I couldn’t hear the blood-magicker approaching, but I knew she was there. I cowered back in the little corner made by a building that jutted farther into the alley than its neighbors. I could feel the rough stones against my back as I clutched my tattered backpack against my chest and drew my knees up. The hard edges of the bottles and syringes inside the pack dug into my stomach and thighs, but they didn’t give me reassurance now.
A low hiss came from the darkness of the alley. The only light came from a thin slip of moon and the pale wash of stars high above which wasn’t enough for my weak human eyes to see very far. I knew the blood-magicker could see me though. I huddled in my corner, trying to ignore the dull throb of pain in my right knee, from when I’d tripped and fallen earlier. I couldn’t worry about it now.
Silently, I cursed the fate that had left me out here, in this deserted alleyway, with only the cold stars a witness to my imminent death. What had I ever done to deserve this? Nothing. Nothing, except be born.
I was barely two years old the first time I almost died. I’d begun to move about more freely, venturing across the hard wood of the floors, and I’d developed bruises on both knees. My parents weren’t terribly worried at first, but then the bruises started to spread like a black omen. They were accompanied by swelling, and my parents decided to act.
First, I was taken to a local human doctor, but she had no idea what was going on, and referred my parents to an apothecary. My mother, whose terror of magickers was of an almost frenetic nature, refused to take me. But as the bruising rapidly increased, she finally caved in and allowed the magicker apothecary to see me. The apothecary managed to stop the bleeding and healed what damage had already been done.
That wasn’t the end of it though. I scraped my arm on the sharp edge of a table and started bleeding. The cut didn’t bleed heavily, but the red liquid continued to ooze day by day out of the unhealed rent in my skin. The mottled bruise around the cut crept inexorably outward across my skin.
This time my mother bypassed the local doctors, human or otherwise. Instead I was taken to the highly skilled human physicians that lived in the city, where all the latest of knowledge and technology resided. The doctors said I had a rare disorder they called “hemophilia.” It was controllable, mostly, but incurable. I had one of the most severe cases they had ever seen and was thus relegated to treatment three times a week, for the rest of my life.
My mother quickly became an expert at injecting me with the clotting factor medicine, since the frequency of the treatments meant they had to be done at home. By the time I was three, thin scars had formed delicate patterns across the insides of my arms from the stabbing of the needles. But the treatments worked, and a scraped arm or bruised knee no longer posed a mortal threat to me.
Further complications arose when I got marked. The spiraling lines on the inside of my left elbow sent my family spiraling into chaos. Although my mother had only encountered magickers once or twice, and had never come out of the meeting the worse for wear, she still lived in deathly fear of them. The prospect that her son might become one sent her into paroxysms of terror.
After a couple days my father managed to coax her out of the bedroom she’d locked herself in. He didn’t seem particularly thrilled that I might be one of those hated creatures that populated many cautionary tales, but he didn’t look at me as if expecting me to casually burn the house down either. After a while my mother began to unwind a bit, however there was a palpable distance between us now.
When I was twelve, I was taught how to do the factor injections myself. My mother had recently produced twins, so it was hard for her to care for them and tend to me. I hated the burning sting of the needle against my skin, and surreptitiously skipped a few treatments. After I landed in the city hospital because of a spontaneous bleed in my shoulder though, I decided I liked the sting of the needles more than the pain of internal bleeding.
My new siblings did nothing to help the relationship between me and my mother. By now it ought to have been apparent that I was nothing more than human, but my mother was still mistrustful of me. She had put me through numerous little tests to see if I would display any sign of magickerishness. Once, she had me eat extra-rare meat for a week to see if I took an exceptional liking to it (which I didn’t). Another time I was commissioned to help my mother mix up herbs to see if I took an especial interest in them (I was entirely indifferent).
When I wasn’t in school, I spent most of my time down at the lake beach to escape the tension I always felt at home. While the other boys at school had grown big and muscular from running, playing, and wrestling, I had become a weak, pale wraith from long days spent shut indoors with nothing but books and padded furniture. Around the time I was ten, the doctors had convinced my mother that some form of exercise was necessary for my proper growth, and that strengthening my body would actually lower the risk of spontaneous bleeds, as long as I was careful to avoid certain exercises.
Thus began my swimming lessons. Contact sports that could lead to bruises or cause undue stress to my joints were prohibited, but swimming was considered the perfect exercise for me. I took to the water like the wood ducks that watched me suspiciously from far out on the waves. It was the one place where I felt free, after years of being stifled by careful monitoring and padded rooms. I got stronger, lean muscles beginning to fill out my skinny frame. Even more than my physique, the freedom of the water boosted my self-esteem astronomically.
When I was thirteen, puberty hit. Most of the kids in my class at school were also going through it, and suddenly the place became a hotbed of spiking hormones. The girls started dressing up and simpering to the boys, who started walking them home in the afternoon and stealing kisses at recess. They were all short flings, nothing as serious as a pair bond. Even those who were in more serious relationships wouldn’t have been allowed to bond, at least if their parents had a say in the matter.
Because of my hemophilia I’d never been part of any “in” crowd, and the distance between myself and the other kids was now even more obvious. I watched out the window as my few friends walked by with their giggling ladyloves on their arms. When I went out to swim, I was confronted with sweethearts kissing on the beach, away from their parents’ watchful eyes.
Then there was me. Since the time I’d gotten it, the mark on my arm had just been an arbitrary grayish symbol, which had sent my mother into a flight of terror, but otherwise was of no interest to me. But now that I had adolescent hormones racing through my bloodstream, I’d developed a sudden interest in things like marks and pair bonds. And boys.
I had spent so much of my life tightly reined in by the restrictions of hemophilia, and my mother’s watchful, suspicious gaze, that I was fairly wild with suppressed energy. Swimming had afforded me some release of tension, a way to escape the strangling rules that surrounded me, but it wasn’t enough anymore. I didn’t just want to be like the other boys; I wanted them.
The problem was, all the other boys paid attention to was girls. But since running after romantic partners didn’t involve much actual running, this wasn’t enough of a deterrent for me. I soon acquired the nickname “Chase the Chaser” because I would flirt with every male from thirteen to eighteen. One and all, my efforts were frustrated by the lack of reciprocated feelings. We didn’t get many travelers through our town, but anytime a new boy arrived I pounced on him.
My reputation quickly spread, and what friends I’d had tended more and more to avoid me. At least I didn’t have to suffer watching couples romancing on the beach when I went to swim since most of the boys fled at the sight of me. I didn’t really like being so alone though. I craved the companionship and intimacy they had. I wanted someone to walk home with me, or go out swimming, or anything. If I was to be a virtual outcast, I at least wanted someone to share it with. But I had no one.
My father had never seemed as flighty as my mother, and he didn’t stare suspiciously at me every time I walked into a room, but we had never really been close either. My reputation of being a bit of a hot mess didn’t seem to bother him, if he even paid enough attention to notice it. But my hotheadedness was the final hit to my relationship with my mother.
The fatal day came when I was fourteen. I had just gotten home from an afternoon swim when I sensed something was wrong. The backpack I used for schoolbooks was sitting on a chair at the kitchen table, which was not where I’d left it before I went out. When I went over to it and tried to pick it up, something clinked softly inside. I opened the zipper, and found myself staring at the entire contents of my bedroom cabinet, where I kept all my hemophilia treatment supplies.
My mother hurried into the room as I was staring down at my backpack. “Oh! You’re home.” She stopped in the doorway, an unreadable expression on her face. The first icy tendrils of uncertainty coiled in my stomach as I looked up at her.
“Why is all my stuff in my backpack?” I asked. “We aren’t going on a trip or anything, are we?”
My mother’s face went from unreadable to impassive. “No…” she said slowly, “We aren’t.”
The ice was more than a tendril now. “We?” I quoted, my voice coming out flat.
My mother was still impassive. “Yes?” She arched her eyebrows inquiringly.
“What did you mean by ‘we’ aren’t going anywhere? And why is all my stuff in here?” I gestured at the backpack.
“Chase,” my mother stopped for a moment, and I thought I saw a too bright shimmer come into her eyes. “Chase, our family can’t go on like this. I’m very sorry.”
“Sorry?” I could hear the panicked edge creeping into my voice. “Sorry for what?”
My mother continued emotionlessly. “I know I have often been overly suspicious of you, and I apologize for that. All I can say in my defense is that my fear was founded in fact, although I should have been more forgiving. It has been made clear to me over the years that my original fear that you would become a magicker has not been realized. However, it has also been made clear to me that you still pose a threat to our family.”
“Threat? What threat? You just said I was human!” I could hear the panic in my voice as I stared at my mother, my trembling fingers clutched in the rough fabric of my backpack.
“I’m not blind, Chase. I can see the way you’ve been running about recently. More than one of our neighbors has dropped by to inform me of the way you’ve been chasing after their sons. And if you don’t stop it, the neighbors won’t be the only ones dropping by about you. One of these days you’re going to get mixed up with the wrong boy, and I can’t have you endangering our family that way.”
“I know you’re human, but you know as well as I do what magickers are. There’s nothing a magicker likes better than a young, pretty human with the same mark as theirs. Every day you spend under this roof, the greater the danger to us, especially your younger siblings. If you were a quiet, studious boy I would be willing to take the risk. But the way you go gallivanting across the countryside it would be the easiest thing in the world for a magicker to get his claws into you. I just can’t risk it, Chase.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face. “What do you mean, risk it?” I said weakly.
My mother’s stony expression remained fixed on her face. “I mean you’re leaving. I can’t have you endangering my family anymore.” She paused, and her breath shuddered a bit as she let it out. “I really am sorry, Chase. But there’s no other way.”
I bit my lip, trying to fight back the hot tears that stung in my eyes. “But I’m human!” I wailed, clinging to that one mantra. “I’m not threatening anyone, I’m not!”
The shine in my mother’s eyes was brighter now, but she held her ground. “You don’t know that Chase. You don’t know when some loose magicker might show up and take an interest in you.”
“But we don’t have any magickers around here!” I cut in. “You had to go four towns over to find that apothecary that healed me when I was two!”
“That doesn’t mean a magicker will never come through here,” my mother said. “They’re wanderers, most of them, and all it will take is one. One magicker, and one look at you tearing recklessly about after love.”
“But how is that going to affect you? He’d be after me, not you!” For a moment I thought maybe I had cracked her, maybe I had got through that thick shell she was encased in.
When she spoke again, my hopes were dashed. “That might be the case with some magickers, but not all of them. Don’t you remember all those stories I told you when you were little? About the horrible things magickers do to us humans?”
“Of course I remember!” I glared at her through my tears. “The only story I don’t remember is the one where the mother throws her own child out on the street so that she will be nice and safe!”
“I’m not throwing you out on the street,” my mother said, her voice harsh. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find somewhere to stay. I put some money in your bag so you can buy food and lodging.”
A ragged little laugh escaped me. “For what, a month? Maybe two?” I grabbed one of the small glass bottles from my backpack and brandished it at her. “I know how much these cost, and there’s no way you gave me enough money to buy more. And I know that what’s in here will only last me a month, maybe a little more if I’m careful. And once they’re gone, it might be a day or a week or two weeks before I bleed to death because of you.”
My mother’s face paled at my sudden attack. She opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off. “I know for a fact that I’ll die a horrible, lengthy death because you were afraid a magicker might show up here one day.” I threw the bottle back in my backpack and yanked the zipper closed viciously.
“Chase—” My mother’s voice broke a little. “Chase, I’m sorry. But I have your siblings to think of, and I can’t take any risks with them. Besides, you might get along alright on your own. You never know.”
“Yeah, I guess you never do.” I clenched my jaw, trying to stop the tears from streaking down my face. Clutching my backpack, I turned and walked out of the house. I went and sat on the beach, staring at the water for a long time, until the sun was quenched by the far off waves. Then I wandered around town until I passed my house, but when I tried the door, it was locked.
So here I was, crouched in a dark alleyway awaiting my death, barely a month after my own mother had turned me out of the house. My tattered backpack sagged like a deflated balloon, and only the occasional sad clink came from the handful of bottles left inside. Although the risk of bleeds increased tenfold when I wasn’t treating prophylactically, I’d had to stop injecting the factors so frequently to make them last longer. As it was, I was still dangerously close to running out.
A thin, lithe shadow emerged from the darkness of the alley. The feeble starlight gleamed dully on the blood-magicker’s pale hair and the white fangs that curved down from her upper jaw. “There you are,” the blood-magicker purred, her words slurred by her extended fangs. “You know you can’t hide from me. I could smell you from a mile off.” She peeled her lips back in what might have been a smile.
I cowered against the alley wall, knowing I wasn’t going to leave here alive. At least it would be a fairly quick death. Like most female magickers, I doubted she wanted anything except my blood. At least I wouldn’t have to suffer too much before the end.
The blood-magicker stalked closer, her posture changing as her muscles coiled to strike. I stared at her, my gaze trapped in her slit-pupiled stare. A low whimper escaped my throat and a vicious snarl answered it.
In the next moment, a shadow streaked across my vision. I tensed, waiting for the crushing impact as the blood-magicker pinned me down. Instead, a high-pitched shriek rent the air, followed by a flurry of hissing. I blinked and squinted into the darkness. Two shadows, blacker than the others in the alley, were writhing on the ground. The hissing was coming from that direction too.
Cautiously, I uncurled a little from my crouch. What was going on? Who—or what—was attacking the blood-magicker that had been about to make a meal of me? I peered toward the writhing shadows, trying to make out what was going on. If I’d been thinking clearly, I probably would have turned and run. As it was, I was still rather in shock at the turn of events.
With a final burst of hissing and snarling, one of the shadowy figures whirled around and fled. The other gave chase for a few feet before stopping. It watched the retreating figure for a few long moments, then turned and walked back toward me. I realized my moment for escape had slipped away, and held my breath as I waited to see who the figure was. Maybe if I just sat still enough, whoever it was wouldn’t notice me…
The figure stopped a few feet shy of me. Even in the weak light, I could see this wasn’t the blood-magicker girl that had been after me before. Bright copper eyes gleamed at me from under a fringe of short dark hair. “You alright?” a soft, low voice asked.
I stared, transfixed, at the shadowy boy. After a moment his words penetrated, and I nodded mutely in assent. The boy reached out a hand, hesitated, and dropped it. “Do you have somewhere to go?” he asked, looking at the backpack I had clutched to my chest.
I shook my head. My thoughts were whirling, trying to decide what to do. I remembered the snarling and the too fast blur of movement just before the fight began. I didn’t think the boy was human. Tackling a blood-magicker and then brawling with it in the street didn’t sound like something a human would do, or come out alive from.
I peered at the boy, trying to make out more than his outline and the bright copper irises. I didn’t think he was a sorcerer or wolf-magicker. There had been no evidence of sorcerer-magic used in the fight, and he certainly hadn’t shifted into wolf form. Maybe an apothecary, but…that didn’t sound quite right either. An apothecary probably would have thrown some chemical concoction at his assailant to blind them or poison them or something.
Which left the blood-magicker option. It would account for all the hissing and the preternaturally quick movements I had just observed. Without their fangs down or eyes slit-pupiled, I wouldn’t be able to tell a blood-magicker apart from any other human or magicker, especially not in the dim light of the alley.
Great. Just great. The only thing that could have been worse for me than a female blood-magicker was a male blood-magicker. I glared suspiciously at the boy still standing in front of me. He didn’t seem to be about to attack me or drag me off to his lair. I felt a little bit cheated. Here was one boy who almost certainly had the same mark as I did, and he didn’t even seem particularly interested in me. I glared harder.
“Sitting there all night probably isn’t the best idea. That other blood-magicker might come back,” the boy said. I disdained to respond. The boy stood watching me for a few minutes, then apparently realized I wasn’t going to answer. Finally he turned away and started to walk down the alley, in the opposite direction the blood-magicker girl had gone.
I stared at his retreating back. This wasn’t right. Young magickers were always sneaking into houses and stealing away humans for bondees or midnight snacks or whatever. A lone fourteen-year-old hemophiliac was easy pickings. So why was the boy walking away? What was this, some sort of mind game he was playing on me?
After a few seconds of indecision, I gave in. Scrambling to my feet I limped after the retreating figure. He must have heard me because he slowed and flicked a glance toward me. “I’m Chase,” I muttered sulkily.
“You can call me Viper.”
“Hilarious,” I said acidly.
He looked over his shoulder at me. “What, you don’t like my sense of humor?” I scowled at him and he smirked back.
I half expected him to suddenly spin around and jump at me when we got to the end of the alley, but instead he just turned onto another lane. A streetlamp hung a ways down the lane, casting a dim yellow glow over the cobblestones. Viper skirted around the pool of light but I made directly for it.
Flopping down under the lamp I pulled up the leg of my pants and inspected my injured knee. The initial throbbing from when I’d banged it had faded, and a wave of relief flooded through me as I saw there was only very slight swelling. A colorful bruise was already beginning to blossom across my skin, but as long as I stopped the swelling before it got too bad, the joint shouldn’t be permanently damaged.
Pulling open my backpack I dug out a bottle of factor and a syringe already filled with sterile water. Plunging the needle through the top of the bottle I filled it with the water, then swirled the contents around until the powered factor had mixed into the water. I drew the mixture into the syringe, then switched out the current needle for a butterfly needle.
Rolling up my right sleeve, I tied a tourniquet around my upper arm. Stealing myself for the sharp sting of the needle, I stabbed it into a vein. After two years of triweekly experience, I managed to hit the vein on the first try. Releasing the tourniquet with my teeth I started to infuse the factor into my bloodstream.
It was only then that I glanced up and realized Viper was standing at the fringe of the lamplight, watching with a rather confused curiosity. I caught his eye and glared at him, but he didn’t look away. It quickly turned into a staring contest. Viper seemed to have an uncannily snake-like ability to not blink, despite his actually having eyelids. I was a match for him though, because staring contests were one of the only group activities I’d been allowed to do.
Viper finally glanced down at my arm, a very slight smile curving up his lips. Crowning myself victor of the match, I looked down and realized we’d been staring at each other for nearly the entire fifteen minutes it took to infuse the factor. I was so used to injecting myself I could practically do it in my sleep. Removing the needle from my arm I clamped my hand over the spot, keeping my traitorous blood where it belonged.
I looked up again and saw Viper’s eyes were still downcast. The lamplight shone on dark brown hair and well-worn clothes. He looked around my age and height, with lean muscles showing through the ripped sleeves of his shirt, and an oddly chubby face. Truth be told, he was actually rather handsome.
I hurriedly looked away and started repacking things into my backpack, but I was all too aware of Viper’s gaze on me. Finally I stood up and limped a few steps forward. My leg didn’t really hurt, but I was hypersensitive about putting too much weight on it when I’d only just gotten the clotting factors into my system. I paused a few feet away from Viper, not still entirely sure what I was going to do.
After a long minute, Viper spoke. “I have some friends I was staying with outside town…” He trailed off, eyeing me uncertainly.
Viper continued to consider me. “One’s a wolf-magicker. She’s not so bad though.”
A moment of wary silence ensued as I chewed over his words. “You’re not so bad yourself,” I said eventually.
Viper gave me a faint smile. “Neither are you,” he said softly.
Despite myself, and for the first time in a long time, I felt an answering smile on my face.