Chapter 21: The Safe Word

The second we were through the elevator doors that led to Keel's room, I bee-lined for the training area.

He was still standing in the entryway staring after me when I spun around to face him from the middle of the exercise mats with an enormous grin plastered on my face.

"You wanted to come here for that?" he said, shoulders sagging in disappointment.

What had he been expecting?

"Not exactly," I said. "I want to do magic, but we might need these, too."

"I think you can harm me enough without weapons," he opined half-seriously, perking up.

I laughed. It was an almost alien sound to me now, but it felt good and liberating. "Who said anything about harming you?" I teased. "I just want to see what else I can do."

Keel closed the distance between us in a blink. He gave me an ebullient smile as he pried his sneakers off with his feet and kicked them to the edge of the mat. Guess shoes weren't good for the vinyl. Not something I had to worry about. I hadn't had footwear in months.

"Do you know how long I've been waiting to hear you say that? What do you want to try?" He was so excited I half-expected him to start bouncing up and down.

I mentally thumbed through the list I'd made in my head. I couldn't choose anything too confrontational, not right off the top anyway, or he'd figure out my plans in a nanosecond.

"Do you still have that book on sorcerers?" I asked, glancing towards the heaving bookshelf beside his desk. He'd said it was rudimentary, but we knew a lot more now, so maybe we could decipher some additional hints from its vagueness.

Keel shook his head. "I had to put it back. Couldn't risk my father noticing it missing, or getting caught with it. Doesn't matter: it was useless. Look how much we've figured out without it."

I couldn't deny that, but I didn't want to waste the next thirty-two days on trial and error and floundering around in the dark.

I turned and walked towards the weapons rack, surveying the myriad sharp and pointy instruments of destruction housed there. Keel an expert in every one. It didn't matter how fast a learner I was, my control over my magic was infantile in comparison. I paused and ran my fingers over the cool, polished surface of a sword's blade. I needed to figure how to weaponize myself, and not just against the king and Keel, but any vampire - even the ones that weren't regularly guzzling my blood. When I caught a glimpse of my face in the reflective steel surface, I froze, hardly recognizing myself. My dark hair, almost dry now, fell in dread-like tangles over my shoulders. If my escape plan succeeded I'd have to cut it all off: there was no way a brush was ever getting through that mess again. The fissures left on my cheek by the king's claws had healed into four mountainous fleshy ridges, but most foreign of all were my eyes. There was a calculating hardness in them I'd never seen there before; irrefutable evidence that whatever remaining childhood innocence I'd had was long gone now.

This Mills would do what she had to, but still...

I sneaked a peek at Keel; he was standing right where I'd left him, watching me study myself.

"You can pick it up if you want," he said.

I slid my hand up to its ornate, dragon-embossed hilt and hoisted it off the rack, nearly dropping it and impaling my foot in the process. It was heavy. Really heavy. Keel chuckled as he came over and snatched it out of my hand. He danced around the mats with it, diving and ducking and jabbing as if he were fighting an actual opponent. Then he allowed his burgeoning Nosferatu reflexes to kick in and his movements blurred. I could expect this and more from the guards during my escape, and seeing it in action was crazy daunting. When Keel was done with his little demonstration - show off! - he offered me the sword again. This time I grabbed it with both hands and raised it so the blade was level with Keel's nose. It wobbled precariously in my grip. I gave it a tentative swing and lost my balance, landing on my ass.

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