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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8. Meal Substitution

Chapter 5: Meal Substitution

I ducked as Bruce swung the wooden pole he was wielding at my head. It was a clean dodge, but once down, I didn’t scuttle backwards fast enough. His foot shot out reflexively and kicked me off balance. To drive his point home, the tip of his weapon was jabbing at my chest a second later, just above my heart.

“Good form, right until the end. Remember, when proximity’s an issue, you need to pay attention with all five senses – and you need to move. Stillness is death.”

I shoved his weapon away from my body.

“I know,’ I sighed, slumping back on the mat. “Stillness is death. Distraction is death. Compassion is death. But knowing isn’t the same thing as executing.”

“That’s why we’re working on your execution.”

“No. We’re doing an exercise,” I said, exasperated. “I’m never going to fight anyone with a sword or a mace or any of this junk, not when I have magic.” This had become a recurring argument between Bruce and I since the move, one neither of us was willing to compromise on.

“Mills, I’m not going to talk to you about this again.” Bruce’s words were thick with warning.

I propped myself up on my elbows and gave him a hard stare. “Are you sure? All you do lately is talk and direct and report. Why stop now?”

“That’s harsh,” Bruce said. “If I’m repeating it, it’s only because it’s important.” He walked to the edge of the mat and towelled off his face. The back of his T-shirt was wet with sweat. We’d been working out for well over an hour. “I know you’ve been through a lot, but you don’t know everything.”

“So I should die, rather than use the one thing that could save me?”

Bruce turned and fixed me in his sights. “No, you should train, so magic is a last resort.”

“Does Ephraim use his magic as a last resort?”

“I told you we weren’t going to have this conversation,” Bruce snapped. “You know why things are the way they are.”

“No, not really. I know why a bunch of stuffy old sorcerers think this is how it has to be. But what if they’re wrong? Admit it: you’ve had doubts about that yourself, or you wouldn’t have given me those sorcery books.” My conversation with Lucia had left me unnerved, but it also got me thinking. Her family didn’t exactly hide their gifts – hello, psychic shop – but they protected themselves by only dealing with humans. Maybe there was a way I could do something similar, carve out a life like that – devoid of supernaturals, but not magic. It was a tiny sprig of hope in a wasteland, yet enough to convince me to hold off telling Bruce about Lucia. I was worried if I did, it’d be another thing he’d simply kibosh. I used to think Bruce was cool for an older guy, a bit of a badass even – he chopped off that vampire’s head in Ephraim’s safe house like it had been nothing – but now he tiptoed around everything. Perhaps Ephraim had put the fear of god in him, or maybe having me as his charge activated some dormant dad gene, but a lot of the time he was barely recognizable as the guy I first met at the safe house. And I hated it. I already had more than enough dads.

“Listen, when you’re eighteen, you can go out into the world and do whatever the hell you want. If that means taking on the League of Sorcerers, so be it. But until then, it is my sworn duty to protect you. From outside threats. And from yourself. And don’t forget, I’m not exactly in a position to defy your father.”

“But you guys are making Keel and I defy our bond,” I argued.

Bruce rejoined me at the centre of the mats and handed me a sword. “I know this is frustrating for you, but throw that frustration into your fight.”

I tightened my grip on the leather-bound hilt and got to my feet, all fury and determination. I felt the electric tendrils of magic snake through my veins in response. It would have been easy to cast my shield spell and be done with it, but I quashed that instinct and lunged at Bruce. He spun out of my way in a dodge that was a hundred times more graceful than any I’d ever managed. I took another wild swing at him; this time, he blocked my blow with his own sword, then attempted to use it to wrestle me to the floor. I slid out from beneath it and deked left, but Bruce was ready. He landed four quick blows that rattled the bones in my shoulder as I warded them off. This was our third weapon of the evening, and the temporary adrenaline that my anger had given me was already wearing off. I launched two more failed attacks, and soon found myself doing a lot more blocking than striking. When Bruce finally stopped the onslaught and called it a night, I hobbled over to the weapons rack, wiped down my sword and took a deep swig of water. Every single one of my muscles was wailing obscenities.

“What the hell?” I asked him, as I leaned against the wall, attempting to catch my breath. “I don’t think we’ve ever trained this hard.”

“Just wanted to make sure you get a good night’s sleep tonight,” he said.

“Right.” It definitely felt like more than that, but I was terrible at reading between the lines. Besides, I had enough problems of my own without worrying about Bruce’s too. He was a grown-up, and a damned tough one at that. He’d manage.

I tossed my towel in the hamper, then retired to the bathroom to collapse under the hot jets of the shower. The gentle, persistent rhythm of the water beating down on my skin was so soothing I almost fell asleep sitting beneath it, only sputtering back to full consciousness after getting a nose full of hot liquid. When I finished towel-drying my hair, I didn’t even bother changing into my pajamas or pulling back the sheets, I just fell onto the bed in my bathrobe and was out seconds later and —

… into Keel.

This is going to be a problem, I thought wearily, the worst of my dread temporarily cancelled out by my physical exhaustion. I’d been way too tired to make any conscious effort to pop into Keel, or even think of him during my last moments of wakefulness, yet the bond had still snapped me here like a magnet.

And this time I knew where here was: the compound, lower levels, where they kept the human cattle, where Keel’s father had kept me. We were walking alongside Arthos, Keel’s other right-hand man, scoping out the cells — but not for breakfast, fortunately. The mind-blanking hunger was well at bay; Keel had must have fed before I joined him. I supposed that was something to be thankful for.

“You need to find one you can live with,” Arthos was saying, and I quickly surmised this was a continuation of yesterday’s conversation with Boras about Keel’s little eating problem. As we moved through the prison, our eyes swept over the faces of the captives; we were trolling the aisles of the world’s most macabre supermarket.

“That one,” Keel said, but only after we’d walked through the entire facility twice. We were looking at a thin, dark-haired girl in her mid-twenties. My heart sank. Out of everyone housed down here, she looked the most like me. Arthos picked up on that as well.

“Are you sure this is just about blood?” he asked cautiously. It was a tone of his I recognized, but had never heard directed at Keel before. Until now, that shrewd reverence had been solely reserved for the previous king. Did this mean that Keel was finally stepping up into his role of ruler of the Michigan enclave of Nosferatu, or that he’d inherited his father’s mood swings and quick temper? Or both?

“What else would it be about?” Keel said brusquely, unlocking the cell door.

“You tell me.”

“You invited me to choose, and I’ve chosen, and now you’re not happy with my choice?” Anger coiled inside us.

Careful, Arthos, I thought uselessly. I was just a spectator here.

“No, Your Majesty,” Arthos said, stepping back into line just as quickly as he’d stepped out of it. “Of course, you may choose as you wish.”

Keel unchained the girl, led her out of her cell, across the prison and straight into my old one, which looked as if it hadn’t been touched since I’d been kept there: not even the stained mattress had been moved. I’d had to months to memorize those splotches and smears and dried, crusty blobs of errant food. They were instantly recognizable. So was what I was witnessing.

King Keel was recreating us.

The realization was depressing and sickening in equal measure, but it was the wallop of nonsensical jealousy it packed that really knocked me off balance. I didn’t want to be back there, prisoner and blood slave, but I was just as guilty of wanting the old Keel back as Keel seemed to be of wanting the old me. Wouldn’t I have used magic and everything else at my disposal to get that, if I’d believed it possible? Could it be that we weren’t so different even now? What if he was merely doing this out of some twisted sense of Nosferatu nostalgia? What other purpose could it have? It seemed to be an overly elaborate set-up for simply dining.

Arthos’ stiff, down-turned mouth told me he was thinking something similar.

The girl may have had a passing resemblance to me, but she had none of my spunk. Even once Keel finished attaching the shackles to her wrists, she just stood there mannequin-like, staring blankly at us — through us — as if she’d barely noticed the change in locale. We frowned at her.

Then, without warning, Keel lashed out, slashing four curled finger-claws down the woman’s pristine cheek. Blood blossomed out of a quartet of deep, weeping rivers in the wake of his claws, its scent exploding into the tiny cell like a smoke bomb. For a split second, horror and hunger and desire were absolutely indistinguishable from one another, as Keel’s body and my untethered consciousness reacted simultaneously.

I screamed and bolted upright, and kept right on screaming. My volume doubled when my hands flew to my face and felt a warm, unexpected, sticky wetness there.

I didn’t stop until Bruce flung open the door and turned on the lights, and even then the shaking persisted. I brought my hands down from my face and noticed blood dripping from my fingers. I gasped and frantically wiped them on the bedsheets, caring more about getting it off of me than Bruce seeing it.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asked. “What are you doing?” He looked concerned and bewildered. I stopped moving my hands.

“I—” I could still see globs of crimson congealed beneath the tips of my fingernails, and my bed looked like someone had been stabbed in it. I tentatively touched my cheek and found no wounds. Of course, now that I was starting to calm down, it made sense – or at least as much sense as any of this could make. There had never been any blood on my face, it’d been on my hand – Keel’s hand – and I’d accidentally wiped it there. Still, I had no idea how I was going to explain this.

“Mills, whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“I—” This time my voice cracked, and I knew I was about to cry. I couldn’t possibly think of what to tell Bruce while my brain was still stuck on what Keel and I had just done to that poor, helpless woman. Those last five seconds kept replaying themselves in my head in an endless, revolting loop.

Thankfully Bruce didn’t press the issue; he merely crossed the room to my bed and folded me into his arms. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” he said softly. But I wasn’t. That was the problem.

Sleeping was no longer safe. And without sleep…

I looked around my room; it was mostly decorated with stuff from my old bedroom at Fredrick and Estella’s house as if it were some stupid memorial for the girl I’d once been. The shiny Mardi Gras beads Anna had brought me from New Orleans hung strung over the edge of my vanity mirror and Mr. Dog, my favourite floppy threadbare pooch was guarding my laundry hamper just as he’d done for the better part of the last dozen years, regardless of where I lived. These things used to comfort me, they used to have the power to make anyplace feel like home, but now I wasn’t even sure why I’d dragged all those books and posters and trinkets over here: whatever attachment I’d had to them was long gone. Just like that old life felt like it belonged to someone else, so did this stuff.

In that moment, I made two decisions. One, that most of this crap was going to be sitting in a big, black garbage bag in the building’s trash room come Sunday night. After all, how was I supposed to move forward if I kept pining away for how things used to be. I couldn’t mourn forever, could I? Perhaps if I stopped building pointless, sentimental shrines to the past, I could start figuring out the future, no matter how ugly it might be. And two, I’d conduct one last experiment, then I’d come clean to Bruce, no matter what, about the bond being back.

“I think I’m okay now,” I said. “I really wish I could remember what I was dreaming about.”

Bruce dropped arms and gave me a dubious look.

“I’m sorry I freaked out so bad,” I continued.

“It’s okay,” Bruce said, yet his expression remained unchanged. “But keeping secrets isn’t. You know that.”

I nodded, but offered nothing else. One more day, I promised myself. Bruce stood and made his way back to the door. His flannel pajamas had a damp, dark red blotch on them; he must’ve sat down right on the bloody spot.

“And sorry about your pants,” I added.

Bruce turned, glanced at me, then at his pajama bottoms, then back at me again. “What are you talking about?”

He looked as confused as I felt.

Then it struck me: he couldn’t see it! That’s why he hadn’t mentioned the grue on my sheets, why he’d sat down right where it was: it was only visible to me. The bond wasn’t depositing blood in me or on me over impossible distances, it was just messing with my head and making me think it was. Though that, unfortunately, was just as scary.

“Mills?” Bruce turned my name into a question.

“Sorry, I’m okay, really. I promise.” Bruce clearly didn’t believe a word of that beyond “sorry,” but I could tell he was trying to give me the benefit of the doubt. I really owed him the same, but I hadn’t told anyone much about Keel and me, or the nuances of our connection, beyond the parts that were public knowledge or had been forced out of me, and I preferred it that way. Regardless of what Keel was now, that pre-transition time was special and sacred and ours. And once I spilled about the return of the bond, there’d be questions – so many prying, probing questions – and I’d have to give up some of those secrets. I wondered which, if any, I’d be able to hold back; if I told Bruce and Ephraim about the intricacies of our telepathic communication or even about what had happened when we bound our blood contract, they’d likely only consider this thing between us more dangerous and volatile. Maybe so much so that they’d go after Keel himself in an attempt to stop it once and for all, not caring that it would result in a “supernatural incident.” Perhaps they’d see it as preventing a larger one.

Or maybe they’d just execute me. Easier prey. Same result.

It wasn't like I was sanctioned or protected. I was only alive because of who my father was, and how persuasive he could be, but that reprieve might yet be revoked and I didn't put it past Ephraim to do it himself, especially if he felt it was necessary to keep the unseen world stable and at peace. Which meant, when all this came out, I'd have to tread very, very carefully.

Once Bruce left, I tried to make the not-really-there bloodstain go away, first with willpower, then with magic, but neither had any discernible effect. It may not have been real for anyone else, but the blood was absolutely real to me. My sheets stiffened as the blotches began to dry and harden. Gross.

Eventually I gave up on non-traditional methods and ripped the bedding from the mattress, and replaced it with a fresh set. Then I returned to the bathroom and started scrubbing under my fingernails. I couldn’t go back to sleep, not with what awaited me there.

Would Keel do the same thing to me if I returned to the compound? I wondered. Would he try to make me back into the Mills I was? Would he give me back all my most hideous wounds? I’d always wondered if he’d become as cruel as his father, and now that I had my answer, I wished I could send it back like a meal with bug in it. I used to think not knowing was harder than knowing. This turned that on its ear.

I sat down at my desk, but left my laptop shut. I’d spent all last night pouring through sorcery books and turned up nothing, and on only one hour of sleep, I didn’t have the energy to do it all over again for no better result. After a few minutes, I got up and returned with my journal. As much as I didn’t want to keep dwelling on what Keel had done and I had been complicit to, I knew I should get it all on paper while it was still fresh in my head.

When I was finished, I grabbed my phone and texted Mikey. If anyone could distract me from the crazy for a few minutes, it was my kid brother. Sure, it was late, way past his bedtime, but he might still be up. Sometimes he hid under the covers with a flashlight and read comics till the wee hours in the morning.

“Hey kiddo, you asleep?” I asked.

A minute passed, then two more, without reply.

I scrolled idly through the numbers in my phone as I waited. The list was pathetic: Estella, Fredrick, Mikey, Bruce, Ephraim, Anna, Jenny, and Mr. Smith. My entire world was eight people. Ten, if you included Keel and Lucia.

And what about Lucia and her ghosts? Could I trust them? Should I? Now I wished I’d stuck around and asked more questions: What were the dead saying exactly? What did they know? And could any of that help me with any of this? Maybe I should go back, I thought, maybe she’d still be willing to talk. It was kind of dumb that I’d been so desperate for answers, yet the moment I stumbled into someone who could potentially give me some, I ran away. Had Bruce and Ephraim really managed to suck me this deep into their paranoia?

I stayed at my desk long after the chair I was sitting in became uncomfortable. My lower back throbbed dully in protest, but I refused to return to the bed. Mostly because I was terrified of falling back asleep, which shouldn’t have been a concern, since every time my eyes sagged shut, even involuntarily, I watched and felt our claws rake across my not-quite-doppelganger’s face, and I was wide awake again.

I spent the remainder of those dark, restless hours formulating the next phase of my experiment. When the sun came up, I set my plan into motion. I started by venturing into the kitchen and scribbling a note on the magnetic white board on the fridge: Bruce  I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to try to get some more sleep. Can we cancel the tutor today? Thanks.  M Then I went back to my room and waited. Once the fiery ball in the sky crept to what I deemed to be a safe distance above the horizon, I closed my eyes. If I slept when Keel slept, then maybe…

I didn’t know what, but it had to be better than the alternative.

 

[Next chapter will be uploaded on April 15.

Please forgive us our brief hiatus, sometimes life gets in the way of art.]

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