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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15. A Game of Knives

 

Chapter 13: A Game of Knives

“What do I have to do to convince you to come?” Keel’s impatience was quickly turning into a childish kind of desperation. I half expected him to start begging, pleading and stomping his feet. He’d been trying – unsuccessfully – to convince me to accompany him back to his room for the last ten minutes. I had no idea why he didn’t just force me to go with him. Was this his next game? His next test? Seeing if he could make me walk willingly into his trap?

So far, I’d refused to budge, and he’d hadn’t attempted to drag me, but he pummelled me with wave after wave of promises and impassioned pleas, all while steadfastly refusing to tell me what he planned on showing me once we got there. The whole display was un-Keel-like. He was never this animated.

Or maybe that's just what I told myself when I started caving.

One of us had to – eventually. That, or declare our little trip over. We couldn't very well stand around in the creepy Nosferatu museum forever. If it wasn’t for the clean clothes I was wearing, I might have been the one to do it, but I wasn't ready to give them up just quite yet – and apparently that meant making concessions. Sadly, there wasn't anything I could ask Keel for that would even the odds between us, but there was one thing that might lesson his advantage slightly.

“Give me your knife,” I demanded.

Keel's eyes widened. “Really?” He hadn’t expected that.

“Yes, really. You want me to trust you, so prove that you trust me first.”

“You know I could disarm you in two seconds, even if you had my knife?” He was right, of course. His preternatural speed and strength outmatched me no matter what I was wielding.

“But I’m betting you won’t.” This time, I stole his line.

Keel grinned at me, looking happier than I’d ever seen him. It gave him a sheen of humanity that I’d only glimpsed before in fits and starts. He wore it incredibly well. In fact, it made him almost roguishly handsome, and I had to resist the urge to smile goofily back at him. I knew better. He was a creature of many guises.

Keel removed his knife from his pocket and snapped it open. He tossed it into the air so that it twirled end over end over end in a high, arching loop. When it came back down, he caught the bladed side in his hand. It didn’t even nick him. Then he offered it to me, handle extended. “I wish you were like this all of the time,” he said, laying on the charm, and I rolled my eyes at him. “Sheer nerve looks good on you.”

“Don’t make me use this,” I threatened, snatching the knife out of his hand and waving it in front of his face.

“You won’t,” he said, oozing confidence. “Now can we go?”

Unable to argue – or delay – any further, I followed him out of the museum, happy to leave all of the dead things, and the unanswered questions they left me with, far behind. Keel guided me back to the service elevator, which I assumed would take us back down into the bowels of the compound, but instead he produced a key that unlocked a tiny metal flap directly beneath the elevator’s bank of buttons. Inside it was another button – a solitary, unnumbered black one, which he pressed. The door we’d just walked through slid closed with a clunk and a door directly behind us opened. Like the panel, I hadn’t noticed it was there. Keel flipped the flap closed and then exited through the rear of the elevator. I followed him, tentatively, only stepping fully inside when the elevator doors almost squashed me.

“Welcome to my room,” he said, spreading his arms.

Keel’s bedroom dwarfed my cell in every possible way. It held a large four-poster bed, a dresser and an armoire – but no closets – a sturdy-looking cherry-wood desk and two matching bookshelves, both of which were heaving, crammed full. In the area to the right of the elevator was a mostly full weapons rack and a stretch of cushioned, vinyl flooring that, judging from slits and tears in it, was used for sparring practice. Keel’s bedroom didn’t scream monster – unlike the weaponry in the throne room, these maces and swords were pristine – but it didn’t exactly say typical teenage boy either.

“It’s nice,” I said, politely, still taking it all in. I’d expected to see more Keel in the room. But apart from the overflowing bookshelves, nothing here told me anything about him.

Keel released a long, weary sigh. “It’s what’s expected. That’s what it is. And it isn’t what I wanted to show you.”

He turned and walked towards his bed. “You can sit down if you want,” he said, tapping the chocolate-brown duvet with his open palm.

“I think I’ll stand,” I said, but followed him nonetheless.

When he reached the bed, he got down on his hands and knees and dug around beneath it. He emerged twenty seconds later clutching a wooden box about twice the size of a shoebox.

This is what I wanted to show you. These are my artifacts,” he said, as he placed the box on the duvet. Keel sat down next to it and then looked up at me expectantly. “Open it,” he implored. As I placed both my hands on its lid – sturdy and slightly warm to the touch – all I could think was, This is it: the coupe de grace, the grand finale of his latest trick. But I took a deep centring breath, braved myself for more museum-esque horrors and flipped open the lid in one fast, fluid motion, much like I ripped off Band-Aids. The contents of the box had a similar, startling effect on me. The strength went out of my knees and I plunked down onto the bed, Keel momentarily forgotten.

When I finally looked up, he was smiling again. “You know what these are, then?”

“Is that a question?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, face full of childlike anticipation.

“I do,” I answered, before adding, “You know, Keel, you’re one hell of a conundrum. You hate humans, lock them up and eat them, can’t wait to not be even half of one any more, and yet your most precious things are all human things, human made.”

“Just because they are weak, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth knowing, understanding, studying.” Keel said it earnestly enough, but it didn’t change the implication.

“Just like me?” I asked, disgusted.

He ignored me, probably rightly thinking I wouldn’t like his answer. I let my hand drift into the box of lost treasures; dozens of tiny earthly trinkets – a Darth Vader Pez dispenser, complete with candy, a Nirvana CD, a copy of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, a dead iPhone and, weirdly, a tube of glittery lip gloss, among them – that made me so incredibly homesick, I almost puked all over Keel’s bedspread, which wasn’t just brown, but  pinstriped with delicate threads of gold and ochre. Positively princely.

“I’m like these things to you,” I asserted as calmly as I could. He’d left my question just hanging there awkwardly between us. An admission through silence. There were truths and there were truths. This was one of the latter.

He refused to meet my eyes. He was too busy watching my hand connect with each item in the box, before moving onto the next. Pieces of a past so precious, it didn’t even matter that it wasn’t my own. How was I supposed to feel about this? He hadn’t disguised the fact that I was a curiosity to him, but knowing he thought of me as more of object – a means to an end – than a person stung.

“I need to eat,” he mumbled, snapping the small wooden chest closed and nearly clipping my fingers in the process. Was this his way of saying yes? Or had I come too close to a core truth and now he was battening down the hatches and miring me back in our horrible, bloodletting little reality.

“Keel, I –”

“Don’t.” That weird, joyous aura of humanity that’d clung to him from the moment I'd agreed to follow him here all but dissolved. “Take out the knife,” he ordered. He was using that voice again, the voice that reminded me I was just as crazy as he was for allowing myself to get tangled up in his little rebellion.

I slammed my hand deep into the pocket of my hoodie and enclosed the cool metal in my fist, but I did not remove it.

“No, not like this. You promised,” I said, getting to my feet and slowly backing away from him.

“Then try to stop me,” he responded. “Now take out the knife.”

Maybe I’d get used to his jarring insensitivity, but I doubted I’d ever get a handle on his mood swings. My hand was shaking so bad when I finally withdrew the weapon from my pocket it was a miracle I was able to keep it from slipping out of my grasp.

I don’t know who I’d been trying to kid earlier, Keel could be damned scary when he wanted to be.

“Open it,” he commanded. I gave him a pleading look but he just shook his head and repeated those two words louder. I obeyed, and he moved – so fast it was almost a blur – but instead of disarming me, he wrapped my arm around his neck, so that the knife made a slight indent in his throat.

“How much do you hate me?” he asked. I couldn’t see his face, but some of the hardness had drained from his words.

This excursion had gone from irritating to confusing to downright bizarre. Is this how Boras felt when I’d offered my life to him? Keel’s back was pressed tightly against my chest, and I could feel the throb of his pulse – his lifeblood – in the gentle rise and fall of the blade. That strange electric thrum from the museum was back, too – but amplified and more unnerving than ever.

Could I do it? Could I kill Keel? The Nosferatu were evil but had he done anything to me to warrant death? Being a bloodsucking jerk alone probably wasn’t worthy of capital punishment. Could I kill him for what he would someday become?

“What d’ya say, Mills?” he said. There was zero fear in his voice. “Are we destined to be enemies?”

Would he actually let me slit his throat? And where exactly would murdering the King’s son get me, besides killed too? There was no clock in Keel’s room to indicate how much time I had before the rest of the Nosferatu rose. And god only knew if Keel had all the keys on him to get to the surface, I doubted it – he wouldn’t be wasting time with me if he could be causing havoc topside. Never mind that there was probably a very good reason why there was only one way in and out of this place: it would be fortified and well-protected.

I tightened my grip on the handle for a moment, and pressed the knife a little more firmly into Keel’s neck. I felt his spine stiffen against me, but he didn’t flinch. If anything, he tilted his head further back to allow me better vantage, calling my bluff.

Apparently I failed at being a monster slayer as well.

I opened my hand and allowed the Swiss Army knife to slip through my fingers and clatter to the floor.

Keel kicked my leg out of the way of the falling blade before it could slice open my bare foot. Then he stepped forward, out of my grasp, leaned down and picked it up. “And now we know the answer to that,” he said, twirling the knife in his hand like a circus performer.

I didn’t detect any disappointment in his voice, even though I’d expected it after his rant about how no one gave him a real challenge.

He seemed so incredibly sure of himself – and me – but would I really spare him if all that stood between me and escape someday was a cocky-as-all-get-out crown prince? I couldn’t share his confidence.

When he stopped spinning the blade, he offered it to me again. “I need to eat,” he repeated.

I looked from the knife to him, then back to the knife again. My question required no words.

“You do it,” he said, pushing it back into my hand.

“I don’t know if I can,” I admitted. The idea of slitting myself open was reprehensible enough, never mind doing it so a vampire could eat – even if it was Keel.

“You can,” he insisted. “Trust me, it’s part of who you are.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ll see.”

“What if I refuse?” I asked defiantly.

“Then we do this every night until you don’t.”

“Why is this so important to you suddenly? Is this another way to break me?”

“Mills,” he said, grabbing my shoulders and looking me squarely in the face. “I gave you my knife, I offered you my life: now do this one thing for me.”

“Help me choose a wound then,” I said, relenting. Are you really going to do this? Victimize yourself for him? This was absolutely pathetic. Who was I becoming?

“Don’t need to,” he said with a wink, as he lifted the hand that was holding the knife, shoved up the sleeve of my hoodie and planted the weapon firmly against my forearm. It was sharp, already biting at my skin; it would only take a flick, one moment of stern resolution.

Keel shifted his right hand up so it was cupping my cheek. That tingling current instantly flared where our skin met, fogging up my judgement.

What the hell is happening to me? I wondered, as my nerves danced on the edge of panic.

“Trust me, Mills,” he whispered. “Now, do it!”

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