The Price of a Bond

Submitted into Contest #98 in response to: Write a story involving a character who cannot return home.... view prompt

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Fantasy Horror Thriller

The stench of warm blood hits me as I step through the door of the tiny apartment. I'd been tracking it for half a mile, knowing full well what I'd find. Blood smears across the wall and the floor as if several people exploded here. Hearts and spleens crushed and splattered.

Sloppy, wasteful. Definitely a feral.

I pick up a faint heartbeat. There can't be a survivor under all of this. Before I have a chance to search bluish-white light throws the whole massacre into stark relief. I'd heard the approaching footsteps, but I was too distracted. I can imagine all too well the scene from the point of view of the young woman standing just outside the door, take-out bag in hand. She's a terrified concrete statue, except for her eyes wildly darting around the room. They latch onto something just behind me.

"Calm down, kid—"

She cuts me down with a scream as she runs past. The moment she sets foot inside, my insides begin to boil. My skin breaks out in violent red rashes. I scamper out the door before I bleed my eyes out. But my pain is a scratch compared to the girl's wound.

She drags a younger girl out from under the torn-up piles of flesh drenched in blood and bile. Her heartbeat is still faint, like a feather balanced at the edge of life. 

Can't leave her like this. I stay out of sight till emergency services arrive, then slip out through crannies and shadows.

---

The apartments in this part of the city are as cramped together as the families living in them, filled to the seams. They're too busy holding down the place for one more week, one more month, to turn them into homes. There's no Binding of Ownership, just rent after rent, and no sense of belonging. 

There's no protection against the supernatural, and now there's a feral prowling among these abandoned buildings full of discarded people. Nights like this when even the moon refuses to come out, I wonder if I would've made the same choice all those centuries ago to accept immortality. I thought I'd see the world. My sigh has the long-drawn breath of an old woman.

My phone jolts me out of my thoughts. 

"Hope I'm not interrupting your nightly brooding," says Carla. "Any leads?"

"It's a feral vampire. Massacred about three families today. It's not getting enough blood. There'll be more. Why weren't there any protection charms here?"

"We're underfunded and understaffed," says Carla doing the auditory equivalent of throwing her hands up. "You know who turned this one?"

"No, whoever it was is long gone."

"Do you want back up?" asks Carla. "Not that there's anyone we can spare at the moment?"

"Then why did you ask?" 

"It's standard procedure." This time she does the auditory equivalent of a shrug. 

"You have way too much time on your hands," I say, moving to hang up, but I remember something. "Hey listen. Something strange happened. I was inside one of the apartments. Then when one of the girls who lived there came back, the Binding of Ownership activated. But then how did I enter that house without permission? And how did the feral enter without an invitation?"

"Rented apartments don't usually offer any protection," says Carla, but I already know that. "The Binding doesn't just apply to ownership contracts. I've heard that a sense of belonging can act as a Binding. But who knows with the Laws of Deep Magic?"

A sense of belonging? The girl had enough of a connection to the apartment for it to be home. Then what about the younger girl — the sister? I hang up the phone and sprint across rooftops following the girl's scent. She must be in the nearest hospital. 

Why would only one sibling feel the bond? There could be plenty of reasons — parental favoritism or neglect, memories one made that the other did not — but I can't forget the way the girl held her sister. They cared about each other.

I land like the breeze on a branch overlooking the window of a seventh-floor room of the Metropolitan Public Hospital. Up here, the hospital is quiet, shielded from the cacophony on the ground floor. I see her sitting by a bed. The younger girl on the bed could be sleeping, but I feel warmth leave her. I glide as a cloud of mist into the room. 

She gets up to close the window, but of course, it's not open. The other patients in the room are sleeping, but I know from experience her scream can wake up the ones resting down in the morgue. I solidify and quickly cover her mouth. I feel the Binding, but it's faint and getting fainter.

"Please stay calm," I say without the Charm. That would have been easier, but she's been scarred enough already.

She takes her time, but when she nods, I let go. 

"Who are you?" she asks, the calm in her voice catching me off guard. No, not calm, but fury, cold, and seething.

"Laura," I tell her. "Laura Karnstein. I had nothing to do with what you saw earlier. I'm here to help."

"After thinking about it," she says, folding her arms, "I remembered you had no... blood on you. Do you know who did it?"

"Perceptive." I'm genuinely impressed. "I'll be honest with you. It was a vampire."

The look she gives me might as well have been a slap. But I really don't have time. So I bare my teeth and watch her eyes bloom as my fangs grow to a sharp point before her eyes.

"It's — it's a... trick," she says, backing away until she rattles the windows. Her sister stirs.

"Listen to me carefully," I say without letting her waste time rationalizing. "It was a feral, recently turned. Like a wild animal. Whoever turned him, uh, abdicated their responsibility and let him loose. I'm trying to bring him under control."

She says nothing, but sits by her sister's bed, stroking her hair.

"What's your name?" 

"Bertha," she says, lost somewhere in the space between the sisters. "She's growing colder by the minute. The doctors don't know what's going on."

"Listen, Bertha. Vampires cannot enter homes without permission, but the feral entered your apartment, and so did I. The protection only turned on when you entered the r—"

"Oh, so homes are supposed to offer protection?" Her voice cuts the air like a poison dagger. Her chuckle twists the blade. "It never protected is from our father's fists or our mother's apathy. Lucy's the only home I ever had. Home is us. Now I'm about to lose her and you're here talking about magic and vampires. Get out."

"It's not that simple." But I get it now. The house became a home when Bertha entered. But Lucy's presence didn't have any effect, though she was alive. "Your sister is turning."

"What?" 

"Likely by accident." It makes a difference a world of difference, but I doubt Bertha would care. "Your sister's blood mixed with his. That's how you turn. Honestly, considering spree he went on, and state of the, uh, well let's just say we're lucky his blood didn't mix with more victims before they died."

It's hard to maintain eye contact with that glare. 

"If I kill him before she turns she can be saved, otherwise she'll die, become feral, and we'll have to stake her."

"Stake her? What do you—"

"If you're turned against your will, you turn feral. It's unlikely she'll ever regain her... self."

As I speak Bertha lifts up her sister's upper lip with trembling hands. Lucy's incisors aren't as long as mine, but they're sharp. Her heartbeat is slowing by the minute.

"I believe you," she says, squaring to face me. "My God! I believe you. You have to save her." 

"Her blood will help me track him down."

Bertha slowly nods in approval. I make a tiny incision under Lucy's arm with a fingernail. It heals just as I get a drop. I smear it on the screen of my phone.

"A phone?" asks Bertha, incredulous despite herself.

"Changing with the times." The beep says the spell is done. On the screen is a map showing the location of my target. "Besides vampires can't power spells ourselves. We need preloaded sp—."

"Where is he?" She asks seeing the look on my face.

"He's here, but— what the!? He's in the... morgue." I can't help but slap my forehead. "He must've collapsed in one of the apartments. They must've thought he was a corpse."

"What if you don't—"

I leave the sisters in the room together and dart out of the room. The morgue is six floors down, but I slide down the cracks between the floors and I arrive in the flicker of a neon light.

A lone morgue technician, gloved and masked, goes around the human-sized black body bags, unzipping them, noting something down on his notepad, and zipping them back up. He doesn't notice the hands tearing one out from the inside.

There's a primal scream of abject terror. Blood streaks across the floor. The notepad and pen hit the floor. I have the feral by the neck with one hand. My other hand, plunging through his back, sticks out of his chest, blood dripping from the sharp tips of my fully extended fingernails on the technicians' shoes. Tch. Missed his heart.

"Stop whimpering and run!" I tell the technician who's cowering on the floor, eyes closed. He scrambles to his feet and runs.

With a roar the feral twists around, reaching for the fleeing technician, and breaking my arm at the elbow in the process. He wiggles free as I watch the truly bizarre scene of the technician running in place while the feral holds him by the collar. 

I go for the heart one more time. The technician chooses that exact moment to be courageous and turns around with a loaded fist. Feral vampires are usually stupid so, of course, this one tries to bite the fist, and gets it right in the face. He's thrown to the side, pulling the technician right into the path of my striking hand. I barely avoid punching a hole through the technician's stomach. I throw the technician aside. He goes flying over a bunch of well-mannered corpses and hits the floor near the door. With any luck, he'll run like a coward.

I pin the feral to the ground and go for his undead heart when I hear footsteps approaching. One pair right behind me and the other out in the hallway. I turn around just in time to catch a big red fire extinguisher before it crushes my skull. 

"Dude, just run!" I scream at the technician, still grabbing onto the fire extinguisher, tears streaming down his face. "Not the time to be a hero and you got the wrong vampire."

The man's completely lost it. Guess there's only so much the human mind can take. So here I am holding a feral vampire with one hand and trying to wrestle a morgue technician to the ground with another. And those footsteps in the hallway are getting closer. With my luck, Helsing herself might walk in through that door.

Bertha walks in through the door, with a... is that a stake? 

"I couldn't just sit there and wait," she says, her hands trembling. "I have to see this through."

"Great. Thanks for coming. Grab this fool and get out of here." 

She's quick on the uptake. She slaps the technician square on the face, grabs him by the collar, and drags him away. I turn to the feral, keeping track of Bertha's footsteps.

A body bag falls to the floor. Of course, Lucy's not the only one who swallowed his blood. That would have made my job too easy. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bertha shove the technician out the door and shut it with her inside. She leaps for the body bag and plunges the stake, really a sharpened branch, into the body bag right around where the heart should be. Like I said, she's quick on the uptake.

At that moment, the feral vampire bites a chunk of my neck off. I see him reach for Bertha. She pulls out the stake; it hadn't gone in that deep and lets the feral impale himself. Tch. Missed the heart again. Bertha scampers around and collapses near me, manic eyes darting wildly from my wound to the feral trying to pull the stake from his gut. The one in the body bag, a middle-aged woman, claws her way out, sniffing at the blood — not mine, Bertha's, fresh and alive.

"We only need to get one," says Bertha. "The other should turn back. That's what you said."

"She's completely turned. There's no going back for her."

"But your said—"

"Your sister should still have some time." My neck's taking its sweet time healing.

"Will you be all right?"

"They won't go for my blood. You on the other hand..."

The woman's completely out of the bag and the man drops the stake. They sniff and snarl their way towards us, towards Bertha.

"How much longer to heal?" She asks like there's a progress bar or something.

"Don't rush me. I haven't had a drink in a while."

"Drink mine," says Bertha, grabbing the fire extinguisher. She holds it like a hand cannon. 

"And leave us exposed?" I push myself off the floor, wincing. "It would take a while. There's something else."

"Like what?"

"Drink my blood. If you do it willingly, the process is faster and you won't die, exactly. They'll back off and I can take my time killing them. Ferals aren't smart enough to use all our talents."

"I'll do it," she says, her jaws set firm. The ferals pounce, fangs bared, eyes slits. Bertha lets them have the extinguishing agent.

"Just like that?" I ask.

"Save my sister."

There are many things she should know. Of the eyes that lurk in the shadows, of the wolves that will hunt her under the moon, and the men that will hunt her under the sun. She should be told of the hunger and the thirst, and the darkness that will forever call to her in the recesses of her mind. Most of all, she needs to know about those she'll leave behind again and again. 

I don't have time to tell her anything. I give her a drop of blood. The ferals leap from the thick white fog. I throw myself in front of Bertha. The woman bites down on my arm and the man sinks his teeth on my shoulder just under the still-healing wound. 

Dark splotches spread from the edges of my vision. Their growls grow dull and distant. I see the world through a film of water. Then suddenly a sharpened branch bursts out of the man's chest. 

She got the heart. With all my strength I plunge my free hand into the woman's chest, crushing her heart and freeing her from the curse. 

----

Bertha lends me her shoulder as we walk out the morgue, past the unconscious technician drooling in the hallway, and up the service elevator to the fifth floor.

Even before I see Lucy, I smell the warmth of her blood, but I let Bertha discover it for herself. 

"Oh thank God! You're all right." She hugs her sleeping sister. "Thank you. She'll be all right, won't she?" Bertha's positively shining.

I nod happily until I notice Bertha scratch her hands and face. I feel the Binding too.

"Excuse me," she says, covering her mouth to sneeze. "Maybe I'm allergic to your blood?" She chuckles, still glowing despite the slowly growing rashes.

"No. I didn't see this coming. I'm sorry Bertha."

"What do you mean?" She asks, a crack ruining her smile.

"What was it you said? Your sister's your home?" I can't meet her eyes anymore. "Vampires can't enter homes without an invitation from everyone who has ownership. These are Laws of Deep Magic. None fully understand them, few can break them."

"What's that got to do with Lucy?" I'm not sure if Bertha realizes that she's slowly stepping away from her sister.

"It's not Lucy. It's you. Ownership is clear when it's a place with a contract. It's vague when you live in rented houses or if you live in the woods or if you're a nomad. You and your sister have a bond, a kind of contract, where you two consider each other your home. You don't have a sense of belonging to a place, but to a person."

Bertha stands still like the first time I saw her. Her eyes stare into an unfathomable abyss. 

"You can't get close to her because you need permission. While she might give you permission, you can't invite yourself in. We won't know how close you can get till you're fully turned."

I'm barely holding on as it is. Once Bertha's fully turned and the Binding is complete, we won't be able to get anywhere near Lucy. This is one powerful Binding.

I could tell her the Binding of Ownership is meant for protection. I could tell that eventually, she'll realize her sister's better off this way, that no vampire can ever get close to her, but I don't, not yet. Now's not the time.

"That's absurd," she says as if anyone can argue with the laws of nature. "That doesn't make any sense. She's my sister. I can—"

She was about to run towards her sister but stopped as if she hit an invisible wall. 

"No. I ca—" I catch her before she collapses. All she can do is sob into my shoulder. All I can do is let her.

***

June 16, 2021 22:13

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10 comments

Angel {Readsy}
16:10 Oct 27, 2021

Awesome story, magnificent imagery

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N K
08:57 Jul 01, 2021

This was so so good! I can't say I read much of this specific genre so I don't know if the rules and laws in the story are just general vampire lore but even if so, the story is so well-constructed. I was drawn in from the very beginning and was a little confused during the first scene but soon started to understand and really felt transported to this world. I loved the bond between the sisters and the way Bertha was so ready to sacrifice for Lucy. The characters are fleshed out really well and the story continued at such a brilliant pace. I...

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Rohit Mukundan
10:14 Jul 01, 2021

Thank you! Not being able to enter homes without an invitation is a common theme for supernatural creatures in European folklore. Nowadays it's mostly associated with vampires. I just took that, wrapped it in a bit of fantasy jargon and twisted it with a sense of belonging to a family member. You know, home is where the heart is etc. Glad you enjoyed it, but yeah, I was worried it might come across as the third chapter in a series or something.

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N K
06:43 Jul 05, 2021

Ooh, I didn't know about that. That's really interesting and I like your take on it! I don't think it comes off as the third chapter necessarily. It just takes a hot moment to be set in the world and fully understand what's happening for me ahah.

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Rayhan Hidayat
12:13 Jun 23, 2021

I feel like I stepped into the middle of a series (so sorry if I did!) but I’m overall quite impressed with your descriptions, the suspense, breakneck pace and the well-choreographed action scenes that made me feel like I was watching the final fight sequence to an action film. Kudos 😙

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Rohit Mukundan
12:23 Jun 23, 2021

Thank you! And don't worry, there is no series. But maybe there should be. I guess it does play out like the third episode of a tv show.

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Rayhan Hidayat
12:37 Jun 23, 2021

I’ll admit, I did get a little lost when they started talking about Bindings, so I assumed there was a few stories before this that I missed! But it was still a gripping read regardless 🙂

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Kristin Neubauer
18:32 Jun 18, 2021

What a great story! I love all the action, the moments of humor and the drama. I am going to read your zombie one next. Well done!

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Rohit Mukundan
20:51 Jun 18, 2021

Thank you!

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Rohit Mukundan
22:15 Jun 16, 2021

Since I turned the last prompt into a zombie story, I thought I'd turn this one into a vampire story. Maybe I'll put werewolves in the next one and round out my classic monsters trilogy.

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