“Leave no blood for the Rose.”
Coral never wanted to be a hemomancer. Why would she? In a world built on the wounds the hemomancers carved in history, being discovered as a bloodfiend is a death sentence. Once the greatest threat humanity ever faced, scientific and cultural advancements have pushed them toward extinction and into the shadows of society. But despite their struggles for survival in a world aligned against them, a hidden war between two of their most influential bloodlines is about to pour out of the shadows—and one seemingly ordinary girl stands in the center of it.
Coral is a high school graduate and closet hemomancer living in North Carolina. When a mysterious man from the Orchid Veil tracks her down, she finds herself pulled into the orbit of a war she wants nothing to do with. Disowned by her family and possessing blood coveted by the villainous Rosarium, Coral has little choice but to accept the aid of the Orchid Veil and set foot into a secret world of danger and intrigue. Will Coral be able to survive the war being fought over her own blood?
A Rose to the Torch is a brooding, dark urban fantasy novel that explores an inversion of young adult fantasy tropes; the gifted protagonist finds no solace when she leaves normalcy behind, and will have to fight just to prove her right to exist. Bartholomew Lander skillfully paints a psychological portrait of Coral, an emotionally damaged young woman shaped by her surroundings and upbringing into a frail and scared parody of humanity. Torn between two worlds and welcome in neither, her hunt for a place to belong will force her to confront the darkness in her own heart.
A Rose to the Torch builds on the characters, universe, and themes established in Bartholomew Lander’s short story collection All Bleeds Through: Ten Stories of Hemomancy and the World it Shaped.
Check out the first three chapters for free below!
— Chapter 1 —
Nothing had been the same for Coral since Tamara moved away for college. She didn’t need to take it personally, but she did. The girl’s parents had wanted her to get an education out of state. They may as well have come out and said it: Tamara would be wasted on Wheatling, North Carolina. She was too good for them all, held too much potential to live cradle to grave in that crusted sore of a town.
Don’t worry, Tamara had reassured her on the day of their parting. It’s only for two years. Only. Coral had put on her strongest front and given her a tight hug, as if she could permanently squeeze a part of her best friend into her. For Coral, it wasn’t just a separation; it felt disturbingly close to an apocalypse. Though she could never say as much aloud, she needed Tamara. Without her, she just didn’t feel human.
The worst part was that everybody around Coral noticed the change. At first, she’d slapped on her old cardboard smile to conceal the thoroughness of her loss, but six months of that had left her fatigued. She gave up trying to trick people. People responded by giving her a wide berth, and that was fine by Coral.
For the last six months, sleep was sporadic, meals were bland and unfulfilling, and the start of her own first semester of college was looking decidedly precarious. She had spent the months since graduation all but sealed up in her apartment rented on her parents’ dime. The internet was an opioid, she laughed joylessly to herself more than once. With her only meaningful social connection severed, she found herself hollowly imitating the things she’d have done with Tamara: listening to punk rock on the stereo, losing herself in poorly written Kirakera fanfiction, playing Garnet Cross Exalt, or sitting through movies she didn’t care about, all the while waiting restlessly for the next time she could call or text Tamara without making a grand nuisance of herself.
That was the pattern she found herself in, and she was perfectly fine with cocooning herself in it. She would have passed the 2009 Christmas holidays in that single-room apartment if not for the text message from her mother on the evening of Sunday, December ninth: Happy birthday Coral! Don’t forget to pick up your medicine from the pharmacy. The insurance will tell me if you don’t.
Pain in the ass woman, Coral hissed to herself when she saw the message. Mama was somehow even more overbearing now than when they shared a roof. It wasn’t like she really needed the Factor, anyway. But maintaining the masquerade was a key part of her life, whether Tamara was there or not. Despite the reluctance weighted about her neck, she slipped out of her apartment into the cold Wheatling evening and made her way downtown to Garnet Avenue, the thin line between the greed and the rot.
Sunday evening had brought out the usual crowds. Tonight the sixteen-to-twenty-two demographic was out in full force. Coral threaded her way through gaps in the human walls that pressed in opposite directions along the too-narrow sidewalks with a practiced step. She made a point of keeping her eyes down on the cracked concrete. It was easier to avoid bumping into people if she didn’t blind herself on the aggressively dazzling lights of downtown. But there was a darker reason she dropped her gaze.
She could almost feel the eyes of the crowds dissecting her, looking for a gap in her facade large enough to slip their hooks into. It was a familiar paranoia, a nostalgic panic that characterized her life before Tamara. When they were together, Coral’s terror of the throngs of passersby was so numbed that she, at times, forgot why she should be afraid. The day she left, it was like someone kicked Coral’s feet out from under her. All at once, her security and comfort were uprooted, exposing the grasping tendrils of something buried and hideous.
Now, for the first time since she was twelve, Coral was again terrified of her own shadow, of the revealing leers of the multitudes, of the gainless blustering of the Anti-Masonics. With her anchor to humanity off to school in Oregon, she was once more adrift on an ocean of hopeless fear. That ocean welcomed her back with a grin that grew more threatening with each passing day.
That’s because Coral was different from Tamara—different from everyone. She was a hemomancer, one of the cursed, blood-controlling devils who darkened the pages of history. She hadn’t chosen that, of course; nobody in their right mind would choose to be a verm. Between emotional vendettas for historical crimes and strictly practical matters like fueling scientific progress, humans had more than enough reason to murder a hemomancer on sight. Without her best friend to assuage her fear, Coral had retreated to that familiar, all-devouring dread.
Fighting back a shiver, Coral lifted her face to risk a glance at Garnet Avenue. The dingy glow of the old streetlights was outshone by the bright marquees and strobing signage that covered the buildings like wrapping paper. Some of the storefronts bore LED displays or played host to small fleets of advertising drones; they were modernities that seemed pretentiously out of place when contrasted with the humble, single-story construction of the entire district. It was like a varnish layer atop rotting drywall, and the smell matched.
A flurry of cold wind whipped up, stinging Coral’s eyes and cheeks. Blinking back against the biting chill, she tucked deeper into her scarf. Only a few more streets separated her and the pharmacy on the corner of Garnet and Eighth. Of course, the mixed crowds of upper- and lower-class shoppers and diners all conspired to make her trip take as long as possible. She’d have taken to shoving the insultingly slow man ahead of her if she weren’t so afraid of standing out.
Ahead, just above a buzzing and whirring shop filled to the brim with the latest high-tech gadgets, loomed a billboard depicting two silver serpents coiled about a winged staff. Caduceus Industries, the harshly imperial font read, forging the future of genetics. Caduceus Industries, hemotech leader. Caduceus Industries, the injection that stirred their moribund town into its lethargic death throes.
A long line, mostly of teenagers, wrapped along the outer wall of the cinema. Punk-rock hairdos and trench coats, the hallmarks of the crimson counterculture. The cause was clear: the old-style marquee proudly announced the release of Blood Watchers 4, the latest in the culturally bankrupt film series that amounted to little more than masturbatory hemomancer worship. So that’s why there’s so many students out. As she walked past them, she couldn’t help but wonder how those die-hard fans would react if they knew what she was.
After weaving between a drunk and a trio of businessmen in identical suits, Coral reached her destination. The pharmacy was narrow but deep, crushed between a cantina and a used electronics store. The whole building emitted a sterilizing white light through its full-wall windows, silhouetting advertisements for dietary supplements.
Sucking in a deep breath, Coral pressed herself up against the front door. The glass barrier parted with a low chime, and a wall of warm air greeted her as she shuffled inside. Aisles and shelves stacked high with colored boxes and irregularly shaped packaging surrounded her. There were four other customers inside. They were all, without exception, browsing the wares in the hemotech aisle.
The smell of rubbing alcohol and plastic invaded Coral’s scarf and burned her nostrils. It was a welcome change from the thick humanity outside. The sensation of the interior’s heat slowly seeping through her jacket was a comforting change, so she held fast to it, steadying herself on it. She reminded herself to act natural, normal. I’m alive. It’s not a crime to be alive. With a light sigh, she loosened her scarf and adjusted her shoulder-length hair to free her neck as she made her way to the counter.
The woman working the counter was the usual weekend lady. She was short, wide, and heavyset, but wore it damn well considering. Her face was round and chubby but undeniably cute. Coral was only a few paces from her when she looked up from the pills she was counting and greeted her with a broad smile. “Coral!” she said brightly. “Good to see you! What can I do for you today?”
“Hey, Trix.” She took another breath to acclimate to the internal temperature. Precipitation had started to fog on her forehead. “Got any Factor Eight in?”
“We sure do.” The woman fetched a pair of small boxes from beneath the counter like they were prepared just for her. Kaiketsu LTD’s blood-drop insignia adorned the otherwise plain packaging. “Got it in this morning, actually. Need syringes, too?”
Coral pulled her insurance card out of her wallet and set it on the counter. “Nah, I’ve got my own, thanks.”
The woman smiled warmly at her. “Prepared as always. Anythin’ else I can get for ya?”
“A twelve-pack of muters.”
“You got it. We’ve got a thirty-percent discount on them today and today only. Want to upgrade to a twenty-four?”
“No thanks.” She didn’t need the muters, just like she didn’t need the Factor. It was little more than an act.
The woman added a small case of yellow-capped syringes to the order and rang it up alongside the Factor Eight. She read off the insurance card and clacked a few keys into the computer. “Alrighty, with the muter discount, your total comes to eighty-six fifty. May I stamp your card?”
“Go for it.” Coral slid her point card across the counter atop a small stack of bills. In return, the woman punched another pair of holes in the grid, bringing her three spaces from a free bottle of her favorite painkiller.
The woman was about to hand the point card back, but her eyes must have caught something interesting on it. She brought it beneath her glasses to check it at close range. Her whole face cracked up in a brilliant smile. “Oh my God! Happy birthday, Coral!”
Coral had hoped she wouldn’t notice. “Yeah, thanks.”
With a proud grin, she finally handed the point card back. “Have you done anything crazy to celebrate adulthood?”
“The plan is to spend all night studying,” she lied. “How does that rank on the crazy scale?”
The woman laughed. “If that’s your idea of christening the rest of your life, then you’re out of your mind, sugar. But, to each her own.” She bagged the Factor Eight and muters and handed them over with a small handful of change. “Here you go. Have a good one.”
“Thanks. You too.” Coral took her purchase and slipped it into her shoulder bag. She waved a soft goodbye to the woman and turned to leave.
But as she made for the exit onto Garnet Avenue, she felt something strange. Intuition pulled her attention to the other side of the pharmacy. A small, disparate crowd was browsing the hemotech paraphernalia. A middle-aged woman in pigtails and horn-rimmed spectacles. A homeless-looking man with trembling fingers caressing a display of synthblood. A man with Irish-red hair in a dark green jacket. A pair of businessmen. Nothing seemed unusual, but she could have sworn she’d felt somebody watching her. Not unlikely, she reminded herself. Not every day you see a girl buying clotting factor.
So she exited and started back toward home along the industrial production boundary, skirting past boisterous hucksters and the rare but formidable aristocrat. Her breath danced in airy wisps through the air as she put her focus on avoiding more of the Sunday masses. Two tweed-coated men carried bulging bags from the fashion boutiques. A drunken but well-dressed socialite damsel was strung between two sequentially older copies of herself. A young Indian was shredding like a demon on an acoustic guitar. It was all typical Garnet Avenue, typical Sunday, typical exhaustion. She would only have to put up with it for another half block; her favored shortcut home was coming up.
The alley appeared on her right, sandwiched between a candy shop and a Thai restaurant. It was an ill-frequented passage, a run-down stitch in the city’s side. Somehow they’d missed it when they’d upgraded Garnet Avenue from a slum to the jewel of Wheatling. Sure, it was filthy, but it was also quiet and lonely, which made it perfect for someone like her.
But as she entered the darkened mouth of the alley and the sound of Sunday mingling dulled, she heard the distinct call of footsteps scraping along at the forsaken brickwork behind her. A sliver of fear crept into Coral’s stomach. Her breath hitched. Somebody was following her. Her thoughts snapped back to the feeling of eyes on her at the pharmacy. Dammit, she hissed to herself in a raw panic. Last time I spurn my intuition!
Adrenaline began to pound through her. She walked faster. One hand forced its way deep into her pocket, and her fingers curled about her pocketknife. She knew how to use it, and she would if she had to. Still, she rounded the next corner of the backstreet with unearthly haste and prepared to break into a sprint.
“Coral! Coral, wait!”
The man’s voice struck her right in the throat. Someone she knew? The breath escaped in a stutter. Uncertainty and confusion weighed her feet. She came to a dead stop in the middle of the alley. Her heart was beating in triplets, but some pernicious curiosity made her linger, made her turn around to see who had called her name.
When he came around the corner, he was just a silhouette, a head and a half taller than her, that inked out the end of the dimly lit alley. A moment of acknowledgment fluttered between them. His footfalls, which had been driven by purpose until she’d turned, came to a stop fifteen feet from her.
Light and laughter from the flow of shoppers only a short distance away spilled behind the figure, allowing details to slowly paint themselves through the gloom. He was a tall man, around thirty, with a sturdy build. Thick, shaggy red hair fell down around his ears. He had wide shoulders and a full beard that framed his curled lips. He looked like an O’Brien or a McDonnell. The sheen of a leather jacket played at her eyes. Dark green.
Panic hit her. It was the same man she’d seen at the pharmacy. This person didn’t know her name; he’d merely overheard it from the cashier. And she’d fallen for his trap. Despite the fear of assailants and muggings and far worse that society had crushed into her, she found herself paralyzed, unable even to scream.
But she had to do something, even if her legs wouldn’t obey her. A lungful of air crawled out her throat and escaped into the musty air of the alley. “What do you want?” she demanded, her voice wavering and cracking.
“Relax. I only want to talk,” the man said, his voice betraying an accent from somewhere across the pond.
He only wanted to talk. How often did that line crop up in movies? It had to be a lie, and it was so brazen that it fueled Coral’s disbelief into a blaze. “If you wanna talk,” she hissed, “then how ’bout saying somethin’ instead of stalkin’ me through the streets for the better part of a mile?” The courage flowed from nowhere. Once she heard her own words, however, it began to leak. The reality of the situation set in with a horrid clarity.
“Sorry,” the man said, drawing a cautious step nearer to her. “I did not want to attract any unneeded attention to us.”
Coral broke through her paralysis. She sidled a step backward. The path behind her led to a further tangle of unreputable alleys that perforated downtown like the tunnels of a rabbit warren. Should she run that way and try to lose him? Or should she bolt past him and back around the corner, into the throngs of Garnet Avenue only thirty feet away?
Before she could reach a decision, a low, horrible vibration crawled through her chest and skull. It pushed and pulled at her insides, and she at once became lightheaded. The spark of fear ignited and bloomed even brighter in her bosom. Her hair stood on end. That sensation could only have meant one thing. She desperately regretted her decision to enter the alley. This was no standard-issue pervert; the man had the same power that she did. Like her, he was a hemomancer.
The man’s lips curled further in a weak smile. “Just as I thought. You’re the girl I’ve been seeking.”
Coral took a shaky breath and slipped one step further toward the labyrinthine network of backstreets behind her. The glistening, mirror-like windows of the Gyrocore building towered overhead, blotting out even the moonlight. Her shaking fingers curled tighter about the knife in her pocket—not that it would do her any good against a verm.
“Coral Savary,” the man announced. “Eighteen as of today. Sagittarius. Hemophiliac. Hemomancer.”
The last word echoed in Coral’s ears. Her body went ice cold. Her nightmares revolved around that single word spoken aloud, splitting her facade and exposing her core for the vultures of society. The crowd just beyond the alley was suddenly far too near, far too interested in that word of judgment. Her throat constricted about labored, hazardous gasps. How did he know? Nobody should have known.
Every moment of every day was lived in fear of this. Her mind flashed to disjointed scenes of her life. Her mother, pious and ignorantly brutal, reassuring her that no hemomancer could enter heaven. Wounds and blood peeled out of her, unstaunched. Middle school. Tamara. The hospital stay that brought them together. One by one, her lies and inconvenient, painted-over truths began to collapse her from within. “You don’t know anything about me,” she spat, searching in a panic for some argument to jam between them like a bit of upturned furniture.
Apparently ignorant of—or perhaps enjoying—Coral’s turmoil, the man relaxed his shoulders. “Again, I’m sorry for tailing you for so far. It wasn’t my intention to scare you. The name’s Gavin. I’m a hemo, like you.” Coral’s stomach tightened at that. “But I suppose you already knew that.” He took another step toward her.
The unease in Coral’s gut was screaming at her now. Arms shaking, she tore her blade from her pocket and laid it against her bare wrist. “Stay away from me!”
“Whoa, easy there,” Gavin said. He raised his hands in a calming gesture. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m from the Orchid Veil.” He spoke the words like they were meant to soothe her, but they meant nothing to Coral.
Resolving not to let his word salad confuse her, she pressed the cold edge of her knife into her wrist lightly. The metal caught a glimmer of a reflection from the Gyrocore building. “I don’t know what you want with me, but I’m not interested. Get out of here. Now.”
The man’s eyes flicked to her blade before returning to her face. His gaze pried at the armor of her false bravado. “Don’t be telling me you mean to fight? A nought like you?”
The knife sat at her vein. She didn’t know how he’d figured her secret out, but she wasn’t going to risk it spreading any further than him. That meant no screaming for help. No questions. No more attention from anyone else. “I don’t need to fight you,” she said. “But I know how to bleed. If you don’t turn around and leave right now, I’ll cut my wrist and send it flying. You know what’ll happen then, right?” She jerked her head toward Garnet Avenue over the building to her left. “If anyone on Garnet sees it, the police’ll swoop right in on us. And I think a fountain of blood streaking to the heavens is pretty hard to miss.” Now she was glad she’d dipped around the corner; it would conceal the true culprit of the hemomantic geyser and let her make a clean getaway when he ran. He would run, wouldn’t he?
“Are you kidding?” Gavin said with an incredulous click of his tongue. “You’re seriously going to bring the police down on both of our heads?”
Kidding? No. Crazy? Maybe. Perhaps there had always been a spark of madness in Coral’s brain. She found a small satisfaction in hearing his alarm. It meant she’d hit upon her escape hatch after all. She bit her lip. “Care to find out?”
“Come on, now. Let’s not do anything rash.”
Her shoulders shook. The blade danced in nervous convulsions of its own accord. “No. Let’s.” Without thinking it through any further, she let her knife sink into her vein. The pain of cold metal cut right to the bone. A wet heat bloomed at her wrist and exploded outwards in violent streams as she willed her blood to fly. The flow of power scratched the itch in her mind raw. It took only a moment for the streams to twist and twirl into shapely ribbons bound for the nearby rooftops, where they would draw the attention of the crowds of evening shoppers like an emergency flare. Man’s weaponized hatred for hemomancy would save her life this night.
But that horrible vibration came again, working through and penetrating her own focus. Her streams of blood bent, rippled, and then broke apart before they could reach the roofs of the buildings cradling the two of them. They melted into a heavy rain and flowed back toward her in a grotesque, lurching orb of floating vitality. As her hand and mind went to stopping the gushing wound at her wrist, Coral found herself mesmerized by her own dull reflection in the levitating blood orb.
“I see you don’t get into fights very often,” Gavin said, exasperation heavy in each syllable. His neck was tensed, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Now, reabsorb your blood. You don’t want more attention than you’re already getting.”
Coral gritted her teeth, held her breath, and tried to force the orb of blood to move. But a layer of that sick, vibrating energy stopped her, pushed her thoughts back into her skull. Her shoulders resumed their shaking.
“Did you get blood in your ears, lass? Reabsorb it. I’m not going to have you collapsing on me because you thought you could take a knight in a fight. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk, so I do.”
Dreamlike, this failure. Whoever this guy was, he was strong enough to prevent her from using her own power at all. She had no choice but to do as he said. She allowed her posture to loosen and willed the orb of blood toward her. As if in response to her decision, the vibration slowly released control of the blood and permitted her to shape it into a spiraling stream. It flowed back into her severed vein, and she felt the pressure in her body increase as it rejoined her circulation. Once every drop of it had been pulled back into her, she applied her focus to her slashed wrist like a bandage to stop the leaking.
“What do you want?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from quavering.
“That’s better.” The man took a quick breath. “I’ll be brief. Your life is in great danger.”
“I’m cornered by a verm in an alley. Tell me somethin’ I haven’t figured out.”
His eyes flashed with irritation. “I am not the danger, girl. I told you, I’m from the Orchid Veil.”
Those words again. “And what the hell is the Orchid Veil?”
The man’s expression contorted, momentarily revealing a bemused smattering of remorse. “You don’t know?” His posture slumped slightly, and his gaze dripped down her body to her feet. “No wonder you reacted in such a way. I suppose your parents were kind enough to shield you from the details of our situation.” A slow step brought him a foot closer to her. The gap was narrowing. “Just listen. I was sent to find and protect you. There are very dangerous forces at work. I need you to come with me. I’ll explain everything on the way, so I will.”
His response only served to confuse her further, but that confusion became a second wind, a second chance. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder. The pitch-dark maze and the muffled hustle of the crowd called to her. “On the way where?” Keep him talking, she thought. She turned herself obliquely toward him and hid a half-step backward by shifting her weight to her back foot.
“Saint Isabeau,” Gavin said. His footsteps gained a measure of urgency, and his careful approach became a purposeful march toward her. In a single motion, he pulled a phone from his pocket and lifted it to his ear. “Come on, we have to go.” His body language directed her toward the tangle of alleys she’d considered making her escape into.
Coral bit her lip and turned, keeping her posture noncommital. But as if sensing her hesitation, Gavin put a hand on her shoulder and roughly began shepherding her toward the depths. Gavin paused for a moment when she did not move on her own, and he turned to look down at her. His eyes bled frustration. Then something clicked at the phone, and his posture loosened. “Jase, I’ve got her.”
That was the moment. His focus lapsed just enough. The fight or flight instinct abandoned all pretense. Coral wasn’t letting herself get taken, not by a pervert and absolutely not by a fucking verm. Her fingers tightened around her knife. Now or never. Riding the impulse of adrenaline, Coral lunged for him and swiped at the man’s exposed neck. But Gavin’s senses were sharp. He recoiled in shock, staggered backward, phone settled firm in his grip. Her wild attack whistled past the skin of his neck. A half-choked shout sputtered from his throat.
Shit, Coral thought. She twisted around and threw the knife with all the force she could summon. The weapon glanced across Gavin’s arm but left his dark jacket unharmed as it tumbled harmlessly to the ground. Exploiting his moment of incredulous shock, she turned and bolted for the mouth of the alley.
“Hey!” Gavin shouted after her, but she wouldn’t be stopped now.
She rounded the corner and burst back onto Garnet Avenue. Without waiting to see if her assailant was following her, she melted silently into a group of gaudily dressed teenagers. Nobody even noticed her. It was a reassuring confirmation that she at least appeared normal enough. Wrapped in the Sunday crowds, inconspicuous despite her ragged breaths and lightly bleeding wrist, she tried to rip off the clinging remnants of the encounter. Hard though it was, she had to pretend to be just another girl, just as she had done since she was a child and learned of the curse she bore.
Coral’s lungs tingled. Her heart was trying to bash a hole through her ribs, and a line of sharp heat bisected the vein in her wrist. It took a concerted effort to keep the wound from leaking. She wished she’d bought the damn syringes at the pharmacy. Now she’d need to wait until she got home to administer the Factor Eight, which meant letting the sliver in her eyes burn hotter as she bade the blood to run as normal.
Dammit, Coral, what were you thinking? she asked herself. Next time she came face-to-face with a hemo, she resolved to only use the knife on them. It was a sardonic quip that failed to lighten the mood; she’d never met another hemo before and hoped she never would again.
The ambient chatter around the new Blood Watchers film gradually began to drown out the sound of her own thoughts and pulse. The air tasted like a locker room, but her gasps were finally calming. She ventured a glance behind her every dozen steps, but she never caught sight of Gavin or his red hair amid the hordes of pedestrians. And as she drifted lazily toward home on the current of shoppers, she tried to convince herself that she’d seen the last of him.
— Chapter 2 —
Coral made it back into the outskirts of Wheatling after half an hour of skirting the crowds of Garnet Avenue. That man, Gavin, didn’t seem to be following her, but her heart was still pounding like a kick drum. The panic clung to her, and the more she tried to slip from it the more firmly it enmeshed itself with her mind. Who the hell was that Gavin guy? How did he know so much about her? It made no sense. Worse, it torpedoed her splintered grasp of reality. She began to pick through her memories of life up until then, hunting for any time she may have slipped up and used her power in public.
She was always meticulous about keeping her hemomancy hidden. Except, of course, for that glorious mess she’d made of the middle school lockers when she’d been shoved into them by those bullies. Their expulsion was all that had come from that display. Besides, her display wasn’t so dramatic as to be suspicious, right? So what else, then? Brown Mountain? Not bleeding to death wasn’t exactly the hallmark of a hemomancer, so that couldn’t be it either. Was it possible, then, that hemomancers simply had some physical tell that she wasn’t aware of? How else could he have seen right through her?
That thought was a spark on an oil slick of dread. The greasy smoke occluded her every thought. If there was a tell she didn’t know about, then that meant her attempts at hiding her hemomancy for her whole life could all have been for naught. And if a human had figured it out and caught her out, she’d be given a scourge test before the spittle dried from her objection. The thought dampened her palms and drove her to march faster to escape the silent eyes of the night.
When she was nearly back to her apartment, Coral found her footsteps becoming heavier. Soon she stopped altogether, nestled between two slate-gray buildings that were once a produce shop and a car parts store. A low, chilly breeze whistled through the little alley. The moon hanging high above outshone the flickering streetlights that dotted the rest of the way home.
If that guy knew so much about me, she thought with pronounced trepidation, then he must also know where I live. The thought fluttered in the wind, announcing a change in her sails. She couldn’t go home. Not with so many uncertainties piled up so high.
Not wasting a moment, Coral turned on her heel and doubled back through the old commercial district, into the shadow of Caduceus. She retraced her steps as far as the park on Laburn and Kendale, and then crossed the bridge over the Diamondback River. She was soon greeted by a thinning sprawl that unfurled like a blanket of desiccated autumn leaves.
The residential area was sparser and even less affluent than the central area of Wheatling where she now lived. Many of the homes could have been abandoned for how poorly they were maintained. Lawns grew wild and untamed through rusted chain-link fences. Oil-stained driveways gleamed with rainbow patches in the glow of the streetlights. Yards piled high with disemboweled automobiles and other junk grinned at her through the gaps in the tracts of single-story homes. The place hadn’t changed since she was a little girl.
After detouring down a few side streets to throw anyone who might have been tailing her, Coral pulled her phone out and dialed her parents’ number. The phone rang, a hollow and old-timey sound in the era of smartphones and mass-produced miracles. A mechanical voice announced the transition to the answering machine. She clicked her tongue in irritation. You don’t need to screen your calls so damn thoroughly, she thought. Who else would be calling you at nine at night? She hung up without saying a word. Mama hated random drop-ins, but calling from three minutes away wasn’t much warning anyway.
The streets narrowed as she rounded the corner with the old halfway house and began to skirt the edge of the housing projects that, depressingly, made up the core of the neighborhood. A seemingly endless row of yardless, single-story shoebox duplexes ran along her left side. They were little more than sad concrete blocks with barred windows arranged in a dense grid spanning four by three city blocks. Floodlights blazed over the gray-shingled roofs, artificial suns casting artificial days. Coral had never quite felt safe living so near to the projects; whenever she walked near or through the area, she could feel eyes on her.
Eyes. Judgmental eyes. The thought was especially unwelcome tonight, and soon she was walking with longer strides and faster steps. Just past the fourth block of those apartments, she swung a right onto her parents’ street. Immediately the road widened to a respectable width, and the streetlights glowed a little warmer over poorly tended but vibrant, living lawns. Her restraint and peace of mind frayed in tandem, and she broke into a run at the first sight of the house.
Gasping for breath, more certain than ever that she hadn’t been alone on that last backstreet, she flew through the gate and up the creaking patio steps. She pounded three times at the door, waited a beat, and then knocked thrice more. “Mama? Daddy? It’s me.”
She could hear her parents moving inside in response to her voice, somewhere down the hall, probably the living room. Fear and cold had a mutual stranglehold of her, so she stood shaking. She breathed through her scarf, and the air went down jagged. Nervous, she brushed her eyes over the crucifix nailed to the front door. It was a grisly, ghoulish thing, but she was happy to see it tonight.
Somebody approached the door with heavy steps. Probably Daddy. The door creaked with weight, like they were checking the peephole. Probably Mama, then. The doorknob clicked, and the door swung inward. Coral pushed forward to get through the door and out of the exposing night. But she stopped dead when her eyes took in an unfamiliar face and frame. She reared back a step in shock.
The man’s face was overly round, flecked with blotches of deeper brown between his wrinkles. “Ahh, good evening,” the man spoke, a thin smile on his face. “You must be Coral. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
As shocking as it was to come face-to-face with a strange man in her parents’ home, his calm, neighborly tone disarmed her, injected a mote of doubt into her fragile mindscape. “W-who are you?” she asked.
His gaze softened. “I’m Blake Shields. Perhaps your parents mentioned me at some point. We go to the same church. I’ve heard so much about you. I was hoping we would have the opportunity to meet sometime soon. And you’re just in time for tea and dessert. Please, why don’t you join us?”
Coral couldn’t move a muscle. Her arms quivered. Her knees wobbled. The man’s deception was so brazen as to actually take on some semblance of subtlety; who could lie so blatantly and expect to get away with it? She wanted desperately to believe him, but there were too many obvious points of contradiction. After a long moment, she managed to stutter a reply. “I was just stopping by because I was in the area.” She had to stop twice to get enough air to finish the sentence. “I, uh, I need to be going.” She slid a step back, and the porch creaked under her weight.
A shadow of displeasure crept across the man’s face. “Mrs. Savary,” he said, voice echoing softly down the hall behind him. “Be a good hostess and invite your daughter in for some tea.”
A sobbing voice, barely audible, came from the direction of the living room. “Coral?”
“M-Mama?” Coral called, voice catching in her throat.
The man’s face twitched. The whole house moved with some distant rumble of activity, like every wall shifting and groaning in the wind. Too many human shadows eroded the warm, sherry light spilling into the hall from the living room. Suddenly, a feminine shriek stabbed the air and confirmed the obvious. “Coral! Run!”
The man’s face melted into a hideous scowl. “Shut that bitch up!” he boomed, loud enough to send a spike of pain through Coral’s skull.
Coral gasped, and her muscles finally caught up with her brain. She spun about and threw herself down the stairs, adrenaline taking over.
Without breaking stride, she slipped through the gate and bounded out over the cracked sidewalk. No headlights stained the asphalt of the road. She barreled across without looking in either direction. Straight ahead, past a single-room office of orange stucco, was one of the narrow paths leading into the projects. It wasn’t much for an escape route. Still, she had no choice. The arrow of her inertia was pointed solidly forward. The racing footsteps and shouts from behind chased her into it.
Every step of her stride carried the bulk of her winter clothing. Her lungs burned with the icy air, but she had no choice but to run as fast as she could. It was only a matter of moments before the warm glow of her childhood street was replaced by the blazing glare of the stadium-caliber floodlights. The open air became solid blocks of unpainted concrete. Her own stark shadow grew longer and shorter; she had to keep chasing it.
“Help!” she yelled, hoping that some good Samaritan in the projects would hear and come to her aid. Not likely with those numbers, she thought. So she ran at a full sprint down two of the projects’ blocks. The sound of her pursuers only grew louder as she entered the third.
Coral bitterly resented her lack of physical activity; she was no runner, and the cumulative strain on her muscles and lungs was beginning to weigh her down. Blocky hedges raced by on either side of her, broken only by small ramps leading into concrete patios for the shoeboxes. Her side was splitting. She choked for air, but it came back in a spasm of coughs.
She didn’t have much time. She couldn’t hope to outrun her nearing pursuers. And as that fatalistic thought rippled through her muscles, something huge crashed down on her from behind. Her legs were swept from under her, and her stomach dropped. Everything spun. She threw her arms out to break her fall. A rush of concrete abraded her skin through her coat’s sleeves. A deep, horrible thud crunched the air from her lungs, and finally the world came to a stop.
The footsteps slowed as they closed what little remained of the distance, like hunters leisurely surrounding their kill.
“Damn, look what you made me do,” came a woman’s voice from above. Amused mockery vibrated in her voice.
A few more voices joined in the chorus of laughter. The sounds formed a semicircle around her at the rear.
“Well done, Bertha.” It was Blake’s voice. He didn’t sound even the least bit tired from the three-block all-out sprint. “Such an impudent child you are. If you’d just joined us all for tea, we wouldn’t have to hurt you. You have nobody to blame but yourself.”
Gaze filled with the depth of her own shadow, Coral threw her arms forward and clawed at the concrete. She was rattled, exhausted, and surrounded, but she had to do something. As she dragged herself a few inches across the ground, a wet pain blazed across her scraped wrist. A dark red line under her sleeve caught her eye. Moist scabbing ran right over her vein. Her breath caught. She was still bleeding from her self-inflicted injury.
Of course she was. Thanks to her hemophilia, her body couldn’t clot the wound on its own. She’d been staunching the bleeding using her power this whole time. It was a well-ingrained habit by now. Her desperation and fear parted for just a moment; she beheld a single glimmer of hope. Of course. She was a damned hemomancer.
“Now then. How about you stand up and come with us, Coral? We won’t hurt you. And your parents would be most happy if you were to comply without any further resistance.”
The words slid right off her shoulders, half-absorbed. She wasn’t helpless. She had the power to save herself and her family from whoever these sinister people were. There was nobody around to help her now. She would have to make a direct attack and hope it worked the way it did in media. With a dry, smoldering breath, Coral began to rise. The long-dead fantasy of her childhood returned to her. When her feet were flat, she turned toward the group of four.
They all stood like obedient dogs awaiting the order to bark. Two men, two women. All were dressed in dark shirts and black jackets that burned with reflected light around the edges. Blake stood in the center, arms crossed, wicked smile bulging beneath his eyes. “There,” he said. “Much better. Come with us. It’s not too late for some tea.” Somebody chuckled at the remark.
The icy mist hanging in the air bloomed in the floodlights, turning to voluminous, dazzling spheres of hazy light. She was suspended between surreal Christmas ornaments, facing down the culmination of her entire life’s fear. Her mind went slack and allowed the blood to trickle from her wrist. Her mind throbbed with the beat of her heart. This was it. This was why God made her a hemomancer. It was for this moment of singular serendipity.
Her lips folded about two snarled words. “Afraid not.” A scream rent the calm. She swept her arm, and the power concentrated in her veins erupted into the air. A jet of shimmering crimson-black fluid burst from her veins, inviting a horrible, gut-wrenching vacuity. It streaked through the light and toward her assailants.
But the sensation of her mind striking a solid wall jarred her back into a panicked rasp for breath. That horrible vibration returned and rippled through the heavy light, through her body. In a split second, her stream of blood halted in mid-air. Her attack, and her hope with it, came to an abrupt end. No, she thought, desperation wrapping about her stomach and dragging it down. The sudden loss of blood made her dizzy. Her pulse raced. Her knees wobbled.
“Ho-ho? A nought with a spine?” Blake chuckled, a quizzical grin pulling his eyes half-closed as he stared into the uneven globules of blood hovering before him. “Pinch me, for I must be dreaming!”
A round of raucous laughter swirled around her.
Blake licked his lips. “This is truly sad. It seems nobody ever taught you how to fight. Guess I’ll need to give you a lesson.” He clenched his fist, and a low crackling sound filled the wet air. The quivering blobs of Coral’s blood began to compress, collapsing into themselves.
Coral stood transfixed by the sight. Before she knew what had happened, the rough splatter had crystallized into a constellation of solid geometric forms. The black-red sheen of fluid was replaced by a deep, lustrous maroon that shone like splintered glass.
“See?” Blake laughed. “So much easier to fight when you do something with your damned blood!” A violent grin ripped Blake’s face in half and he thrust his hand outward. A louder crack followed, and the crystalline shapes exploded. Solid chunks of blood flew at her like shrapnel.
She didn’t have time to do anything. A scourge of heat lashed at her face and shoulders. Shards of solid blood ripped through her winterwear and into her skin. The shock and impact of the blades sent her sprawling. The concrete rose to meet her once more. Her hip struck first, and her hands came alight as her landing scraped the skin from her palms.
Gasping down lungfuls of boiling air, Coral groped at her extremities and found fresh wounds covering her arms and shoulders. The brightly illuminated concrete, mildly warm from the constant beating of the floodlights, cut a silhouette about the man’s leisurely approach.
“Oh, what a fun game this is!” Blake shouted. “Are all noughts so beautifully pitiful as you, my dear? I could get used to this.”
“Enough, Blake,” one of the others said. Her tone said she was afraid of speaking too loudly to him. “Lord Malthus will have all our heads if we deliver her damaged.”
“Lord Malthus will reward us so long as she reaches him with a beating heart,” Blake corrected. His shadow now towered over her, completely blotting out the light. “He won’t mind much if we break her a little first.”
Something blurred at the edge of her vision, and a hard blow slammed into her gut. Her whole body contorted around the impact. Malleable flesh and tissues crunched. Pain enveloped her stomach and spine. She folded herself over, clutching her abdomen and coughing hard enough to send tears streaking down her cheeks.
“Blake, that’s enough.” The woman’s words were laced with venom now. “Just grab her and let’s—”
The crack of a gunshot blasted in Coral’s ears, and she curled tighter in reflex. The shadows standing around her went rigid, then tried to scatter in surprise. The woman who had been talking fell first, hitting the ground with a nauseating crunch of bone.
A gallop of gunshots followed, deafening cracks and flashes that stabbed her retinas and punctured her battered mind. Coral pressed her eyes shut and screamed. Shouts licked from the remaining three assailants, and they began to scatter and return fire toward some unseen adversary. Coral wrapped her hands around her head to blunt the concussive noise. A hot deafness set in as the shots kept hammering and spent cartridges clanged to the concrete mere inches from her face.
Another man and the remaining woman fell, clutching their torsos and abdomens. With an oblique step to the side, the final man squeezed off three quick shots down the aisle of hedges, and then his shoulders twisted. The last standing shadow collapsed into a crouch, a loud groan droning beneath the ringing in Coral’s ears. The pistol tumbled from the man’s grip. It had only lasted a matter of seconds. Just like that, the fight was over.
Each beat of Coral’s heart caused the edges of her vision to bulge and distort. Slowly, she turned her gaze behind her. Two figures were approaching through the glowing haze, weapons drawn. Gasping for breath, she told herself she needed to take advantage of the carnage to make an escape, but her muscles were shaking so violently she couldn’t move at all.
“Well, if it isn’t Blake Shields,” one of the figures said.
Despite the pain squeezing her body all over, Coral twisted her neck to get a look at him. The man in front was tall and lean, even with the full-length coat he wore. His skin was dark tan, his hair shaggy and black, nearly obscuring his eyes. A pale, jagged scar cracked the bridge of his nose and gleamed brightly in the light.
Blake groaned at her side. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked, voice hitting an animalistic chord of anger.
“That’s our line, so it is.” It was an Irish accent this time, light and playful with supremacy. Coral lifted her neck another inch and caught a glimpse of the speaker; green coat and red hair on a strong build.
The man in front of Gavin pulled back the hammer on his revolver and aimed it at Blake’s head. From only two yards away, there would be no missing. The gun hit the perfect angle to blind Coral with a sharp, gouging reflection.
Blake’s breaths slowed, deepened. “If you think I’m going to beg for mercy, you’re going to be disappointed.”
The man in front chuckled. “Beg? Nah. I know that’s not your style. But now that I can see the whites of your eyes, I’m not in much of a murdering mood.” He took a slow step forward, crushed a black boot atop Blake’s dropped pistol, and then flung it across the concrete away from him. “I know that look,” he said. “It’s that look that says, just a little closer, asshole. Just a little closer to my comrades’ blood. You want to try your luck against me? I sure wouldn’t. Nothing makes me stabbier than having someone spit in your face when you’ve offered ’em a hand.”
Blake’s silhouette trembled. “You bastard.”
“Who told you about Coral?” Gavin demanded. “Give me a name.”
“Lord Malthus,” Blake growled back.
The tan man guffawed loudly. “Hear that, Gavin? Blake thinks he’s a comedian! Don’t play the fool. Tell us who provided the information, and perhaps we’ll let you walk away alive.”
“As if I know. I’m not in the need-to-know club.” Blake sounded livid, yet resigned.
“Are you sure you don’t want to amend that answer?” the tan man asked.
“Might not have time for that after all,” Gavin said.
That was when Coral became aware of a distant wailing. Sirens. They sure took their damn time. A thorn of irrational panic caught on her roiling fog of thoughts; what if whoever called the cops saw her attempt at hemomancy? What if they were looking for her?
Gavin’s eyes flickered to Coral, and then all his attention returned to Blake. “Shall we finish off the wounded snake?”
The man in front considered Blake with a piercing glare. “How many more of you are in this city?”
Blake hesitated to answer. “Four.”
“The four at the girl’s apartment only?”
Coral’s pulse raced. She felt it in her skull, and that ache was worse than her flesh wounds.
Another long moment passed. “Drop your phone on the ground,” the man said, “and you walk away alive. I’m sure there’ll be some reward for telling Malthus it was Jase and Gavin that fucked your perfect kidnapping.”
Blake scoffed. “Alive? Like I’d believe that bullshit.”
“This is the wrong bluff to call. Five seconds. Make a choice.”
A long hiss of a breath scraped the air. Blake reached into his jacket, and then a hunk of metal clattered to the concrete. “Satisfied?”
“Euphorically so.” The man who apparently went by Jase gestured down the grid of duplex apartments with the barrel of his revolver. “Now get the hell out of here.”
As if weighing his choices on a physical scale, Blake shook in place for several agonizing seconds. Then, still holding his shoulder with one hand, he lurched to his feet and began to trundle away at a stumbling pace.
The two men standing over Coral didn’t move again until Blake’s footsteps had vanished beneath the ringing of her ears and the sirens. Gavin’s shoulders relaxed with a small heave, and he released a sigh that turned to mist. “Bloody fair play! That was a close one.”
“Hmm.” Jase lowered his pistol at last. He stepped over to the phone on the ground and scooped it up into his pocket. Then, for the first time, he looked down at where Coral lay upon the concrete. “Are you alright?”
“Jesus,” Gavin muttered. “I’m so sorry. If I’d known the Rosarium was in town I’d have been a bit firmer with my warning.” He walked over to her and reached down for her. “Come on, now. You’re alright. I’ve gotcha.” She couldn’t move her hands even if she wanted to, and so he took her by the wrists and heaved.
The whole world tilted around her, and a powerful wave of nausea pincushioned her aching core. Her feet miraculously came to rest flatly upon the ground, and her shaking muscles stilled just enough that she could stand on her own. She felt the powerful urge to throw up, but surrendering to it would have sent her back into a flaccid heap on the ground. She sucked icy breaths deep into her stomach to quell the storm.
“Are you alright?” Gavin asked her.
Vision still distorted by her racing pulse, she looked up into his face. The worry and kindness in his features proved to her that, at least for now, he meant her no harm. And so instead of running, she conceded an outburst. “What the fuck is going on?!” she wailed, voice cracking her throat on the way out.
“There’ll be time for that,” Jase answered from a few steps away, gaze set upon the far off suggestions of red and blue light playing across the tangle of concrete and asphalt. “Right now we don’t have much to spare. Let’s get back to your parents’ place.”
— Chapter 3 —
Coral couldn’t control her shaking. Her fingernails rattled the syringe’s barrel, now dry of Factor. The ones her mother kept stocked were so damn frail and cheap. It felt like the plastic was about to crack in her grip. Still, the easy chair in the living room accepted her calmly without question or judgment. Her parents, sitting across from her on the couch, would not be so kind. They looked even worse than she felt.
Her mother’s lip was split, and black, caked blood decorated the swelling. Her fragile shoulders trembled as she clutched a string of rosary beads hard enough they should have cracked. Her father, meanwhile, was sitting beside her, between the cushions and the coffee table, trying to project the image of stoicism. That image—that illusion—was undermined by the fact he had failed to protect them from the home invaders. His hands were rubbing his wife’s shoulder like he was fighting frostbite, his gaze fixed upon Gavin.
“Five minutes is all I ask,” Gavin repeated. His tone was sterner than before, pounded to a less flexible consistency by the threat of the police. “After that, you will never see me again.”
Her father’s facade of resolve cracked. The shaking in his shoulders echoed his lingering shellshock. “A’ight. Better be quick now.”
Gavin sucked in a noisy breath to speak. Before he could, Coral’s mother blurted out the question on all their minds: “Who were those men?” Her voice sounded nothing like it should have; gone were the warm comfort and proud hospitality.
The woman’s gaze was burrowing right through Coral, hollowing her out. Why are you giving me that look? It made her skin crawl with the premonition of doom.
The back of Coral’s seat creaked as Gavin eased himself off of it and rocked back on his heels. “Those men,” he said with a quiet breath, “were roaches, the Rosarium’s goons. And before you ask, I haven’t the damnedest how they found you here. The important thing is that we drove ’em off before they could harm Coral. And that’s really the point of the thing. Why we’re here, and all that.”
Coral held her breath. Her parents looked just as perplexed as she felt. She focused on her breathing, tried to smooth out the twisted tissue in her still-aching stomach.
Gavin waited for a moment and then continued. “Jase and I are from the Orchid Veil. Got sent out here on an urgent mission, since we had information on the whereabouts of a nought. This lass here.” He nudged the back of her chair, and Coral almost jumped out of her skin. “Don’t know what you might’ve heard before, but the Veil is only interested in protecting noughts like her. But it looks like we weren’t the only ones to get the tipoff. The Rosarium beat us here in number. Can’t tell you how sorry we all are about that. But the important thing is Coral’s alright, isn’t it?”
Her parents exchanged a look that tightened Coral’s stomach into a painful knot. She could see the words passing between their eyes. After what felt to be a thousand-year stare-off, Coral’s father turned to Gavin with all the alacrity of a marble statue. “You wanna try answerin’ her question without bombardin’ us with nonsense?”
Gavin was momentarily silent, yet audibly off-kilter. “I thought that was a rather straightforward explanation of this situation.”
Her father scowled. “Like hell it was! Four damn criminals just broke into our house and held us at gunpoint, yelling where’s your daughter, where’s your daughter, like she was a dealer crossin’ the wrong cartel. And here you come with a bunch of crap about Lord knows what! Tryin’ to confuse us instead of tellin’ us anything coherent. Who in God’s name are you and what do you want with my daughter?”
Gavin licked his lips. The wearing of his patience was apparent in even that tiny motion. “I told you. I’m Gavin Lyon. Orchid Veil.”
“That there!” her father spat, shaking a finger in his direction. “Orchid Veil. What the hell is that now? A gang? You with the damn crims? Is this a damned turf war?”
Gavin was quiet for a moment, and then his shoulders slumped a little. “Ahh. Now I get it. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me much. Families don’t become ghosts to the Veil without a sizable investment of energy or wealth.” Gavin slowly walked out from behind Coral’s chair and gave her parents a plaintive look. “Would it be improper for me to ask for how long your family has been living as chameleons?” He took their long silence as a sign to dumb it down further. “That is to say, removed from the world of hemos.”
Coral’s blood ran cold at the word hemo. The portent of doom finally revealed itself. “Gavin,” she said through clenched teeth. “Shut up.”
The room remained utterly silent. Coral could feel the confusion billowing from everyone around her. Her parents’ faces were twin looks of complete and utter bewilderment. Her mother’s lips trembled. Her father tilted his head to the side as he glowered at Gavin. “Removed from what now?”
“From the world of hemos,” Gavin repeated, a note of a question slipping into the word. “In any case, I suppose it doesn’t really matter, does it? If you don’t know, then you don’t know. So to answer your question about who those men were, I’ll say it again: the Rosarium. That is, the servants of Lord Malthus of the Rose.” The name he spoke with a snarl that melted seamlessly back into his normal lilt. “It was once a respectable order, but the Rose has commandeered it in an attempt to control the whole of the hemomantic world.”
Horror burst across her parents’ faces. “Oh, Lord,” her mother shrieked into her rosary beads. “Hemomancers?!”
Her father curled his lip. He showed Gavin a scowl that would have made the devil himself terrified. “I don’t know what even half the things you said just now mean,” he said, “but I’m getting a picture of it. But what would a bunch of verms want with our Coral?” His tone was suddenly level, painfully measured. His drawl was at full strength.
The dread crawling up Coral’s spine began to gnaw hungrily upon her. Shut up, she mouthed, unable to find her voice. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
But Gavin, oblivious to her turmoil, continued. “I’m afraid if you didn’t know about the Rosarium,” he said, “then the full explanation you deserve wouldn’t make much sense to you. The quickest explanation is that the Rosarium desperately needs a nought. That’s why they came after Coral.”
Coral’s father furrowed his brow and grimaced. “A nought?”
Another moment of confused exasperation settled into Gavin’s jaw. “That’s what we call hemomancers with O-negative blood.”
A silent gasp spilled from Coral’s lips. Those words sat in her ears, laughing at her. All the fear she’d ever felt, all the paranoia that had ever feasted upon her, all the solitude—it all returned at once, filled the room, thick enough to drown her. This was the moment she’d spent her entire life dreading, praying would never come.
All the warmth vanished from the world. Coral was paralyzed. Even if she could think of something to say, she wouldn’t be physically able. Her stomach cramped. Her skin crawled. Her tongue clenched and froze and coiled and slacked. Before she realized it, her shaking had returned, more violent than ever before.
It was all the more dreadful for the maddening silence. The living room yawned hollowly around them all. Nobody spoke a word. Her parents’ eyes were wide, sparkling with distilled suspicion. Their attention was now split evenly between her and Gavin. She could feel her mother’s gaze upon her, and the longer she held it the more her stomach quivered.
After a pause long enough to grow old and die within, her father’s pale, waxen face turned fully up toward Gavin. “Hemomancer. Ya mean hemophiliac, don’t ya?” His lips struggled to get the quavering words out.
Terror wrung Coral’s insides until she thought she would die. Clinging to the thought that she could still salvage this conversation, she jumped to her feet and wheeled on Gavin. “Shut up! Shut your goddamn mouth, alright?!” Her voice warbled as she spoke, and the man took a full step back at her eruption. “Just, just quit with these fucking lies. My… I was almost killed, alright? There ain’t no need to…”
Gavin’s eyes bulged, and his teeth showed momentarily between his lips. “Now you listen here,” he said, his voice drowning out hers in both volume and power. “If you don’t want to listen to what I have to say, then that’s your right, so it is. But I have a responsibility to take you back to the Veil before the Rosarium gets their filthy hands on you.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about!” A chill painted its way up Coral’s back. “Just get out of here!” Her lungs ran empty with the outburst, and the next breath nearly dragged her down to the carpet. She thrust one finger toward the door and glared as violently at Gavin as he could. “Get out, get out of here right now and don’t come back!”
“Hemomancer,” her mother whispered.
That word, barely audible, washed away all else. It slithered deep into Coral’s bones, overwhelmed her. Her outstretched arm shivered and fell limply to her side. She’d never heard her mother’s voice twisted so venomously about a single word. What hope she had dared to cling to that she could divert the coming trainwreck bled out of her.
Coral dared to turn and meet her mother’s eyes. She found smoldering beads of pitch watching her. She tried to speak, but her lips refused to move.
Gavin, too, was silent.
Her father, looking no more lively than one of the carcasses left in the projects, cleared his throat. “Our daughter. Is a hemomancer?”
Coral’s shoulders rattled, and she couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye. No, she thought. Please, God, no.
And as if all the love and tenderness had been snuffed out in a single moment, her mother leapt to her feet. “Hemomancer?!” Her voice was shrill, hysterical. “You’re a hemomancer?!”
Her father marched out around the coffee table. Loathing filled his blue eyes. “Goddammit. Tell me it ain’t true.”
She wasn’t looking at him. Her attention was drawn past him to her mother, whose knuckles were pale white stones entwined in her rosary. “Mama,” Coral said, her own voice warbling and pitching out of her control. “I… It ain’t true.”
“Don’t you lie to me,” her mother hissed, face bubbling into a gargoyle’s. “I always thought it was a miracle you didn’t bleed out after that fall at Brown Mountain. But no. It wasn’t a miracle. God has nothing to do with you, you wretched little verm!”
The words sank right into her wrecked stomach. Her knees rattled.
Her father’s lip twitched. Hatred boiled in his irises. “Get out. Right now.”
The breath caught somewhere between Coral’s heart and her throat. “Daddy, I—”
“Devil!” her mother yelled. “Demon! Blood drinker! Get out of my house and never show your face again!”
The room blurred to pale abstractions. An ache cut up along her spine and flayed her heart open. Cherished memories burst into flames. Her mother’s hateful wailing shredded the perfect home she’d been raised in. The air, perfumed by malice, left her lungs burning. The tears broke free. She couldn’t choke the anguished sob down.
“You’re gonna cry?” her father growled. “As if you have a damned soul to save!”
Gavin quickly stepped between her and her father and raised his hands toward the man. “Hold on,” he said, clearly flustered by their reaction. “Let’s all just calm down for a moment, alright?”
Her father painted Gavin up and down with a violent expression. His upper lip twitched. “What do you want now?”
Still shaken, Gavin passed his gaze between her parents and chewed his lip for a moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I didn’t mean to get involved in your family’s affairs. But I promise to make things right by protecting Coral.” Her father looked like he gave precisely zero fucks about her safety anymore. “But the Rosarium is going to send more men here,” Gavin continued. “You lot are still in danger. So the Veil will very shortly be in touch to relocate you for your own safety.”
“Relocate?” Her father chomped the word in half. “If this Veil of yours is another verm nest, then don’t bother. Tell the rest of the lice to save their effort. If they come within a hundred yards of my house I’ll put a silver bullet in each of their brains.”
Gavin, still climbing out of a state of complete disarmament, gave his head a resigned shake. “It’s not only for your own good. It’s for your daughter’s as well.”
Her father’s lip twitched more violently than before. The hatred in his eyes was sharp enough to kill. “I have no daughter.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” her mother was muttering over her rosary beads. Tears rolled down her face, and sobs twisted her lovely features into ghoulish proportions. “The Lord is with thee.”
“Valerie,” her father seethed. “That shit about Brown Mountain. You suspected, didn’t you. You kept this from me. You knew what she was, and you kept it from me. Why?”
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
“Hey, listen you two,” Gavin tried to interject.
“Valerie,” her father said again, this time with more force. “Answer me.”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.”
“Fucking answer me!” He grabbed the rosary beads in one hand and tore, but her mother was clutching them so desperately that the chain broke with a loud pop. He wrenched the rosary from her hands and threw it callously upon the coffee table. An ear-racking chorus of clangs and cracks ripped through the living room. “You can hocus-pocus when we’re through with this, a’ight?!”
Her mother turned toward him and struck him across the face with one open palm. “This is all your fault,” she screamed, red-faced and wild-eyed. “Because you didn’t believe, we’re being punished. Lord, I should have known you’d give me a demon child.”
He rubbed his cheek, and his eyes smoldered with rage. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare hit me, Valerie. After all I’ve done for this family I ain’t gonna have you blame me for this!”
“And who should I blame, huh?! Why else would we be cursed with a verm?!”
That word, punctuated with an open glare at Coral. It felt like that twist of her tongue carried more hatred and malice than the entirety of human history combined. Coral couldn’t breathe. She clutched her chest, squeezed, and wished the pain of her fingernails scratching through her skin would awake her. It was the last straw. She couldn’t take any more. She turned, tears pouring down her cheeks, and started for the door.
“Good,” her mother shouted after her. “Get out of here. Never come back.”
“Hey! Wait a minute!” Gavin shouted.
Coral threw the front door open, and the deep chill of the winter evening whipped over her tear-streaked eyes. Sobs clenched her jaw tight around a scream. It was the end of everything.
“You’re just in time,” came Jase’s voice. He stood on the porch, arms folded, keeping watch as he’d promised he would. “I think we’re nearly out of time.” His attention was so focused on the dueling red and blue flashes coming from the projects that he hadn’t noticed the state she was in. She wanted to slap him, strangle him, erase him so thoroughly from existence that they retroactively failed to rescue her.
“Don’t be running off on a whim, alright?” Gavin barked from behind. The screen door creaked a farewell as it fell shut behind him.
He reached out to grab her by the shoulder, and Coral snapped. “Don’t you fucking touch me!” She wheeled about and glared death up into his twinkling blue eyes. All the resentment and rejection percolating through her heart and soul came out between her teeth. “Who do you think you are? Do you know how hard it’s been to keep this goddamn secret? And in two seconds you just come and ruin everything. Why couldn’t you have fucked off and let those people take me?”
Her indignation drained Gavin’s face of all its fervor. He looked like a different person than the one who’d tailed her all along Garnet Avenue. “That’s a fine thank you for saving your damned life.”
“Who asked for your help?!” Her voice cracked at the end, and she buried her face in her hands. Oh, God, this can’t be happening, she thought with a particularly violent sob. What did I do to deserve this? I never wanted any of this.
The point of her tongue left Gavin speechless. He stood there silently as she let the tears dribble into her palms.
“I’ll take it things went a little south of perfect,” Jase said. “You are truly terrible with women.”
“Now’s not the time for your snark,” Gavin snapped. “I think we’ve made a right mess of things.”
“At least you’re willing to own it.” He sounded bored. “If you’re finished setting fire to the world, perhaps we can get a move on.” He started down the patio steps and rolled his shoulder to indicate they should follow.
Coral didn’t move. The air was cold on her face, a tiny, tangible comfort for the tatters of her life. Tamara, she thought, why did you have to leave? Everything was perfect before.
“Listen,” Gavin said softly, “we need to go. Now. The police are going to be combing this whole area looking for who killed those people. And they’re going to be the least of our problems if that Blake guy gets back to the rest of ’em.”
For a moment, Coral again considered opening her veins and spraying a signal into the air to draw the police right to her and Gavin. It was a brief thought fueled by a petty want for revenge. She knew that even if she tried, the man would overpower her blood just as he had the first time—and just as Blake had. She heaved a sigh and started down the stairs. Following Jase was the last thing on her mind. “Leave me alone.”
“You have nowhere to go.”
A razor slashed at her heart as he said it. Her feet refused to carry her any farther.
“Blake said there were four more from the Rosarium at your apartment. And that’s just right now. There will be more. You can’t stay here, and even if you did, it’s only a matter of time before they come back.” He walked up behind her, and she could hear him straining to keep his tone under control. “Dammit, I’m trying to help you. Come with us so we can protect you.”
She didn’t care at all about being protected. At that moment, life and death were equally miserable options. Quietly, she tried to squelch the sobs that kept tugging at her chest. “Okay,” she muttered. It was all the same to her. If nothing mattered, it was simplest to let him have his way before someone else showed up and made things even worse than they’d become. This whole mess started because she hadn’t listened to him in the alley, after all.
And even as Gavin guided her steps after Jase down the street and around the corner of Spinel Street, she felt completely hollow. She was trapped. Tamara was gone. Her parents hated her, just as she knew they would. She had never felt more alone. And aside from that solitude, the only thing she could feel was contempt—contempt for Gavin and Jase, and for every other hemomancer alive.
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