Chapter 6: Compound Bound
Arthos barely spoke as he drove. His focus remained locked on the road; he kept to the highways wherever possible, pushing the speed limit only as much as he could safely risk without chancing getting pulled over. I knew he wasn’t worried about being ticketed – all Nosferatu who regularly ventured out into the human world had disguises and IDs that would hold up to law enforcement scrutiny – nor was he concerned about my having been reported missing. That simply wasn’t the way that Ephraim and Bruce and League of Sorcerers operated: they’d keep any search and rescue – or search and annihilate – efforts out of the official records. This was nothing like the time I’d been snatched away from Fredrick in the cabin in Nevada; my adoptive father was human, and he’d been ignorant of the ways of the supes, refusing till the end to believe that whoever had come for me out in the desert were anything more than standard-issue bad guys. What Arthos was worried about was making it back to the compound before dawn; the way he regularly eyed the digital clock on the dashboard and the corresponding road signs was a dead giveaway. Though Nosferatu could stay awake during the day, and Arthos had a particular talent for it, the sun itself would still pose a problem.
Unlike Keel, Arthos drove with the radio off. When I reached out to turn it on, his cold hand intersected mine before it even touched the knob, and he pushed it away. “I need to concentrate – and think,” he muttered.
I frowned at him, then went back to staring at the indistinct shapes of trees and farmhouses and the far-off dotted lights of unknown towns whizzing by the passenger window. I longed for my phone; at least then I could whittle away the hours playing games, but Arthos had tossed it into the river before we’d even left the city. Can’t have the sorcerers tracing its GPS, he’d explained. Of course he was right, but I hated watching it sink out of sight nonetheless. It made leaving the human world feel that much more final. With it gone, I was well and truly cut off from everyone I knew topside, and I wasn’t even underground yet.
I removed my gloves from my coat pocket and shoved one inside the other to form a makeshift pillow and leaned my head against the window. I counted the passing mile markers as if they were two-dimensional, stationary sheep, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke, Arthos’s focus had turned to the eastern horizon. While it still looked as dark as night to me, I realized that sunrise must be nearing, which meant we must be approaching our final destination – and Keel. I felt a tiny flutter in my chest, wings comprised of both anticipation and dread. It was an uncomfortable feeling, like what I imagined skydiving must be like in those final nervous seconds before you plummet out of the plane.
I straightened and stretched, at least as much the seat belt allowed, and wiped the sticky bleariness from my eyes, instantly regretting not removing my contacts before passing out. I idly wondered if I would ever get used to wearing them, until I remembered that where I was going, I wouldn’t need them anymore.
“Good, you’re awake,” Arthos said. “We should talk about the Induction Ceremony before we arrive.”
“Okay,” I said, retrieving another bag of peanuts from the glove box. At least Arthos had had the foresight to stock up on some snacks before coming to get me. He’d alerted me to their presence the first time I’d complained of being hungry, and I’d been working my way through them ever since, starting with the chocolate bars.
“It’s of utmost importance that you do what I say exactly. Any deviation will be seen as an affront to the king and that won’t be tolerated in front of the council. Do you understand?”
I nodded, even though I was still half-asleep. “What do I have to do?”
“Most importantly, be solemn and respectful; don’t hesitate and don’t resist. Swear the oaths you are asked to swear without dispute.” He paused and looked at me for the first time since we'd climbed into the van. “I’m afraid there will be some aspects of the ritual that will be distasteful to you –remember, it was designed to initiate our kind alone – but don’t let that show. Think you can manage?”
“What if I fail?” I asked. I wasn’t exactly the queen of calm, cool and collected.
“You must not fail,” Arthos said.
“Well, what exactly is the ritual? Maybe if I know what I’m getting into, I can mentally prepare for it.”
“It’s a bloodletting in which you’ll be vowing your subservience to His Majesty and your faithfulness to the enclave.”
I balked at Arthos’ words, but he was staring at the road again and didn’t notice the chance in my expression. “But Keel and I are equals,” I protested, not liking where this was going one little bit. “I’m no one’s slave!”
“That may be so,” Arthos said slowly, delicately. “But he is still our king and in our culture, a king has no equal. If you do not do this, you will not be afforded the protection of the Nosferatu.”
“But he needs me!” I insisted angrily. “Not the other way around. I could get out of the van right here, and you’d be the ones who’d be screwed, not me.” Of course this wasn’t true, not when my fate and Keel’s were so intricately intertwined, but the idea of giving him absolute dominion over me was terrifying. It made me want to claw at the windows and doors of the vehicle until it could no longer hold me. It made me want to run as fast as I could into the sparse patches of trees that lined the highway and never look back. Most of all, it made me regret leaving New York more than I’d ever regretted anything in my life.
“Mildred, I explained all of this to you back in the city and you agreed,” Arthos said. His grip on the steering wheel tightened.
“You said pledge allegiance, not subservience. You tricked me! You candycoated it! They are not the same thing!” I was yelling and I couldn’t help it. The more I thought about what was being asked of me – really being asked of me – the more my panic crescendoed. I couldn’t breathe. The metal body of the van seemed to be closing in around me, as if the vehicle had been placed in a wrecking yard crusher. I needed to get out. I didn’t have a plan for what would happen after that, but right then it mattered little. The urgency to escape was paramount, all consuming. I unbuckled my seatbelt and reached for the door handle with my right hand. My left instinctively curled in on itself, if I timed this just right I could fling open the door, throw up my shield and hopefully protect myself from most of the impact of my fall. But I was running out of time. The grey fog was already eating away at the edges of my vision, and my heart thumped in my chest so hard I was sure it was going to explode. As my fingers closed around the cool metal, I felt a hand grasp the back of my head. Then my face was careening towards the dashboard. It was followed by what felt like a nuclear explosion in my brain, then nothing.
* * *
Cold. Something cold was being splashed on my face. And wet. It was wet, too.
At first, that was the only sensation. Then came the pain. Blinding pain. As if my head had been on the receiving end of a stampeding pack of hoofed beasts.
I was lost to its agony for what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. At last my body came back to me. I was being held up by someone. Someone whose skin was colder than both the water and the smooth porcelain I could feel beneath my hands.
I opened my eyes ever so slightly, trying to get some bearing on my surroundings. The light honed the pain into a jackhammer of misery and I clenched them shut again immediately.
Where am I?
There was a gaping blank in the place where a concrete memory should have been.
I raised my hand, and gently ran my fingers across my forehead, the epicentre of my anguish. It was slick and warm. I brought the tips of my fingers back down to my lips. Coppery, bitter. I was bleeding.
Why am I bleeding?
I scoured my brain, seeking the pieces that completed the jigsaw puzzle. Then it came back to me: the van, the half-truths, Arthos’ icy hand on the back of my skull immediately before the impact. I blindly lashed out at my captor, kicking wildly at his legs and beating my hands against whatever fleshy bits I could reach. My attack was ruthless and indiscriminate, just as his betrayal had been, and eventually I managed to slide out of his stony grasp, down to the gritty tile floor. I scrabbled away as fast as my hands and knees would carry me, until I hit a wall, where I proceeded to shove myself along until it met another to form a corner. Eyes still shut, I cupped both hands over what could only be a bloody gash across my forehead and threw up my magical shield.
“Mildred, you need to stop this.” Arthos. The anger his voice summoned forth fed my barricade until it was bank vault-wall thick. No one – vampire or human – was going to get past it.
“Fuck you, Arthos,” I growled. “You lied to me. You injured me. You’re no better than him.”
“Perhaps not,” he allowed. His tone was calm and judicious, which only pissed me off more. “But the plan was never to hurt you. You’re too important to us for that.”
“I think it’s safe to say the blood on my head says otherwise,” I shot back.
“You were about to jump out of a moving vehicle. You left me with little choice. Apart from the cut and the pain, you are unharmed. As you know, we are capable of far worse. If I had wanted to incapacitate you long enough to carry you into the compound unconscious, I could have.”
“Still, you’re taking me back there to make me a slave. Maybe one with a fancy room, but a slave just the same.”
“Not true,” Arthos protested. The proximity of his voice suggested he was now crouching in front of me. “It’s a necessary formality. Unfortunately, there are no rituals for what you are coming back to do.”
“Bullshit,” I spat in his general direction.
“It’s not bullshit. What was the last Nosferatu-sorcerer alliance you heard of?”
I shook my head, not wanting to hear his words. The motion brought the pain so sharply back into focus that I gagged. Multi-coloured flares erupted on the backs of my closed eyelids. I stifled a moan.
“Mills,” Arthos pleaded. “You’re being childish and needlessly reactionary. You need to think about this rationally. It’s almost morning. We’re running out of time.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I insisted, letting my rage buoy my stubbornness. I didn’t want to be rational. I wanted all the deceit to stop. If I was so important, I deserved the truth, dammit.
“Don’t say that.”
“Because His Majesty needs you. Our people need you. Regardless of what you think at this very moment, you are still the key to all of this. I wouldn’t have done what I had in the van if I didn’t believe that.”
I sighed. The miasma of pain and anger was rapidly growing intolerable and making it impossible for me to untangle veracity from further deception. “I need to heal myself. I can’t think straight through this hammer party you’ve invited into my head. But know, if you so much as touch me when I drop my shield, I will incinerate you.”
“As you wish,” Arthos said, and I heard his footsteps retreat a few paces.
I steadied my breath and refocused the magical energy toward the gash on my forehead. Soon the warm itch of my skin knitting itself back together was easing away the rhythmic throb of the wound. When there was no pain left, I opened my eyes. It took a few seconds for them to adjust to the flickering fluorescent bulbs. But once they did, a quick survey of the bare tile, and the solitary toilet, sink and paper towel dispenser told me that we must be in a gas station bathroom. My blood was smeared along the floor where I’d dragged myself from the sink to my current location. There was more of it than I would have expected from a simple head wound.
Arthos was standing a few feet away, as close to the far wall as he could get without leaning against it. To say he looked troubled would be a grievous understatement. Still, it did nothing to tame the annoyance I felt at what he’d done.
When I didn’t speak, he issued another plea. “Remember when I told you that I thought Keel was meant for great things? That was the truth and I still think he is. But if we don’t find a way to help him, he won’t survive this. I know the compound holds terrible memories for you, but this time it will be different, I promise.”
“How exactly am I supposed to trust you after what you’ve just done?” I said, frustrated by the circular nature of our conversation – and of the rest of my dealings with the Nosferatu, for that matter. It always seemed to be three steps forward, and then another two back.
“As I already explained, it wouldn’t have been necessary it if you hadn’t been about to throw yourself out of the van. Think of what the result of that might have been. You could have hurt or killed yourself. You could have attracted human attention to us. Do you understand why I couldn’t have allowed it?”
I glared at him, hating that he was making sense.
“It’s not just His Majesty’s rule that is currently in a precarious state, nor is it just the effects of the bond that are creating issues,” Arthos said. His eyes took on a thousand-yard stare. There was obviously something else he wanted to say but was clearly holding back. I couldn’t fathom what it might be. How much worse could this get?
“What aren’t you telling me?” I asked, forcing him to meet my eyes. “And why?”
“I didn’t want to scare you into saying no. Without your help –”
“Yes, yes, so you keep telling me, without my help… doom, war, revolution, death, death and more death.” I stood back up, my posture rigid and easily as confrontational as my voice. “If you even want me to consider leaving this bathroom with you, you tell me the whole truth now. I will not walk into this blind. You cannot ask that of me. Not if you want my help.”
Arthos turned away, his right hand pressed up against the bathroom wall, while he rubbed his temples with his left. “The transition was not entirely successful,” he said slowly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, fresh worry clenching my heart in its tight little fist, jettisoning much of my anger in the process. Even without hearing his answer, I already had a vague idea of where this was going.
Back when I’d been trapped in the compound and Keel had been preparing to transition, he’d been so concerned that drinking from me would affect the process – Nosferatu didn’t consume blood until the night of the ritual – that he’d gone cold turkey nearly a month before, in an attempt to be safe. Then, when it all went to hell and we broke out and discovered that the transition would occur ritual or not, we concluded that it didn’t seem to matter anymore and fell back into old habits. We’d chalked up the blood abstinence to just more superstition, more lies, more mythology to keep the Nosferatu populace obedient and safely ensconced underground. But then when we’d sealed the blood contract something had happened, something unexplainable that we hadn’t dared to tell anyone and now…
Maybe it wasn’t nothing, after all.
“We don’t know how it happened,” Arthos admitted. “But if I were to guess, I’d say it was likely the interference of the bond and your sorcerer’s blood.”
Shit. I really couldn’t be that far off if Arthos was speculating the same thing.
“He’s like us, but not like us,” he continued. “That’s the best way I can describe it. He exhibits traits that no other Nosferatu in history has possessed. He’s something new, and that too is why our people don’t trust him. They think you’ve done something to him – corrupted him.”
I leaned against the wall behind me, feeling the weight of what I was being asked to return to resting heavy on my shoulders – along with the guilt from our hubris. “And what if I did – unintentionally? You think I can fix that?”
“It’s the only thing we haven’t tried.”
I resisted the overwhelming urge to slide back down to the bloody floor, curl up in a ball and pretend that none of this was happening. If I went with Arthos, I could well be walking straight back into hell and swearing fealty to an irreparably damaged king. I could be setting us up for Garstatt and Etan part two, complete with all the horrible fallout. I could be… the potential disastrous outcomes seemed endless.
“What about the legend of Garstatt, Arthos?” I asked. “If it’s true, you know what Keel and I are capable of. What if going back there sets that in motion?”
“Are you a tyrant in search of world domination?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. But what if he is?”
“There’s no way to know,” Arthos said. “All I can tell you is that the king isn’t the boy you once knew, and while there’s not going back to that, I don’t think all hope is lost. You were a positive influence once and I think you can be again.”
I ran my hand through my hair, which was still matted and sticky from falling across my bloody forehead. There was nothing good about this situation, but there was also nothing good about impending insanity and death, the only other things the bond had to offer. I was jammed between another rock and hard place, only this time, my fate – my hell – was going to be one of my own choosing. Which risk was worth taking? How important was my life to me? Did I really believe I had the power to change someone?
“Is he going to hurt me?” I asked weakly. “And don’t you dare lie.”
“Hopefully no more than he has to,” Arthos said quietly. “And don’t forget, vow or not, you still have magic. You can fight back, just like you did before.”
“But what about the oaths of the Induction Ceremony?”
“Whatever happens after that formality is complete will be between you and the king and no one else.”
“I’m sorry I don’t understand.”
“Pledging allegiance won’t strip you of your powers. After all, your powers are what we’re counting on. How you and His Majesty find your road to cooperation, however, is up to the two of you.”
“I think this is a terrible idea,” I said miserably.
“Perhaps,” Arthos agreed, “but it’s the only one we’ve got. Now, are you going to come with me, or are you going to delay long enough that I burn up in the sun?”
He crossed the bathroom, flipped the lock and opened the door for me. From this vantage point, I could see the light along the horizon glowing bruised purple, the first sign of the impending dawn. I looked forlornly at Arthos as I trudged past him toward the van. “I hate you,” I whispered angrily, as I climbed back into the passenger seat, where my dried blood still stained the dash. “All of you.”
“You don’t mean that,” Arthos said, joining me.
“Actually, this time, I really think I do. Now shut and drive before I change my mind.”