Chapter 5: Straight to You
As I wound my way toward the pier through the thinning evening crowds, I replayed the events of last twelve hours in my head on repeat, unwilling to look forward into the gulping abyss of the unknown, afraid that if I did, I’d turn and flee into the night. The stress and uncertainty of the past few days had me reverting to bad habits; I was back to thinking the worst, back to imagining every possible egregious outcome. And I couldn’t do that, not right now, not if I wanted to stay sharp, so I focused on the stuff that was painful, but safe.
The day had started with a text message to Mikey. Stay awesome, kiddo, I’d written, the telltale sting of tears threatening my eyes, and give your mom and dad a big hug for me. I wanted to say more, but I was worried it would cause too much drama and stymie my plans to boot.
After that, I’d gone through my drawers almost mechanically, stuffing clothes and toiletries into my backpack in the place of the usual binders and textbooks. Those I hid under my bed, so they wouldn’t be discovered until long after I was gone. I topped off the bag’s contents with the red sequin dress I’d bought on Black Friday, carefully folded, so as not to damage the fabric. I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to wear it, and while I doubted it would be appropriate for wherever I was going, it was still the most expensive item of clothing I owned. It was also one of the few things I’d purchased with my own money since escaping and, for that reason alone, I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. Lastly, I plucked a snapshot of Lucia and me off the wall, and slipped it inside the cover of one of my journals, which I stuffed en masse into the backpack’s front pocket. I didn’t dare bring any of the photos of Mikey and my adoptive parents; if the people behind this plot didn’t already know about them, I wasn’t going to be the one to divulge that information. Their safety was more important than any nostalgia I might have for less monster-laden times. I didn’t pack my laptop either: that would’ve struck Bruce as suspicious, since I never bothered to take it to class with me.
Before I left the apartment, I wandered from room to room, trying to memorize each one. I ran my fingers across the tops of the furniture and took in all the artwork one last time. Even if I came back, this place wouldn’t be ours anymore. If I was gone for any extended amount of time, Bruce would have no reason to remain in the city. And even if he and Ephraim conducted a search for me, they’d stage it from Ephraim’s safehouse, where they could work with impunity, without having to worry about nosey neighbours discovering the more unusual aspects of their business.
I made my final stop in the kitchen, where I hastily scribbled a note, which I left stuck to the front of the fridge, right beside this week’s grocery list. Hey Bruce, I’m going to be a bit late tonight. Don’t want you to worry. – M. Guilt welled up in my throat like bile as a fresh set of tears attempted to escape. I hated lying to him, especially because I knew he would worry. I didn’t even want to think about how much shit he’d catch from Ephraim over this.
Things didn’t go much better at school. Not only were Alan and Christian back at their antics in full force, which left me trapped in girls’ room for the better part of an hour with a stubborn nosebleed and wicked case of bond rage – guess it wasn’t gone for good, after all – but Lucia spent every free minute of the school day fervently attempting to talk me out of going to the pier. Sheer insanity, she’d called it at one point, threatening to not only phone Bruce but also the police. I literally had to beg her not to, convincing her that whatever was going to go down, I was most definitely the best equipped to handle it. Not Bruce, whose involvement would return her to the line of fire, and certainly not the human authorities, who were no match for supes – even just one.
That didn’t stop her from embracing me, when the final bell of the day rang, in a hug that greatly resembled the death grip of a drowning woman.
“It’s going to be okay,” I reassured her repeatedly, as our classmates flooded around us, racing for the doors and freedom. “I’ll get in touch if I can, I promise. There’s a reason the ghosts talk about me, right? Believe in that reason.”
“But it didn’t sound like they ever plan on letting you go,” Lucia said.
“Then I’ll find a way to escape. I did it once before, right?”
“Okay,” she said, but she didn’t look convinced.“I’m still going to freakin’ miss you.” Her voice hitched.
“I know,” I told her. “I’m going to freakin’ miss you too.”
Those were the words that were echoing through my head as I arrived at pier 11. I found myself swallowing my emotions even harder than before, afraid succumbing to them would mean losing whatever slight edge I might have in this scenario. I slowed my pace and scanned the briskly moving stream of pedestrians for anyone out of the ordinary, but without knowing what to look for, all I saw was the usual contingent of briefcase-carrying city folk and panhandling drifters. No one and nothing immediately screamed “danger” at me. In fact, the scene looked entirely ordinary.
I made my way over to the handrail where the long arm of the pier began to jut into the river and gazed out across the water. Its dark surface rippled slightly in the light evening breeze. Although returning to human life had been miserable, as I stood there I realized I was going to miss New York if I were made to leave it. Part of me loved its lights and bustle, even now – particularly the easy way I could get lost in a crowd here and pretend to be something I was not. As long as I had my contacts in, I looked no different from the tightly bundled commuters awaiting the ferry or the people taking their dogs for a riverside stroll. I lowered my head and peered down into the water, my reflection partially obscured in its murky depths. A wave of foreboding crested inside me.
I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to hold the warmth in, then turned back to face the walkway. Better to meet whoever or whatever was coming head on.
After all, it was only the unknown that scared me now. When I was younger, I occasionally used to get spooked walking home after dark, imagining that I was hearing someone’s ever-quickening footsteps behind me on the sidewalk and that I was about to be dragged into some dingy, unlit alleyway and assaulted or maybe even stabbed to death with a dull blade. Some nights I managed to wig myself out so badly I’d run all the way home, falling into the lobby of our house, breathing so heavily that it would take me a good ten minutes to catch my breath. Now I no longer feared humans, not the annoying bullies, not even the muggers or rapists. I could annihilate any of them who thought it might be their lucky night, and all the better if they tried to take me some place secluded, because then I wouldn’t even have to worry about being seen using magic. Like Keel, I now had my own great potential to be monstrous.
But I was pretty sure I wasn’t waiting for a human – no human who knew about sorcerers would risk a one-on-one or even a ten-on-one confrontation – and supes were a different story altogether. Most of them had years of formal training at being what they were; I had slipshod skills half learned from the experiments that Keel and I had done and half learned on my own from texts supplied by my father. I’d never be able to take one of them in a fight. Not without some sort of miracle or tapping the bond.
Thinking this would be a good time to check its responsiveness, I gave it another tentative prod. It answered immediately, forming a tiny warm ball of throbbing energy deep inside my gut, ready to unspool at my beckoning. I took comfort in its presence. Bond magic was something my abductors would not have.
When the one I was waiting for slipped into view, I recognized his otherness immediately; I shouldn’t have been worried about missing him. He simply didn’t fit – he was a little too tall, a little too lanky and garbed in a thinner coat than most New Yorkers would dare to wear during the dead of February. Even so, his presence didn’t attract stares – there was nothing overtly unusual about a hooded figure in head-to-toe black – and it was obvious he knew the tricks of blending in. He kept pace with the rest of the crowd, even as he angled in my direction.
I straightened, no longer leaning on the rails behind me. The man I knew was not a man had clearly picked me out of the crowd as easily as I’d spotted him.
My heart lurched uncomfortably in my chest. I sucked in a breath of cold night air that stung my lungs. Magic or not, I was still completely crap at concealing my emotions. I took three tentative steps toward the vampire, trying to connect his presence here with the events of the last few days. Keel had signed a blood contract that swore I would be free of him – a contract that if broken was punishable by execution. Was he really this gutsy, or that stupid?
The vampire stopped a few feet in front of me. While I could see nothing but the lower portion of his angular, remarkably marble-pale, slightly blue-lipped face beneath his low-hanging hood, I knew it wasn’t Keel; Keel had never had any respect for my personal space.
“Who are you?” I said, casting the question out into the air between us. My nails rested on the tender, fleshy parts of my palms inside my gloves, at the ready.
“It’s Arthos,” he said, lifting his hood enough to allow me to see his entire face, but not so much that those walking by would catch sight of his unnatural palour and red irises. Relief, confusion, betrayal and a hot flash of anger surged through me in equal measure. Aside from Keel, Arthos was the closest thing I’d had to an ally during my imprisonment in the compound. Now, his sudden appearance here rendered him all but complicit in the recent treachery, never mind in the sheer idiocy of breaking the blood contract.
“You’re behind this?” I said. It came out low, gruff and accusatory.
“Not entirely,” he replied, raising his gloved palms to me in a gesture of innocence.
“Explain,” I demanded.
“I will, but walk with me.”
“Because it is not safe for us to stay in any one place too long.”
I tried to assess him, but with his hood once again obscuring most of his facial features, there was no way to read his expression. If he was worried, shouldn’t he be scouring the walkways, like I’d been?
“If it’s so dangerous, why are you here?” I asked incredulously.
“Walk with me,” he implored a second time. “And I will answer all of your questions.”
“Fine,” I snapped, sensing that this was the only way he was going to budge. He turned away from me and started north up the riverside. I had to jog a few paces to catch up. Walking alongside him, I was struck again by how unnaturally tall he was. “You said you’re not entirely behind this; what does that mean, exactly?”
“I was the one who suggested we retrieve you,” he said, almost apologetically. “But I was not responsible for the logistics.”
“Boras.” His name escaped my mouth as a stinging accusation. If there was one Nosferatu who would welcome a chance to pull my strings, it was him. He had served as the right-hand man of my captor, the former king, and there was no love lost between us.
“Boras wanted nothing to do with this.”
That’s when it hit me: the thing I didn’t want to admit to myself, the thing I desperately didn’t want to be true. My knees quivered and nearly buckled beneath me, before I stabilized myself. “Keel did this?!” My voice was louder than it should have been. Several heads turned in my direction. “He’s the one who scared Lucia shitless? He’s the one who’s been screwing with me?” I had already seen evidence of Keel’s questionable morality, post transition, but this took it to a whole other level. This couldn’t be the same Keel who’d saved both Lucia and me last fall, could it? My mind reeled.
“Mildred,” Arthos said, his voice calm and controlled but also stern. “You are drawing unwanted attention to us. You need to allow me to explain.”
“What’s there to explain?” I seethed. I’d stopped moving and planted both feet firmly on the pavement. “He’s a monster. This proves it.”
Arthos stepped closer, so close that I could smell the sickly, sweet odour of slow decay rolling off of his skin.
“Keel is a king,” he said, his tone heavy and serious. “His methodology in this endeavour may not have been ideal, but it was effective.”
I glared up into his iridescent eyes, which contemplated me from beneath the lip of his hood. “What are you talking about?”
“You had no idea who you were talking to and therefore you could tell no one who you were meeting tonight, correct?”
“Of course not; how–” Then it sank in. “But he could’ve just been honest and told me not to tell anyone,” I said, full of righteous indignation.
“And would you have kept your word? Or would you have told the psychic and sworn her to secrecy?”
I opened my mouth, then promptly closed it again, realizing that he had a point. I wasn’t entirely sure what I would have done if the situation had been different.
“It was of crucial importance that no one knew about this,” he continued. “The sorcerers have ways of extracting information, after all, and with someone as sought-after as you, they wouldn’t have hesitated to do so. Even if they try now, your friend knows nothing; she will be safe.”
As much as I hated to admit it, this rang true, even if the idea of protecting someone through the use of wanton cruelty remained deeply difficult to accept. “But that doesn’t negate the blood contract,” I argued.
“True,” Arthos confirmed, gently taking my arm and motioning me to continue walking with him. “But the choices you make here tonight can. There’s a loophole.”
My thoughts immediately flew back to all of Ephraim’s warnings about reading the text of the blood contract carefully. In matters of business the Nosferatu were master manipulators. It had been another loophole that had justified my kidnapping, and prevented the sorcerers from coming to my rescue. And here, despite all of my father’s rigorous instructions, I’d gone and made the exact same mistake as he did all those years ago: I’d missed something.
“Don’t look so stricken,” Arthos said, reading my expression surprisingly well for someone who was neither sorcerer nor human. “You are still the engineer of your own fate.”
I blinked at him, not understanding.
“I am here because His Majesty needs your help, though he might not put it in those words. You remain free to say no – if I take you against your will, the contract is broken and the sorcerers have their right to seek retribution. But understand that by refusing your assistance, you may well be signing His Majesty’s death warrant.”
And my own, my brain finished off silently. I couldn’t forget what Garstatt had told me last fall in the psychic shop: the bond not only tied Keel and me together but it joined our life forces; death for one of us meant death for both of us.
“Is he in danger?” I asked. In that moment, I wasn’t picturing him as Nosferatu Keel, but as the boy who had once risked everything to save my life, including his own. Even without the bond and all its ramifications, I couldn’t help feeling I still owed him a similar favour.
“His Majesty is the youngest king on record, and given his unusual transition, he’s not particularly respected,” Arthos explained. “Since he has no heir, overthrowing him would mean his assassin would rise to the throne in his place, and there’s no telling the havoc that would wreak on the compound or the nearby human settlements. Our enclave could be thrown into all-out civil war, a time of great lawlessness and indiscriminate hunting of men. His Majesty’s failure to remain in power could very well usher in Extinction Day.” Arthos’ tone was so urgent and bleak that icicles formed along my spine.
“This is my fault, isn’t it?” I whispered, as if saying that any louder would give those words more credence and greater dominion over my conscience. I stared at down at the slushy concrete, not wanting to believe it. Yet it was all right there: if Keel hadn’t befriended me and helped me escape, his father would still be on the throne and he’d have transitioned just like every other Nosferatu throughout history. And while it would have been easy to place all the blame on Keel, given his superior position of power, I’d used him too, almost from the beginning. There was no denying that I’d realized early on that playing along might well facilitate a chance for escape, so I hadn’t pushed him away. I’d been just as selfish and complicit in this as he'd been, even after finding out that doing so endangered him – greatly.
“No. It’s mine,” Arthos corrected, scooping up my gloved hand in his bare one. The cold of his skin seemed to drain the heat of mine, even through the wool fabric. Still, the gesture was reassuring, maybe because it was considerably more intimate than anything I’d considered him capable of. “I encouraged him to spend time with you. I thought it would make him a more intelligent, worldly ruler, less of a tyrant and more prepared to lead our people into the twenty-first century. I failed to foresee the consequences. But we can still change the outcome. We can still set things right.”
“How?” I asked. I tried to ignore how strange it felt to be strolling through New York holding hands with a vampire who was god-knows-how many years my senior. I wondered what passers-by made of us: father and daughter or some strange sort of May-December fling? There was no way they’d believe the actual truth.
“The bond is weakening him, as I imagine it is weakening you, and it is making him more volatile,” Arthos said. “If we close the distance between the two of you, I think we can use it – use its power – to secure his reign.”
I thought of the ever-worsening bond rage and its accompanying blood lust, and the dreams that had come before that, the ones that threw me into Keel’s head night after night against my will. The bond was manipulating us, and if Garstatt was correct, it wouldn’t stop until we ceased fighting it. But that was far from the only thing to consider.
Even if the bond could save Keel's kingship, it wouldn't necessarily save me. And then Keel would die all the same. I struggled to find the right way to put this into words.
“If I agree to go with you," I started, cautiously, "that may get Keel off the hook contract-wise. But I signed it too, and I’ll still be breaking my oath. If I do this, there’s no coming back for me. In this world –” I gestured at the city with my free hand, “I’ll always be a fugitive. They’ll place a bounty on my head. I’ll be hunted.”
Arthos didn’t reply immediately, which didn't surprise me, it was just like the Nosferatu to only worry about protecting their own. When he finally did, his words were strangely formal, and not at all what I was expecting. “We are prepared to offer you asylum in exchange for your services.”
I fell silent as I attempted to untangle the offer’s meaning. When language returned to me, it came all at once in a flood of questions and fears. “What does asylum entail exactly? What kind of life can you promise me in the compound? What kind of Keel? I’m not going to live in a tiny, dirty cell being someone’s Handi-Snack. I won’t do that again,” I said. All my disgust at being held prisoner rushed back to me in a smothering gale. “I’d rather die.”
“We are not asking you to return as a prisoner,” Arthos said, squeezing my hand reassuringly. “Provided you are willing to swear allegiance to the king as every newcomer must, you will be afforded proper standing and accommodations within the compound. You are not returning as food; you are returning as an ally for our most supreme leader.”
“But I killed all those vampires.” There was no forgetting the charred and burning corpses that had lain all around us the night of our escape. I’d been directly responsible for each and every one of those deaths. “There’s no way your people are going to welcome me into the fold.”
“That may be true, but you also have the power –” Arthos raised my hand and ran a clawed finger across my gloved palm, “– to silence anyone who dares say otherwise. You will be in the king’s employ. To challenge you would be the height of foolishness, don’t you agree?”
I stared at him, unbelieving. “You swear this isn’t a trick, Arthos? That Keel is really in danger and I’m your last hope? And that I won’t be a prisoner?”
Arthos laughed. It was an inhuman guffaw, but not the least bit treacherous. “I don’t think we could imprison you if we tried.”
I managed to smile at that. The bars and doors would be no match for the sorceress I’d become, even if I was a few months out of practice when it came to magic.
As we continued along the walkway, I thought about his offer. If I did this, I’d be waving farewell to the human world and to sunshine and daylight forever, but I would be exchanging it for a place where my powers and skills would be welcomed, where I wouldn’t be asked to hide and suppress who I was, where I wouldn’t be punished for wanting to embrace my true identity, bond and all.
I could either live in hiding in the vast human world, or live free in the tiny confines of the Nosferatu one. It was solely my decision: try to save Keel and myself, or to allow our story to end here – likely in assassination and war, and most certainly in death.
I let go of Arthos’ hand and slowly spun around in a circle, drinking in the river, the bridges, the high rises, the bright shimmering lights of the vehicles speeding along the highway and the glow of the almost full moon. I thought of Lucia, Ephraim, Bruce, Estella, Fredrick, Mikey, and the seemingly endless taunts of the high school bullies. I thought of my future and of my mortality. And I thought of Keel, the half-vampire boy I’d once fallen in love with and the Nosferatu king he’d become. Two sides of a coin, but always one destiny for both of us – together.
I turned back to Arthos. Now that the walkway was considerably quieter and less trafficked, he’d raised his hood. He was watching me with equal parts curiosity and expectation.
“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Where are you parked?”