mine had begun with planning my escape, but later became all about saving him.

Eventually, I returned with one of the newer volumes and deposited it on the bed in front of him—us. It sank into the down duvet. “You want me to translate this?” Keel said. Most of the Nosferatu texts – even the more modern ones – were written in vamphyrric.

Dream Me nodded, and I marvelled at the serious expression on her face. This knowledge had seemed so important back then, even though it’d ultimately proved useless. But now… maybe there’d be something of worth in this recap, provided the dream didn’t change the sets too soon.

“Do you even know what this is?” Keel asked, sounding stunned. He wasn’t complaining about the size of the book, but its contents.

“It’s a book about Nosferatu physiology.” The pictures inside had given it away. Languages may differ, but medical drawings were more or less universal.

Keel hesitated. While I couldn’t see his face, I knew what memory this was now and still remembered his expression from that day: deep-seated wariness. It was one thing to reveal the layout of the compound, but enlightening me to the Nosferatu’s potential physical weaknesses was a whole other level of betrayal. I knew in the beat before he made his decision that he was thinking of the consequences, should his father find out. The heir apparent, a traitor. In hindsight, he’d been right to worry: he had woefully misjudged the king at every single turn, and it’d almost cost us both our lives.

“Okay,” he said, relenting, and picked up the book. “But don’t make me regret this.”

It was a warning, not a threat and I promised I wouldn’t – yet I’d also crossed my fingers behind my back, as childish as that was. At the time, I’d been willing to do whatever was necessary to escape, period.

The biology lesson continued. Despite what I’d believed to be rather crude medical science – just thinking of how Boras had used dozens of slimy, squirming maggots to disinfect my neck wound en route to the compound was enough to turn my stomach, even now – the Nosferatu had actually done a significant amount of research into how their bodies worked. When we got to the part about the transition, and the changes the Nosferatu underwent during it, my attention ratcheted up. It was obvious that Keel had read this particular part often: he stopped translating and simply started explaining it to me – in depth.

While I didn’t have his photographic memory, I intended to take as much of this info back to the waking world as I could. When I’d been imprisoned in the compound, there had been no way to retain all of it – especially the intricate medical details and terminology – but now I could scribble it all down in my journal when I woke up. Meaning I could cross-reference it later against any up-to-date human research I could find on the web, which was something Keel and I had not had at our disposal back then.

There were few parts of half-vampire's physiology the transition didn’t affect. To start, there were the surface changes: the corpselike complexion, the rapid balding, the lengthening of the bones and fingernails, the distinct alteration in body odor. Was Keel like that now? All ghastly? Riding along as part of him, I hadn’t had much chance to look. While, contrary to the stories, the Nosferatu did have reflections, they weren’t big on mirrors. I'd never seen a single one anywhere in the compound.

Those changes were only the start: the transition altered and reorganized the vampire’s internal organs as well. The stomach shrank and fine-tuned itself to retrieve all the nutrients necessary from blood and blood alone; the heart slowed its rhythm to less than half that of an average human; body temperature fell in accordance with the lowered heart rate; and then there were the myriad fundamental changes to the brain.

I remembered getting a bit lost as Keel returned to translating from the book, launching into a part where large, unfamiliar human words mingled with the vamphyrric ones. This time, I was ready for them: I didn’t need Keel’s explanation about how Nosferatu medicine and research was based on the science and techniques used by humans topside.

I listened to what we were saying as carefully as I could, refusing to give myself over to frustration or distraction. I couldn’t believe my luck at landing in this memory at this exact moment, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to squander it.

Keel was explaining how the hypothalamus and amygdala were double the size in full-blooded Nosferatu, and how that in turn resulted in the severe contortion of the hippocampus. Additionally, the ventral tegmental area shrank and the pituitary gland swelled up, at least during the growth spurt portion of the transition. Then these areas levelled back out. I wanted to stop him repeatedly and grill him about what each of those specific areas did, but since that was impossible, I concerned myself solely with the words, rolling their syllables over and over again in my head quietly as if they were a mantra, while still keeping half my attention focused on what we were saying – in case there were more terms to be captured and catalogued.

But the more Keel talked, the more my newfound hope wavered. His whole brain had rewired itself. How was I ever supposed to make sense of this, when I doubted even the world’s top neurosurgeon could?

I was snapped out of my thoughts and back into the here and now when everything went black. Panic briefly wound its icy, constricting tendrils around my chest, before reason kicked in and I was left with only a fierce but bearable sense of foreboding. Calm down, I told myself. This is nothing new. This is just Keel waking up. A moment later, I was consumed by the mindless Nosferatu hunger – an overload of stimulus that, when juxtaposed against Keel’s sensationless dreams, left me reeling.

There was no lingering between the sheets either. We were out of bed and dressed in a fraction of the time it would take a human. I honestly don’t know how Keel did it: the hunger pangs were crippling – a dozen, twisting sword blades stabbed in my gut. If our roles had been reversed, I was sure I’d still have been trying to get my limbs to cooperate, or perhaps I’d simply have started gnawing on the furniture. Keel seemed to have a specific destination in mind, however, and when combined with our raging appetite, it freaked me right out. But since emotions fuelled both my magic and the bond, I figured that wasn’t the worst thing to be.

Perhaps I can use this.

Five minutes later, we were in yet another unfamiliar part of the compound: the infirmary. Like the showers and the kitchen, it was a nondescript, utilitarian tile room; the key difference was its random assortment of semi-modern medical equipment. But there were no patients here, and no doctors. It looked barely used.

Keel navigated himself around a bulky 1980s-era X-ray machine as he made his way to one of the cupboards on the far side of the room. Inside were six smallish, black duffle bags. A chill scurried through me as our eyes landed on them. Boras always came to my cell toting one of these when Keel’s father left me grievously injured.

Once he had it, we were bee-lining for the elevators. Our hunger felt as if it were about to take corporeal form and chew its way out of us. Yet as the elevator burrowed deeper into the earth, my panic made a triumphant comeback. I resisted the temptation to try to extricate myself from this grim business and wake up. It wasn’t like the bond would release me before I was a screaming, shaking mess anyway; it hadn’t during my last two outings with King Keel.

And that was coming. I was sure of it. This hunger was not a calm thing. It was a caged beast.

As we closed in on my doppelganger’s cell, Keel’s boot falls quickened, pounding in time to the dread in my heart. Dinner was about to be served. In some manner that required a first-aid kit.

“Keel, no! Don’t! Please!” I hollered out mentally across the bond without even thinking about what I was doing. I’d meant to attempt communication, but not like that.

Even now, you’re still making the same rookie mistakes, I chided myself.  Acting without thinking. Isn’t that what got us here in the first place?

Keel stopped, and slowly scanned the prison.

Had I done that?! Had he heard me?! My heart skipped a beat.   

Keel shook his head, as if to clear it, and took the final three steps to my doppelganger’s cell. No one was guarding her door as Arthos had once guarded mine. The only person she was important to was Keel.

“Hey, can you hear me?” I asked silently, curious to see if I could recreate what I believed had just happened. As I did, I imagined our grey matter huddled side-by-side in his skull.

Keel unlatched the deadbolt on the cell’s door. I’d heard that exact metallic click and clunk hundreds of times when I’d been captive here, and it always made me shiver.

“Keel?” I repeated, more forcefully. Could my words be getting lost in the clamorous din of the hunger? Maybe something other than my shout had drawn his attention in the cellblock.

As we stepped into my old digs, my doppelganger’s dull, lifeless eyes swung towards us, but otherwise she didn’t move. As she sat stock-still on the mattress, like a wax mannequin, I found myself wondering if the Nosferatu ever missed having prey that fled or fought back. Or was it like with humans, who were just as happy, if not more so, to have their food conveniently pre-packaged and delivered. Forget the thrill of the hunt.

We dropped the medical bag on the floor, where it landed with a dull thud, and then sat down on the filthy mattress beside the girl. Dried, flaking blood streaked her cheek where Keel had rent his claws the day before; it was still too soon for any sign of healing. Her neck and clothes were red and crusty too, and unlike me, she hadn’t even bothered to try to clean herself up afterwards. She seemed as “gone” as the Asian guy had been; then again, most humans weren’t mentally prepared to find themselves thrust to the bottom of the food chain. She didn’t even acknowledge Keel’s presence beside her; her head remained pointed at where we’d entered. The smell of her blood – not fresh, but constant and ever-present – made our fangs ache. I wanted it just as badly as Keel did, and I loathed myself for that weakness – bond-inflicted or not. As we fought to hold onto our crumbling self-restraint, our hands and legs began to twitch from the effort. We were going to crack, and soon.

What is Keel waiting for?

I got my answer a few seconds later when we wrapped our left arm around the girl and pulled her down onto the mattress. She was both pliant and compliant, allowing herself to be moved as if she were a poseable doll rather than a living, breathing human being. Keel curled us around her, just as he’d done with me so many times. Jealousy bucked and I forcefully shoved it away. The girl’s body felt warm and soft against the cold of ours; it would have been kind of nice, if it weren’t for the throbbing, blinding need to bite into–

“Keel! Stop!” I wailed, realizing what was about to go down.

Keel snapped his head forward like a snake and began worrying the back of the girl’s neck, just as Harck had done to mine on the night of my kidnapping. Another day, another scar, another delicious, red-hot shot of blood ambrosia spilling into our mouth, stripping away reason and the remainder of our fragile self-control, right along with my revulsion.

But Keel paused, unclenching his jaw before he'd downed even two gulps. Blood spurted from the gruesome gash onto the mattress and into the girl’s hair in a waterfall of red. Nothing about this scene should have been inviting or appetizing, yet everything about it was.

“No,” Keel whispered, directly and decisively. "I will not." Then he sank his fangs back in.

The girl tensed and screamed, a plaintive, pained wail that Keel allowed to continue even as his teeth ground deeper into her neck. Her howling tore me loose from the shock of his unexpected acknowledgement of my words and rooted me in the moment, in the feed. My wound had been savage and apparently Keel was going for authenticity here. Eventually the screaming died in a choked squeak and my doppelganger went limp in our arms, but even then he didn’t stop drinking. “She’s dying,” I thought at him in desperation, even as my own brain – or was it the bond? – was urging me to shut up and enjoy the meal. What the hell? Was the time I spending with Keel in my sleep changing me? Could it? Neither the violence of Keel’s actions nor the bombshell of him speaking to me had bounced me out of the dream.

If I hadn’t been in Keel, where I could not only sense the girl’s thready but persistent heartbeat, but hear it also, I’d have sworn we’d killed her by the time we let her body crumple into the bloodsoaked mattress. I didn’t know if I felt relieved or sad, because her survival only meant this would continue. For both of us.

Keel stayed to dress the girl’s wounds, but all the false gentleness that had preceded his attack was gone now. He moved mechanically, with purpose and function, but not an ounce of kindness. She’d have the necessary scar now and his immediate medical attention assured she’d remain alive to play me for yet another day. This should have pleased Keel, but he seemed disgruntled.

Then again, so was I. And that was just the start of it. He’d heard me. And he’d said “no.”

“Keel!” I barked again, hoping to get a few more words out of him, but he was busy tossing the unused bandages back into the bag. Then we were out of there, without another look back at our unconscious victim. This wasn’t how Keel had treated me: this was how his father had, which made zero sense. Keel dreamed of me, then woke up and abused my surrogate. Why?  Pieces were still missing from the puzzle.

Instead of returning the doctor’s bag to the infirmary, Keel brought it back to his room and kicked it under his bed. For easy access?  I tried to think what scar he might inflict next; he seemed to be going after the most visible ones first.

None were worse than the one Harck had given me, though, so I supposed that was a small mercy.

“Is the girl still alive?”

Keel whirled to face the intruder, already bristling. Boras was standing in the doorway, not quite in the room, but not in the adjoining hall either.

“I’m surprised you didn’t go down and check,” Keel sneered.

“Should I?” Boras’ eyes dropped to our shirt, so soaked with my doppelganger’s blood that it clung to our chest as if we’d just participated in a wet T-shirt contest in Hell. “Have you left another mess for me to clean up?”

“I cleaned up my own mess,” Keel said. “And in the future, knock and wait for permission before entering the royal chamber.”

Boras’ eyes shone with indignation. “Perhaps if you began acting more like a king, you’d earn that courtesy.”

I was taken aback by Boras’ admonishment. I’d obviously missed something on one of those nights I’d chosen not to sleep; last time I saw Boras he was still treading on the side of tolerance, if not respect. Now, he sounded as if he was well and truly done with putting up with Keel’s shit.

“She’s not dead,” Keel snapped. “You wanted me to stop draining people, and I have. The rest of it is not your concern. Now, if–”

“It is my concern if it’s getting in the way of your governance,” Boras interjected.

“And who exactly is suggesting that?” Keel asked, voice rising.

“You need to be out there on the throne – instilling some fear and obedience in your people – not sequestered in here with your books and obsessions. Might I remind you that the parties responsible for your father’s assassination have not been captured, and dissent is still high. To be blunt, there are doubts as to your fitness to rule.”

“And might I remind you,” Keel said, “that as my head of security, it’s your job to track down and apprehend my father’s killer. Not mine.”

“Your Majesty–”

“No, we’re done here. Leave me.”

Boras opened his mouth, then changed his mind and retreated from Keel’s chambers, shutting the door much harder than necessary behind him.

Once he was gone, we peeled off our wet shirt and blood-spattered pants and deposited them in a pile by the door, but not before drawing the sopping shirt up to our nose and inhaling deeply. Since Keel wasn’t moving at breakneck speed this time, it was easier to observe the transition's effects. He was definitely more colourless. In some places, his skin was partially translucent and tinged pale blue.

His limbs were definitely longer and thinner too; the bones that used to protrude mildly from his lanky knees, hips and elbows, now poked out in sharp relief, like a bunch of pointy objects covered in crepe paper. As he grew older, he’d bulk up some, but he’d always be rail thin; all the Nosferatu were. It was a look that suggested fragility – definitely not a vampiric quality.

Unfortunately there was still no way to catch a glimpse of his face, which was the part of him I most wanted – and dreaded – to see.

As it turned out, Keel’s day was surprisingly mundane, though living through it with him proved informative. While he stuck to his royal chambers, he was beginning to take on his kingly duties, and most of them were brutally boring. He assigned and re-assigned Nosferatu to various jobs and positions, worked out potential trajectories for the food supply – an area that highlighted the brutal impact his post-transition carnage had had on the human reserves – and dealt with countless other tasks all devoted to the day-to-day workings of the compound. At 3:00 a.m. we took a break from the books for a workout with Arthos – apparently Boras was busy “doing his job,” or so the message went. More likely, he was still pissed about earlier. Boras had a stubborn streak that rivalled my own.

Arthos defended himself against Keel’s blows better than I expected; limbs and weapons flew so fast at the start that I was instantly disorientated – just because I was getting the full input of Keel’s senses, didn’t mean my brain was capable of processing it all – but I soon grew to appreciate the cat-like reflexes with which our body fought. Humans had nothing on that, nor did sorcerers. In Keel, in that moment, I felt powerful and deadly and wholly Nosferatu, as if Keel and I had truly become one.

As the night wore on, I found myself halfway glad for his company, though after about a dozen more attempts to talk to him, I’d given up trying. It seemed my words could only get through sporadically at best, and only when I was screaming my head off, something the endless piles of paperwork and structured combat training didn’t really warrant.

When things got too dull – like the hour Keel spent going over the accounts for the self-storage facility that provided the human front for the compound – I tried to get a glimpse of his face, which was pretty much impossible when he seemed dead set on staring at the numbers. Soon, this became my new mini-obsession. Regardless of what he was looking at, I desperately – out of the corners of his eyes – tried to catch his reflection in something that wasn’t dark and murky.

Has his hair fallen out yet? I wondered. Have his eyes turned red? Will I even recognize him when I see him?

And how would feel about those changes, if and when I was finally confronted with them? The old Keel had loved me with my scars, as well as without them: would I still love him if he looked like a monster? I wanted to believe I wasn’t shallow, but the Nosferatu were… ghoulish. And they stank. Horribly.

Did this Keel stink?

Make things right first, I told myself, and worry about that later. Much easier said than done, and I was still struggling with it when my cellphone began beep-beep-beeping on my night table.

I cracked open my eyes; it was still dark outside. It felt strange and disconcerting to suddenly be all alone, to be receiving input from only my own senses. It was like stepping onto a too-quiet city street.

Still, not only had I managed to spend an entire night with King Keel, but I’d learned some stuff I could move forward with. I had a bunch of big brain-related words to get down on paper, to research later, and I’d even made some headway with the communication thing, though it hadn’t gone remotely as intended. Then there was the rest of it; I’d slept the better part of the last twenty-four hours and none of what had happened during that time had been documented yet.

I flipped on my lamp, shoved my feet into my slippers, and shuffled across my bedroom floor to retrieve my journal. I briefly glanced at my desk, but the chair looked hard and uninviting, so I slid back under the still-warm covers of my bed. I hadn’t been making notes for ten minutes, when that unrelenting weariness returned and my eyelids began droop, causing the words to contort on the page in front of me like dozens of tiny, impossibly limber gymnasts spilling from the end of my pen. It was as if I hadn’t slept at all. I swore, threw the sheets off once more, and stormed to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee.

It was critical that I got these dreams logged before Bruce woke up.

Then, I needed to find Lucia and convince her to help me.

I had some questions for the dead.

* * *

Chapter 8 will be dropping on Monday, May 6.

Thank you so much for reading! If you haven't already done so, please consider taking a moment to leave a comment and let me know what you think of the BLOOD MAGIC Saga so far. It'd tickle me pink.

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