An odd couple seek the medical help of an unconventional trauma professional.
| “The rules don’t apply here, Christian.” Ulrich said, far away. “He is the Prime and if he dies we all lose great power.”
“So you didn’t speak with the rest of the council?” The other voice was filled with a giddy, incredulous humor that seemed incongruous with Ulrich’s concern.
“I did not have the luxury of time.”
“But you’re Ulrich, the Follower of Rules.” This Christian person knew Ulrich well and knew him well enough to not be afraid of backlash from Ulrich as he teased him.
“I will rip your arms off if you don’t get to work. You want an arcane fix from the Nightbound again? Work on him.” Ulrich’s anger was riding on the edge of a panicky wave.
“Fuck it. What happened?” Ice cold hands were pressing into my skin, rolling me over to my side. The cold hands pressed into my back.
“Short or unabridged?” Ulrich asked.
“I’ll take the abridged version of this mess. Jesus, he’s bleeding, Ulrich.” Christian pressed something hot to a numb, blank space in the middle of my back.
“That detail is in the full version.” Ulrich said evenly.
“Well, he’s healthy still. What happened?”
“What do you know about the name binding ceremonies?” Ulrich asked. The man let out a trill of a whistle, thinking.
“It’s technically not legit.” Christian finally said and lifted one of my eyelids. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t move. I could hear and feel, but nothing else. My manus were also missing.
“What do you mean?” Ulrich said and I knew he would be frowning with his one arm crossed and the other rubbing his chin.
“Well, blood magic is a human thing. You vampires like the idea of being in control of the blood, but who really runs the show?” I heard a smacking, like loud chewing.
“I’m not following you.”
“Blood is life for you, but you can also survive on just pure arcane. You wouldn’t have to drink my blood, you could just sap from me.” Christian cleared his throat and I felt sharp pricks in my skin. He was using a needle to stitch up something on my back.
“But we use the arcane in the blood to make the contracts. They are binding.” Ulrich insisted.
“Yeah, vampire contracts are definitely binding.” Christian sounded bitter and he spit, the sound wet and vulgar.
“Nightbound,” Ulrich corrected him. Christian let out a guffaw and his hand shook with his laughter.
“You’re very full of yourselves.”
“You’re treading dangerously close to my breaking point.” Ulrich said through clenched teeth.
“Alright, I’ll put it simply. You’re a vam--Nightbound. You traded blood, arcane, the works. Someone made you the way you are. You’ve got so much life force in you that you’re probably bursting at the seams with energy. Sure, you use a complicated system in that creepfest you belong to, but that’s what it boils down to, yeah?” Ulrich’s silence must have been taken for unwilling agreement. The man named Christian was silent for a moment while he finished the knot in the stitch and clipped away the thread.
“Go on,” Ulrich demanded.
“Mm, yeah. Ah, so,” the man coughed and cleared his throat again. “Do you think you could clear this up for me before you go?” I heard a thudding, like he was pounding on his chest. “The human doctors don’t have much hope for me, but I think you could probably help me.”
“Yes, if you save him.” Ulrich agreed.
“Where was I? Yeah, ok. So you’re still human, kinda, you know. You just have that out of whack thing goin’ on with the lux. No one knows how to tip it back but I think your pal here might.” The man’s cold hands tapped my shoulder and then he rolled me to my back again.
“The blood magic?” Ulrich reminded him.
“Yeah, so blood magic is a human thing. It dates back to the tribal days of humanity when humans knew that blood was what kept animals like themselves alive. But they didn’t know what in the blood did that. Couldn’t even have possibly worked it out if they tried because they had those walls up, a lot like they do now, but they were thin then. Permeable, you know?” Christian’s hands were probing me again.
“I was unaware of this.” Ulrich sounded perturbed.
“Vampires are a perversion of that blood magic. The first ones were probably priests of some cult or another that had access to the arcane, their walls were thinner than most with huge gaping holes and somehow one accidentally got a good mouthful of someone else’s blood and thought ‘Oh, that’s alright, I’ll have some more, thanks.’ It might have even been ritualistic at some point, merely symbolic.”
“But humans, even Conjugates can’t ingest arcane from blood.” Ulrich interjected.
“Look, I’m not a fuckin history professor, I just know what I’m told.” Christian hit a tender place in my thigh and snorted.
“Again, another detail in the long version.” Ulrich said in response to the snort.
“You’re right, though. Modern humans aren’t very good with arcane. I would guess there’s maybe one out of every hundred thousand with enough power to be worthwhile to your kind. Fuckin’ hell, Ulrich. Did you fuckin’ bite him?” He was close to my face this time, his breath felt hot against my skin and I realized I could smell again. He smelled like decay.
“Move along, Christian, or I won’t mend your chest.”
“So, they have long since forgotten that arcane lives in the blood. But these vampires that used to be human, they don’t ever fuckin’ die. They don’t ever have to forget the blood magic. The old stuff was simple, like making promises and sealing them with your blood. That sort of thing.”
“Like our contracts.”
“Yeah, like your bloody, fuckin’ contracts.” Christian spat again.
“What else could they do back then, with their blood magic?”
“They used it to make marriages between their kind. If you give and take enough blood with someone, there’s something that will usually take root and then you’re stuck together. You feel what they feel and vice versa. It will wear off, of course. Arcane is fickle.” A cloth was wiping my face and then his fingers were in my hair, probing again.
“We still do this.” Ulrich said stiffly. “Our blood ties are sacred to us. What does this have to do with the name binding?”
“What was your name before you were changed?” Christian asked rudely and Ulrich growled.
“You think it’s forbidden or you can’t remember?”
“They are one and the same.” Ulrich said stiffly. Christian laughed loudly again which devolved into a coughing fit. He regained his breath and resumed pressing into my scalp.
“You signed a piece of paper with a pen that took your blood. The paper said something like ‘I, Jesus of Nazereth, promise to share my arcane with anyone else who also promises to share their arcane, as long as they live off the blood of others and if I don’t I’ll willingly kill myself.’ And you signed it, buddy. You looked at that dotted line and did the deed.”
“There is no longer a paper contract for name binding.” Ulrich said abstractedly.
“Oh, good. You went paperless. That’s a fuckin’ relief. Save the goddamn planet.”
“It wasn’t an ecological choice, it was an accidental discovery that all that was needed was a vow, verbal or mental, from the prospective Nightbound. The name is then registered later as bound.”
“Join us, or die!” Christian laughed again and then smacked his mouth again, chewing annoyingly. A sequence of pops and clicks came from him and I realized he was chewing gum.
“That’s a very grotesque skewing of something intensely personal to me.” Ulrich said sullenly.
“But I ain’t wrong.”
“You are not wrong, no. It was essentially a threat to conform or die. I was given access to that font for signing my name, though.”
“You were, but they also had your special blood attached to your name. What happened after they had your name?”
“This is not something we discuss with outsiders.” My mentor’s voice was dark.
“Don’t bother. I already know. You had one long night crying in pain as they gave you so much life that your body stopped trying to fix the damaged balance and just stayed where it was. Maybe forever, maybe not. Another one here. If this is how you treat your top guy, fuck me, I never want to sign on that line.” The sting of the needled flicked across my scalp as he mended another gash.
“Assuming you are correct, what makes the name bindings not legitimate blood magic?”
“Well, my friend, something that humans found out later actually. If I commit a crime and leave blood at the scene, they can find me because that’s who I am. That blood has my name in it. But when you were converted, whose blood did you have inside you? Sure, yours but also whoever made you the monster that wants to drink blood.” Scissors snipped near my head and I heard feet shuffling away from me. There was a metallic rustle of utensils and then a snort. “You’re going to want to cover yourself. I’m buzzing him with umbra.”
“Ok, but I am still the man I was before being converted. When I gave my name to the night, I did not change.”
“You don’t listen very well for a fuckin’ smart guy. Your blood changed, you shit head. Vampires are full of that light, right? They got that lux just flowing around them.”
“It is not unending, though. We require replenishment and the only way to do that is convert umbra into lux but we no longer make umbra naturally.”
“Mm, yeah, but what if you could make umbra. Wouldn’t your body balance you out eventually? You’d be you again, probably, don’t you think?”
“Most definitely. We heal very quickly with an infusion of umbra.”
“It’s not your umbra, though. I’m talkin’ the two halves of what make you, you.” I heard a buzzing, clicking sound and felt an icy jolt in the middle of my chest. My body convulsed painfully.
“I still don’t understand what that has to do with using blood magic to bind my name.” Ulrich admitted angrily. “Explain it or shut up.”
“You told them your name, your identity that can be used to find you. They took that and then changed you. Half of what made you the man you are, your umbra, went missing. So that man died. You have a lot of lux, sure, and that’s the start of life, yeah, but without death, without umbra, you’re not really alive. You just exist.” The buzzing jolt rocked me again and a deep grunt escaped my throat.
“This guy, though. I can feel both of his own currents. He uses his own umbra, doesn't he? But his balance is off because you did something to his lux. He can’t regulate the lux like he should be able to, and so he thirsts for blood to help cool the burn. You take blood to bolster, he takes blood to reduce.”
“He and I both have made this same conjecture but it doesn’t explain what his body does with the extra lux he gets when drinking…” Ulrich slowed. “The healing.”
“Bingo.” The buzzing hit me in the chest again and my eyes could see but not move. I was in a dark room, a single shabby lightbulb was over my body which rested on a table of some kind.
“So what about when he’s reverted and doesn’t heal with the excess lux as he’s drinking?” Ulrich demanded.
“He probably turns the lux on his own body, or maybe expends it as pure energy. He fidgety after a feeding while reverted?”
“No, he’s morose because of the guilt.”
“Emotional pain is also an injury.” Christian sniffed disdainfully and laughed at himself. “That probably makes him look pathetic to your kind, but it takes a fuck-ton of lux to heal a mind that is hurting. Guilt for murdering someone is a big fuckin’ hurt. He eventually gets over it, though?”
“Not really, he still feels these...pangs.”
“Scars fade but they take time.” Christian said in an uncharacteristically sage manner.
“The names, Christian, um Gottes willen!” He lapsed into German in his anger.
“Easy there, guy. The names are bound to the arcane signature of the man before conversion. Afterwards, the namebinding is null and void because that man doesn’t exist.”
“But the contracts bind me! I cannot remember my name.”
“Fuck me, Ulrich.” Christian said in exasperation. “They had taken the name by the time you woke up. But you’re not obligated to do anything or act in any way because of that fact. It’s a loophole, a nice, neat, natural loophole.”
“You clearly do not understand the nature of the bindings. I cannot use my name, ever.”
“So use another. I like Ulrich just fine, but do you prefer Nancy? Allegra? Josephine? Bob? Those are names.”
“They can find me because they have my name. I can feel the tether to the namebinding. It is a long but very real leash.”
“Thats bullshit.” The jolt again, this time lower, near my navel. I felt my legs twitch.
“It is not.”
“The only way that your name is binding is if you changed back, magically, into the human you were back then, and that’s fucking impossible. Arcane is fuckin’ fickle, but your half of the arcane, the lux is slow to change. But you have changed.”
“I haven’t!” Ulrich raged at him. “In over three hundred years I have looked this way. Nothing ever changes in me.”
“When did you learn English?” Christian asked. I heard the chink of glass and metal. I smelled alcohol and then felt something cold being poured on my chest. It burned like fire and ice at the same time. The smell grew stronger.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You learned English after you converted? Or maybe you learned how to, I don’t know, fuckin’ knit.”
“I did, actually, yes. I learned both after conversion.” Ulrich admitted. Christian laughed again and I heard him sipping and then sucking his teeth. The sound was familiar.
“Then you changed. You think human brains don’t need to change to learn things? If you change from the man you were when you made that promise, your promise is broken, eventually.”
“But the tether…” Ulrich growled. “The anchor is there.”
“I’ll give you that you probably feel that still. You’re only three-hundred. But in another hundred, maybe hundred and fifty, you will have changed enough that it won’t pull on you. It’s just not fuckin’ possible, bud.” Christians hands were on my chest again, touching where he had put the cold buzzing object before.
“Given enough time, my name binding would break on it’s own? It has an expiration date?” Ulrich’s confused hope was difficult for me to hear.
“You’re so fuckin’ obtuse.” Christian’s face slid into my view and I wished I could have blinked in surprise. His shaved head was covered with tribal tattoos and he had a gold ring in the septum of his nose. He had two piercings in the lobe of each ear and a bar across the cartilage of one. He was also the most beautiful person I had ever seen. His eyes were wide and honest, his mouth was perfectly shaped into a sensual pout and when he smiled down into my unblinking eyes, his teeth were perfect. He had red gems set into his canines.
“You’re changing slowly enough for the namebinding to eventually weaken but technically, with enough change in you now you could shake it. I think he’s coming back to us.”
You doin’ alright, bud? Fuck me, you’re in rough shape but I’m doing what I can. Ulrich’s a pain in the ass isn’t he? Dense, too.
“The tether is still legitimate then. If I can feel it, it exists.”
“That’s a shitty way to look at the world. I can feel myself being torn apart by ants, but that’s not really happening. That’s the fucking withdrawals, isn’t it?” He sniggered and leaned over me again. This time he leaned in so close I could smell the disease in him.
“It’s...the impression of the binding I feel?”
“Jesus, Ulrich. I don’t know what you want me to say. It’s not enforceable. They have you in a guilt contract, not a fucking blood one. You want out of that life, then fucking leave.” His eyes met mine and he dropped his tone. “Is he like this all the time, bud? Like, fuck me, I am so tired of him already. Sorry about the breath. Chronic pneumonia fuckin’ sucks.”
“What if I had someone tell me my name? What would happen?”
“I don’t know, that’s not ever happened. I mean, there’s a million fucking Christians in the world but only one me. I guess that part is kinda tricky. I don’t know how they do that, keep your name’s significance separate from any other Joe Blow.”
“That’s the part I do not understand as well. I’m certain I can feel the binding. If I try to pull my name together in my mind, it feels wrong, forbidden.”
“You signed with a blood pen?” His face was still near mine, his cold hands touching small areas of my face. “How did he get fuckin’ glass in his face? Jesus H. Christ.” he muttered.
“Yes, but as I said that practice has fallen out of use. It’s verbal now.”
“Is it, though? When is that part said, the verbal agreement? Before or after the needles are shoved in?”
“After, of course,”
“And it has to be willing, I know that. Always has been. So there’s your answer. They have some of your blood before you make the promise. It's the same as blood pens. Putting your name to that sample of blood, claiming this particular make-up of arcane and blood, and fat and iron as your own is what makes the contract binding.” He leaned away and I heard clicking and clattering, metal on glass and metal on metal.
“Then they change you and you’re not that same make-up anymore. Enough of you is, maybe for it be uncomfortable or difficult to wiggle out of that contract, but I’ll swear on this fuckin’ jacked up piece of meat here,” he laid his hand on my chest. “That you could break that if you tried.”
“Then that is what happened with him.”
“I need the full version, I think, because I don’t think you’re very comfortable with my explanations.” Christian’s face hoved over mine again and was again taken aback by his natural beauty. It was the kind of beauty that startles you because it is just too perfect. It made my insides clench warmly.
“He will not be able to drink liquids.” Ulrich said offhandedly.
“Yeah, I think he will.” He tipped something cold to my lips and winked at me. “Drink up, bud. You’ll be fine.” He poured the liquid into my mouth and waited for it to go down before drizzling another stream. It tasted like nothing and was slicker than water.
“I can hear his heartbeat changing.”
“That’s good. Fuckin’ weird that you can but good.” Christian smiled down at me in a conspiratorial way. “Don’t take this the wrong way but you look like shit. You’re a nice lookin’ dude, too, but as I’m a celibate priest, I’m not allowed.” I felt my manus growing back, the feeling so foreign and uncomfortable that I could feel my body trembling.
Can you...hear my thoughts?
There he is. And yes, this entire time, actually. You’re very loud. I think you got that from Ulrich because he is loud anyway. But thanks for the compliments.
“He’s got his manus back, so there’s good news. He also is the most innocent fuck I have ever met. Have you ever met someone else you could fall in love with so easily?” The disgust in his voice was at odds with his words. “He doesn’t like that he finds me attractive.”
“He has always been different.” Ulrich said and the tenderness in his voice was like a balm for my soul.
“Sit up, bud.” Christian clasped my hand in his and waited for me to exert myself. I flexed my arm and used him as leverage and slowly, painfully sat up. When I was upright I was able to get a good look around me and I was surprised.
We were in a run down cathedral, the floor clean but the pews missing. All around me were candles and marble statues of saints and figures. Behind Christian was an enormous stained glass window, floor the ceiling, the image of Christ on the Cross picked out in bright jewel tones.
“Hey, bud. You got a voice still?” the strange man let go of my hand and I glanced down to him. The rest of him was just as much a surprise as his face. He was shirtless but had on a pair of dirty jeans, the knees torn out of them. He had dirty flip flops on his feet. What drew my eyes were the jagged scars that ran across his body, up and down and sideways. He had, at one time, been torn to shreds.
“Where…” My voice was a dry croak. “Where am I?”
“He lives!” Christian cried and raised his hand to Ulrich for a high five who stoutly refused to return the gesture.
“What do you remember, Master?” Ulrich asked softly. I didn’t remember anything recent, but I tried anyway. I frowned, squinting my eyes.
“Diana!” I cried suddenly as her face rose before my eyes. I made a move to get off the gurney, for that was what I had been on, but Christian put his hand to my shoulder and shook his head.
“No, no. You can’t walk yet.” He gestured to my legs, and saw that my left femur was broken in half.
“What happened? Why don’t I feel that pain?”
“Ulrich hasn’t told me everything yet, but I’m sure he would explain to you. If you don’t remember it’s probably something awesome. But as for the pain, well, that’s thanks to me.” He grinned and then when I didn’t thank him he continued. “I used a nerve block on your leg.” He tapped it and I felt nothing.
“Diana,” I said again, turning my face to Ulrich for the first time. He looked worse than I did, I was sure. His face and arms were torn up. The wounds were not oozing any more but they were still open and looked fresh.
“She’s safe, Master. I left her at my home with someone we can trust.” He reassured me.
“What happened, Ulrich? I remember a cataclysm, something blowing up around me and inside of me.”
“I will explain but first I have a promise to fulfil.” He turned his gaze to Christian and held his arms open.
“I could let him do it. He wouldn’t have to bite me.” He seemed suddenly a little nervous, no longer the same carefree and confident person he had been. Nervous or...excited?
“He is too weak.” Ulrich admonished. Christian darted his eyes to me and then nodded.
“Can we go to the transept, at least? I don’t really want him watching.”
“Christian,” my mentor’s voice was stern and Christian pursed his lips.
“Fine.” He put himself into Ulrich’s arms, who wrapped them almost tenderly around the smaller man. He splayed one hand across Christian’s back, which was also crossed with terrible scars, and pressed him closer. His other hand cupped the back of Christian’s head, which turned to give Ulrich access to his neck.
Ulrich met my eyes over Christian’s neck as he bit down. I watched with a fascinated abhorrence as a thin trickle of blood escaped his mouth and streamed down the human’s back. Christian went limp, but Ulrich held not only the still human in place, but me as well, his eyes black and deep. And full of a challenge.
I waited for Ulrich to stop or even slow, but Christian’s heart slowed and finally missed a few beats. I stared at my mentor in a frantic confusion. He would kill Christian to make a point, but I didn’t know the point. I didn’t understand the lesson he was trying to teach me. I couldn’t get up with my leg shattered in two and my manus were weak.
“Ulrich, stop.” I growled.
You have to stop me.
I was confused. How could I stop him? I couldn’t reach out with my manus, I couldn’t get up.
He has less than ten seconds left to live.
“I don’t know what you want!” I roared in panic.
“Do what? I can’t stop you! You’re going to kill him, Ulrich!” The distress in me reached a crescendo and didn’t know what to do. I gathered as much lux into my hands as I could, I coalesced it into jewel bright drops of fire. Using my physical strength, I pulled my arm back and hurled it at him and the immobile body in his arms. Where the lux hit Christian, it glittered in sizzling sparks, useless.
I brought my other hand up at the same time, daggers of umbra forming. The umbra was so dense it was black, not a frosted blue, and I threw them at Ulrich like darts, knowing for certainty that if they nicked him even a little he would die. But I didn’t know what he wanted from me and my desperation gave me no other ideas.
The daggers of black umbra lodged themselves into Christian’s back and he stiffened hideously, contorting in unnatural ways. The umbra melted into his skin and new scars, red and twisted, appeared on his flesh, adding to his mangled appearance. Ulrich unclamped from his neck and slowly laid him down on the floor. I could hear his heart thud steadily, a loud bass echo in my ears.
Christian is a half-convert. Your umbra will not harm him as it does me, but he will be in a lot of pain when he wakes. He is a mass murderer and atones for his past transgressions by these exchanges. He is also a masochist. He will owe me a great debt for his new scars.
He seems so human. He’s coherent and alive. I said silently.
He’s very old and the Nightbound that half-converted him is long since dead.
I still don’t understand why you made me do that. He could have died! I said petulantly.
If you’re going to sponsor Diana, you have to know how to defend her in case she fails her trials. I knew you could do something deadly if you really had to. Ulrich’s silent tone was grave. I met his eyes again and he sent me images of Diana’s face. It immediately comforted me and I nodded.
It’s her only chance, then. But please, tell me what happened, why you had to bring me to Christian.
“Mend your leg and let’s go.” Ulrich said nonchalantly. I stared at him with a frown.
“Can you?” He retorted. “Stop sitting there and try.”
“But my manus are stunted. They feel like they need time.” I argued.
“Why are you bringing the lux to the pain? That’s always confused me about you. Well, one of several things that has confused me.”
I remembered being a boy and Reid telling me the same thing. To bring the pain in my bleeding feet to the river and dip them in to heal them.
I closed my eyes and imagined my leg, the halves of my bone unmended. Instinctively, I tried to reach with a manus and felt a tight pull, like my leg was too far away.
Pull the pain to the lux. Ulrich reminded me. The image of my leg left my body and I gathered it into myself and then washed my broken leg in the current of my lux. The bones mended, but the sensation was alien. I could feel it both in my actual leg and also in my chest. But I saw that I used less lux and healed my leg faster. It would take me time to get used to this.
Let’s go before the sun rises. You might not burst into flames, but I certainly will. He threw a black cloak across my shoulders and I stood, gingerly putting weight on my leg. It felt a little weak, as though I shouldn’t put all of my weight on it but I knew by the same time the following night it would be whole again.
As we passed through the narthex and I glanced back to Christian’s still shape. The three new red scars on his back shone in the overhead light above his operating table.