Bleeder [Blood Magic, Book 1]

What if everything you knew about yourself was a lie?

Mildred "Mills" Millhatten had a good life: close-knit family, fantastic friends, decent grades and even a not-totally-annoying kid brother. You might say it was the best kind of ordinary. Nothing could have prepared her for being taken and cast into a strange, vicious world that she didn't know existed and has little hope of understanding.

As a Bleeder - one whose lifeblood feeds the Nosferatu - her continued survival hangs ever in the balance. The creatures are keeping her alive because they believe her blood has mystical properties. Mills fears what will happen when they realize they are wrong.

If she hopes to survive and discover who she truly is, she needs an ally. She has to befriend the mysterious boy who's been secretly visiting her cell, even though he's destined to become a bloodthirsty monster. Because s

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33. A Death in the Family

 

Chapter 31: A Death in the Family

“I didn’t mean to bite you,” Keel said sheepishly, from the bed. He’d wiped my blood off of his face with the off-white bed sheet, but somehow that just made the whole scene seem that much more macabre.

I was sitting in the wicker chair by the window in my panties and Keel’s oversized hoodie. I didn’t care that my blood was seeping into the fabric. He deserved it.

“It’s not that you bit me. I let you bite me in the shower,” I explained. “It’s that you did it like that.”

As first times go, it was apparently much more mind-blowing for Keel than for me, and in the heat of the moment, he’d torn a sizeable chunk out of my shoulder. I’d screamed so loud that everyone at the motel had likely heard. I hoped no one had called 9-1-1. I had no idea how we’d explain the blood-spattered pillows and mattress to the human authorities.

“I’m sorry,” Keel said, imploringly. “You know I wouldn’t, not int–”

“Yeah, I do,” I said wearily. I didn’t need to hear anymore.

Everything had been so incredibly perfect until the biting, and that ruined it all in a matter of seconds. It was like the universe refused to let me forget what he was.

Just once, I wanted things between Keel and I not to be completely screwed up.

“So does that mean you’re going to stop bleeding on my sweatshirt now?” Keel asked.

“Do I have to?”

“No, but I can’t keep buying us clothes either.”

He had a point: we had nothing even close to resembling an income. If we were going to try to hold out until Keel’s transition became inevitable, we were going to have to start figuring out some of the basics.

I unzipped the hoodie far enough that I could pull it off my shoulder and inspect the wound. It was raw, angry, and still seeping blood – though it looked gnarlier than it actually was. I focussed my magic and began to repair it. Healing myself was almost second nature to me now. Like my shield and my fire, it was one of my strongest magics.

“Watching you do that never gets any less amazing,” Keel said, as the heat began to dispel from the area around my newly mended flesh. There was awe and love in his eyes – and a terrible guilt. I stood no chance against it. I felt my angry resolve crumble away like so much dust.

I got up, crossed to the bed, shed off the hoodie, crawled back under the covers, and curled up beside him, Keel’s skin warm against my own. He wrapped his arms around me and we talked without words for a while, using feelings and pictures and the psychic link of the bond instead. On that level, there was only honesty. Zero chance of miscommunication.

But when Keel’s fingers began to lightly trace a path along one of the scars on my stomach, it still took everything in my power not to recoil from his touch. Now that we were beyond urgent, feverish groping, I felt strangely self-conscious about my Frankenstein skin.

Keel’s hand stopped moving, but it didn’t retreat.

“They’re not grotesque,” he said. The bond kept no secrets.

“According to the guy at the gas station, they are.”

“Well, he’s an idiot,” Keel said, dismissively.

“No, he’s human.”

“One more reason that humans are inferior.”

I frowned at him.

“Mills, you might not believe this, but these are beautiful.” Keel’s fingers started roaming again, leaping from scar to scar, until they reached my newly healed shoulder. “Each one is evidence of your strength, your will. You took on my father over and over again, and you lived to tell about it. I don’t know who else can say that.”

I lifted Keel’s hand off my shoulder and brought his fingers to my lips. They tasted of blood. My blood. Weird, how I was starting to get used to that. I tilted my head so I could look him in the eyes. “There’s not going to be any happy ending for us, is there?” I asked.

“Can’t see how,” Keel said. “Best case scenario – we both live.”

“Does drinking my blood make the bloodlust better or worse?”

“Better, but I crave it again sooner,” he said. “Don’t worry: I still have free will, at least when we’re not –” It was strange to see Keel at a loss for words, but he recovered quickly. “I’ll let you know if it becomes a problem.”

The pace of conversation began to ebb after that, as Keel drifted off to sleep, his brown hair spilling over the pillow and hiding many of the blood stains. I slipped out of bed, tiptoed into the bathroom, and retrieved our sopping wet clothes from the shower floor. After I wrung them out and hung them up on the towel rack, I stopped to assess myself in the mirror. Apart from the pristine new skin where I’d healed Keel’s bite, I didn’t look any different. Not any older or wiser or any less lost. And if I was glowing, frankly I didn’t see it.

The only thing sex had solidified was that nothing between Keel and I would ever be easy – or even remotely normal. Still, bite aside, I didn’t regret it.

It might be stupid and dangerous and against laws I didn’t even know existed, but I loved him. And when he touched me, the whole of my being responded; I couldn’t imagine wanting anyone more – ever.

By the time I emerged from the bathroom, dusk had turned to full dark.  I’d grown used to having vampiric senses in the short time I’d possessed them, and suddenly felt small and hunted without the heightened input. But you have magic, I reminded myself.

Too bad magic never let you know when the bad guys were coming.

I got dressed and paced restlessly from room to room, window to window, squinting uselessly out into the deep, lightless night, until I realized that all I was doing, if anything, was giving away our location. I snatched the cellphone Mike had given me off the nightstand and returned to the living room. It would provide a distraction. Plus, with Keel sound asleep…

My fingers were shaking so hard I could barely dial the digits of my house back in New York. It took three tries before I was able to punch in the numbers correctly and in the right order.

It rang once, twice – I thought I was going to puke. Who would pick up? Estella? Mikey? And what would I say when they did? I really hadn’t thought this through.

A familiar male voice answered; the phone fell out of my hand and clattered to the floor. Fredrick! Fredrick was alive!

I could hear him saying, “Hello? Hello? Is everything alright?” as I scrambled to pick it up.

But when I did, I found I had no words. My mouth flapped uselessly, but nothing came out. I jammed my thumb down on the end button in frustration and threw the phone at the couch.

I was ecstatic that somehow, against all odds, Fredrick had survived – it was pretty much the best news of my whole damned life – but I had no idea how much I could safely tell them about any of this. Only Ephraim could answer that, and that was a no-go.

But maybe…

I retrieved the phone and scrolled through its address book. It only contained only one entry: BRUCE. In all caps. Cute.

I clicked on his name and hit call.

He picked up on the fifth or sixth ring, just when I was expecting voicemail.

“Good, you got the phone,” he said. Conventional greetings apparently weren’t too high on his priority list.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, opting not to mention the rest of his care package. I’d reached my limit for awkwardness today.

“What d’you need?” Bruce asked.

Oh, only answers to about a million questions, I thought. But I started with the most important one. “Is Ephraim coming after us?”

“Not sure,” Bruce said. “If he is, he didn’t say anything to me about it.”

“You don’t sound very confident.”

“That’s because I’m not. He left here at about five with his kit. He doesn’t take that thing unless he intends to do business. And he hasn’t done sorcerer’s work in a long time. Not till you showed up.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said. I wondered what Bruce meant by “his kit.” Nothing I knew about sorcery required a kit. So I asked him.

“Tools of the trade,” Bruce explained, vaguely. “But from what I understand each sorcerer’s is different.”

“What’s in Ephraim’s?”

“No idea. He’s always kept it under lock and key. I’ve never gotten so much as a glimpse inside of it.”

Dead end. Great.

“So what do we do?” I asked. “Stay put or get moving again?”

There was silence on the line as Bruce considered this. “Stay there for now. He doesn’t know where you are.”

“But what about the Nosferatu? If they could track us to the safe house, they can track us here.”

“Then you use some of that sorcery of yours on them,” Bruce said, as if that was a really stupid question.

“What about your brother?” I distinctly remembered Mike’s lecture about the motel being a human place and not to bring any funny business near his guests.

“You let me worry about my brother. You just do what you need to do to keep breathing.”

I smiled. Bruce didn’t treat me like a kid or a screw-up. “Thanks,” I said. “And thanks for restoring my faith in people a bit.”

Bruce sighed. “Don’t be too hard on your old man. He’s done sorcerer’s work his entire life and he’s never confronted anything like this. And you’re not some stranger – some job – you’re family. You may not think he’s aware of the role he’s played in this, but he knows. He just hasn’t found a way to make peace with it yet.”

“He tried to kill us,” I reminded him.

“No, he threatened to kill you,” Bruce corrected. “If he wanted to kill you, he would have.”

“Keel said that, too.”

“That boy’s got a good head on his shoulders, even if it’s got fangs.”

As if attuned to the sound of his name, Keel stirred in the other room. “Who are you talking to?” he called, groggily.

“Bruce,” I answered. The guest house wasn’t large enough that I had to raise my voice much.

“Good,” Keel said, sounding tense. A moment later, I heard the swish of sheets and the rhythmic slap of  his bare feet padding across the wood floor. “You might want to tell him that there are two Nosferatu and one sorcerer standing outside.”

I whipped my head around to look at the front door, which remained closed and locked. “Keel says –”

“I heard,” Bruce said. “Hang up and put the phone in your pocket. Call me if things get out of control. Don’t even worry about saying anything. I see a call come in from you, I’ll know.”

“Okay,” I said, with confidence that I didn’t feel. No matter who was out there, two Nosferatu and a sorcerer meant we were outmatched.

I was about to hang up when Bruce said, “One more thing.”

“What?”

“Don’t be scared.”

Keel was already moving towards the door; I shoved the phone into the waistband of my skirt and raked my nails across my palms, turning the fear that Bruce had told me not to have into fire. Keel stopped and glanced at me uneasily.

“Just in case,” I said.

He nodded and reached for the lock. As he did, the door reverberated under the weight of a heavy, pounding fist.

“Keel, it’s Boras,” the knocker announced, far louder than necessary. “Open up.”

Keel looked back at me, confusion and dread danced across his face. I didn’t put away the fire.

I watched as he took a breath and steeled himself, before unlatching the locks and swinging open the door. Boras and Arthos stomped in, decked out in the standard black Nosferatu fatigues, followed by my father, who slammed the door behind him. I flinched at the sound. So much for Bruce’s theory that no one knew where we were.

All eyes were on Keel, scanning him, scrutinizing him, looking for who knows what. Then Boras turned to Ephraim. “You and the girl need to leave.”

But it was Keel that replied, not my father. “He goes, but Mills stays.”

Ephraim turned and without even a sliver of hesitation walked out of the guest house – but not before shooting me and my fiery palms a look of unreserved disgust. All that stuff Bruce had said about him? I didn’t see any of it. All I saw was a close-minded, cold-hearted old sorcerer, who was happier when I wasn’t dragging a string of Nosferatu through his backwater town. I did have some sympathy for the last part. But once again, he’d made a quick escape, leaving me alone in a building full of vampires. Some father.

“This is royal business,” Boras said. “The code forbids her from being here.” The look he gave me said that this was all my fault. Still, I let the fire die in my hands. There was no immediate danger. Whatever this was, it was political. And being on the offense didn't seem to be helping our cause.

“Screw the code,” Keel said, crossing the room and guiding me to the couch. “The code also says I should be dead, and I’m not.”

“He has a point,” Arthos said.

“Stop angling for a job,” Boras growled. Now that I was closer, I noticed his uniform was dirty and he was sporting some fresh scratches and abrasions on his face, as if he’d recently been in a fight.

“I’m not,” Arthos said. “I’m just saying that this is not without precedent.”

I glanced from Arthos to Boras and back again. I’d been trying to keep up with their conversation, but I was completely lost. Even with everything Keel had explained to me, my knowledge of the intricacies of Nosferatu society was spotty and incomplete at best.

“The girl needs to go,” Boras repeated, firmly.

“She stays,” Keel said, raising his voice. “Don’t forget, the last time I saw you, you were trying to kill me. She wasn’t.”

“I was under orders.”

Keel started to stand, but Arthos waved him down. “Gentlemen,” he said, which struck me as an absurd way to address two vampires. “We need to get this started.” Arthos fixed his gaze back on Keel. “Do you want the sorceress to stay?” he asked.

“Yes,” Keel said, irritated. “Isn’t that clear by now?”

Arthos gave Boras a pointed look. “There. You have your new orders.”

Boras harrumphed. “That’s debateable.”

“Anyone care to fill me in on what’s going on?” Keel asked. I was wondering the same thing. I’d never seen Nosferatu squabble before. It was a little surreal.

Arthos glanced at Boras, who shrugged. Apparently he was done trying to get me out of there.

“The time for your ascension has come,” Arthos told Keel.

Keel’s brow creased, then his whole expression darkened. I didn’t know what those words meant, but his reaction told me they were game-changers.

“What’s ascension?” I asked. Boras grunted his disapproval at me. It seemed the privilege of being there did not extend to speaking.

“It means my father’s dead,” Keel said, stoically; his voice was tempered and even. “And now that his closest advisor and the Nosferatu who would be my second have reported the news of his death, and I have heard this news, spoken by them, I am –” Keel paused and looked down at the coffee table.

“King,” Arthos finished for him.

My jaw fell open. I don’t know what I’d been expecting but it wasn’t that. Holy hell.

“Of course, Keel must still transition and take the oath of the throne,” Arthos said. “Although it’s more a formality than anything else.”

“How did it happen?” Keel said suddenly. “How did he die?”

“Assassination,” Arthos stated. “Things have been turbulent since you fled. With the heir to the throne gone and the royal security force reduced by a third, there was no better time to strike, and that’s exactly what your father’s enemies did.”

“Who?” Keel asked.

“We don’t know. But it’s likely the same person who ordered the hunter-trackers after you.”

“You know about the attack?”

“Alistair filled us in.” For a moment I didn’t know who Arthos was talking about. Then I remembered that that was the name by which the Nosferatu knew my father.

“But I should be dead,” Keel said. “Who knows I’m still alive?”

“The council. They’re the ones – or at least their ancestors were – that made the decision to keep the true mechanics of the transition a secret. You would have learned the truth once you’d completed the ritual and entered the final phase of your royal training.”

“But why lie?” Keel asked.

“Because it maintains the peace,” Arthos said.

“But I’m the heir to the throne,” Keel said, indignantly.

“No,” Arthos corrected. “You’re the King and privy to all the knowledge. It’s up to you how you use it.”

“And what happens if I don’t come back?”

“Civil war. Maybe supernatural war. Lots of deaths, either way.”

“So let me get this straight. After I was cast out, attacked and nearly murdered by my own people – by you,” Keel said, aiming the last two words directly at Boras, “you want me to return to the compound and save the day. Do you think the Nosferatu want a traitor for their King, one who consorts with sorcerers? Because that’s what I am in their eyes. That's what my father made me.”

While I thought Keel was throwing the blame around a little too liberally there – the consorting part was definitely all him – I kept my mouth shut.

“This is not about what the Nosferatu want,” Arthos said. “This is about what they need, and right now that’s stability. There is a coup building, and only you can quell it.”

“And if I can’t?” Keel said. “Or I don’t want to?”

“Enough!” Arthos yelled. It was shocking, I’d never heard him raise his voice before, and I didn’t take him for one who would dare to raise it at his king. “It is time for you to come home and do the job that you were born and raised to do.”

“But –”

“No buts,” Boras cut in, his tone equally sharp. “Arthos is right. You’ve had your little adventure. Indulged your human side.” He looked right at me as he said that part, as if he was perfectly aware of what Keel and I had been doing before he and Arthos showed up. “Now it’s time to put aside childish things and become the King you were born to be. Your people need a leader.”

Keel leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, then pressed his thumbs into his temples and rubbed. “If I do this, what happens to Mills?” he said, after a long time.

I wanted to know that too. Because everything inside of me was screaming: this was how it ended. There would be no buying of any more time, any more adventures. Keel was king now. I was only able to keep calm because I had to or they’d make me leave – and the only worse thing than knowing what was coming was not knowing.

“Alistair says the sorcerer’s bond will persist through the transition,” Keel continued, showing surprising respect for my father’s cover. “That I will hunt her as Nosferatu.”

Arthos considered this, while Boras smirked. He seemed to enjoy the thought of Keel hunting me. I shot him a dirty look.

“It could,” Arthos said. “But we have no writings on this. The only mention comes to us from centuries-old folklore.”

“So he could be right?” Keel asked, his expression grave.

Arthos nodded. “We won’t know for sure until you complete the transition.”

“And if it is true?”

Boras released a long drawn-out sigh. “We tell you that the future of your people is at stake and this is what you worry about: a sorceress? I’m not sure your father was entirely wrong in his assessment. She has corrupted you.”

When Keel raised his head, his eyes were an inferno of molten vitriol. “Get out,” he ordered Boras.

Boras didn’t move. If anything, he stood straighter at the perceived challenge.

“You said that, in all ways that are important, I’m already King, So, if that’s true, can I not command this?” Keel asked, sternly.

Boras huffed and said something about checking the perimeter, then disappeared out the door.

Once it had swung shut, Keel appealed to Arthos again. “What about Mills?”

“Yeah, what about me?” Now that Boras was out of the room, I didn’t have the same reservations about speaking up. It wasn’t that Arthos and I had an understanding exactly, but he had never dismissed me outright either.

“I promised her freedom,” Keel said. “And I intend to keep that promise.”

That’s when it struck me what we were really doing here: negotiating the terms of my release, of our break-up. “But what’s the point?” I burst in, miserable. “You forget the Nosferatu aren’t the only ones who want me dead. I’m pretty much persona non grata with the sorcerers too. If I’m only being freed so someone else can kill me, then I’d prefer Keel to be the one who does it. Use me for the transition and we don’t even have to have this conversation.”

I saw Keel balk out of the corner of my eye. “Not acceptable,” he snapped, then he got up and started pacing the room. After six or seven laps, he asked, “Where’s Alistair?”

“Waiting in his car. Why?” Arthos said.

Keel didn’t answer; he just turned and walked out of the guest house. I rose to follow, but Arthos put his hand on my arm. It was cold and clammy. Like Keel’s would be soon, I thought. “Don’t,” he said. “Keel is king now. Allow him his role. Your father won’t harm him.”

I sank back down into the couch, the weight of the night’s revelations tugging at me like an anchor. “Fine,” I said petulantly, then remembered there was something I wanted to ask. “So what’s this legend about the Nosferatu and the sorcerer?”

“It’s pieces of a legend more than a complete one,” Arthos clarified, seemingly relieved that I hadn’t tried to fight my way out of the building. “The stories say that, many millennia ago, the Nosferatu king Garstatt sought to bond with a sorcerer to increase his power and influence. However, the only willing accomplice he was able to find was just as power hungry as he was. It's believed they forged the same bonds that you and Keel have, but through far less innocent means.”

“What happened to them?”

“They became powerful, and reviled, lording over both Nosferatu and sorcerers alike, but they also went mad, became vile and cruel and vindictive, delighting in blood and suffering in equal measure. They were eventually dispatched by their own people.”

“Why did they go mad?”

“Most think it was because of the bond. I used to as well. But seeing you and Keel – seeing such a bond in action with my own eyes – I think that if the legend is true, they were already more than a little mad to begin with. What seems more likely is –”

Arthos stopped dead the moment Keel returned with Ephraim.

“We need to talk,” Keel said to me, from the doorway.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

“Alone,” he intoned, and motioned me outside.

I got up and followed him out of the guest house. He closed the door behind us, took my hand and guided me towards the fence. “You know I have to do this, right?” he said.

I bit my lip hard in an effort to keep the mounting tears at bay. “I knew you were going to turn,” I said. “I just thought we’d have more time.”

Keel pulled me into his arms, and I threw mine around him, holding on as if I was about to be torn away by gale-force winds. “Me too,” he said. “Me too.”

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“We sign a blood contract.”

“What? Aren’t we bound in enough ways already?”

“No,” Keel said. “A blood contract like the one your father once signed with mine. But ours will keep you safe – from me. Ephraim will explain everything.”

“Why can’t you explain it?”

“Because there are other things that I have to do tonight.”

I looked at him quizzically, not understanding.

“You need to go with Ephraim,” Keel said, even more plainly. I blinked up at him unbelieving. Fear, sadness, betrayal, anger were all jockeying for position inside of me.

“What if I want to stay with you?” I said. “If this is all the time we’re gonna get, I don’t want to waste a minute of it.” The tears I’d been holding back broke through the dam and were now streaming down my face.

“You can’t stay, Mills,” Keel said, stroking my hair, trying to tame my body-rocking sobs. “If things are as bad at the compound as Boras and Arthos say, then we need to discuss logistics and a whole lot more before I turn. Remember, the transition isn’t instantaneous; my people will be without their leader for some time and arrangements have to be made.”

“Okay,” I said, between hitching sobs. I was watching my Keel be usurped by royal Keel right before my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said, tilting his head down to kiss my forehead, my cheeks, my nose, my lips.

“I’m sorry, too.” I wound my fingers into his hair and pulled him down into a deeper, more urgent kiss. Stalling like my life depended on it. “I’m going to miss this,” I mumbled into his mouth.

“Not as much as me,” he said, kissing me once more then delicately extracting himself from our embrace.

“Fat chance,” I told him, and hastily mopped up my tear-streaked face with my shirt.

“Are you ready?” Keel said, after I’d collected myself.

I nodded sombrely. Knowing that a moment was inevitable, didn’t make it any easier when it finally arrived.

“Am I going to see you again before the transition?" I asked.

“Of course," Keel said. “Tomorrow. And don’t worry, you’ll be safe. Ephraim and I have an understanding.”

I raised an eyebrow at him, but he offered no further explanation. He took my hand again and guided me back to the house.

“She going to cooperate?” Ephraim asked Keel as we walked inside.

“Yes,” Keel said, giving my father a hard look. “You just keep your side of the deal, okay?”

Ephraim told me to gather up what I needed for overnight and I did. My goodbye to Keel was strangely formal, except for the part where I shoved the cellphone into his hands and told him to call me later at Bruce’s number, if he could. He nodded and squeezed my shoulder, sending additional reassurance through the bond. For him, I tried to put on a brave face as I left with my father. From the sounds of it, Keel had enough to worry about already without having to worry about me.

Ephraim didn’t speak the whole way to the car.

What did he and Keel agree to? I wondered. And how could Keel be so sure that Ephraim would keep his word? What if he’d simply handed me back to my would-be executioner?

As I slid into the front seat of Ephraim’s minivan, I felt as alone as I'd felt during those early weeks in the Nosferatu compound – and almost as scared. Who was I kidding? No amount of courage could bandage up all of this.

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