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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25. All’s Fair in Love and War

 

Chapter 23: All’s Fair in Love and War

After I'd been crawling through the vents in complete, impenetrable darkness for about ten minutes – following the sounds of Keel’s forward motion and the occasional verbal command to turn right or left, and once to shimmy upwards a short distance – the building rumbled like a hulking, old furnace shuddering to life.

“Electrical’s back up,” Keel noted for my benefit alone, though it wasn’t any brighter where we were. “That means they know we’ve escaped the elevator. I was hoping we’d have a little more time, but at least I have a good idea what’s going to be waiting for us now.”

“Explain,” I said, “to the person not privy to the plan.” I couldn’t help being a little peeved that he and Arthos had been scheming behind my back the whole time.

He stopped crawling again. Usually he only did that when he disagreed with something I said, as if he thought he’d have more of my attention if we weren’t moving. It wasn’t necessary. I was pretty much hopelessly fixated on him, not only because I needed to be to know where I was going and so that I didn’t bump into him, but because he’d decided to make his final act saving me. Keel knew nothing about romance, but I doubted anyone in my future would ever top this.

I wanted to scream at God, the universe, fate, whoever and whatever would listen, that this was cruel, unfair, unbearable. Without Keel where would I be? Still a helpless prisoner? Dead? Worse? Down here there was so much worse. I certainly would not be powerful, not mounting an escape attempt, and not madly in love with someone totally verboten, no matter whose world we were in. Keel changed things and the way I thought about things. And I actually liked who I was becoming. But in just one day I was going to lose him – get back my whole world, and lose the only person who truly understood this new me. My heartbreak was a hurricane in my soul, violent and deafening.

So, if these were to be our last hours, I wanted to memorize every moment of them to play back later, even if that meant scenes of fleeing from vengeful, murderous vampires and a reel or two without any picture as we slunk along in the dark.

“There’s only one way out of the compound,” Keel said. “So instead of dividing resources trying to flush us out, they’ll be camped there, as a collective front.”

“Let’s wait till morning then,” I suggested. Would that really be so bad? It’d give Keel a chance to heal and allow my magic to recharge.

“We may sleep during the day, but we don’t have to,” Keel reminded me. “My father will make the troops stay until we’re caught, that much I’m sure of.”

“But won’t sunrise slow them down?”

“Only until they get a whiff of your blood, and that’s inevitable.”

Of course, he was right. We’d never make it out without magic, and without blood, there would be none of that. “How many?” I asked nervously. One Nosferatu was intimidating enough; en masse, they were akin to a pack of rabid dogs: salivating, barely controllable and scary as all get out.

“Thirty, forty – though not all will be skilled fighters.” Even with that clarification, my heart sank into my stomach. How were we ever going to pull this off?

“That’s insane,” I told him. There was no point in dancing around it. “I could never fight with you more than two or three times in a day before being totally useless. I can’t take out that many Nosferatu.”

“Then here’s hoping you won’t have to,” he said. “The door frame may not have given away your secret, and even if it did, we still have surprise on our side. Remember, we just have to make it to the van. If we get to the van, we’re out.”

“You can drive?”

“In theory,” he said, and I almost slugged him, injured or not. Theory wasn’t going to help us one iota when confronted by three dozen or so vampires who were all older and stronger than we were.

“Keel!”

“I know what you’re thinking, but don’t. Just get us to the van and I’ll get us the rest way out, I promise.”

He sounded so headstrong and sure of himself,  I couldn’t help believing in him. Sure, that was absolutely loony tunes, but when it came down to it, he’d never given me a reason not to – barring his tiny slips of self-control. But I wasn’t exactly dealing with a normal guy here. Not even normal for his own kind.

Then again, from the sounds of it, I wasn’t either.

We ceased speaking when several pairs of heavy boots clomped down the hallway directly beneath where we were holed up in the vent work. Neither of us moved or dared utter a single word until their thunder had faded to silence. They weren’t the first team we’d heard patrolling the halls. Occasionally, a group of Nosferatu would even loop back, as if attempting to track us, but my blood scent was wafting out of vents all over this floor. They knew I was in here, but there was too much of me to triangulate my location properly. Turned out taking the duct route had been pure brilliance.

In a way, it was a shame that Keel would never become king; he probably would have been the smartest leader they’d ever had.

We crawled a bit further, and he informed me that we were almost there.

“We have to go up here,” he explained. “Then it’s a quick turn right, then we climb up again and go down one more passage.”

Two more climbs? Really? I hated them. There was no way to navigate myself up the vertical stretches of vent so that the creases in the metal edging didn’t tear bloody rivulets into my feet, but I gritted my teeth and carried on, refusing to complain. If Keel could do this all battered and broken, then I had nothing to whinge about. I found some cold comfort in the fact that the Nosferatu were going to have to scrub my smell out of here.

Of course, Keel was tuning in to the fresh blood scenting the air too, his breathing becoming noticeably shallower.

“Sorry,” I whispered, only half meaning it. “You should have brought me shoes.”

Keel ignored my comment and kept crawling, giving me a bit of time to think about a strategy. Even though I’d been blindfolded when they’d brought me in, I remembered the metal catwalk and staircase they’d dragged me up. We’d have to traverse both to get to the main floor of the loading bay. I just hoped Keel knew which van we needed. If we ended up stumbling around lost in there, we were doomed.

By the time we made it up the final incline and reached the right grate, I needed a rest. I didn’t know whether it was a result of all the physical exertion or from the magic I’d used earlier, but my arms and legs were shaking and rubbery from the strain.

“Hold up. Let’s figure out a plan,” I said to Keel, trying to draw his attention away from my exhaustion by refocusing it on the task at hand. Bait and switch. He had so much hope pinned on me, disappointing him wasn't an option.

He’d saved me, gotten me this far, and now it was my turn to save him. Whatever it took. But I was going to try to be smart about it.

Finally growing up, Mills? my snarky inner voice asked, but I shooed it away. I didn’t need its sarcastic running commentary, not now.

“Okay,” Keel obliged. He’d been unscrewing the grate, but stopped, putting down the multi-head screwdriver next to where he’d been working, before shifting to face me.

Enough light drifted up from the hallway to cast his features in muted, moody shadows. The way they laid dark trails across Keel’s face only worsened the look of the beating, providing a timely reminder about what we were about to walk into. But at least he was here to face it with me and he was still Keel, my Keel. God, I loved the sound of that.

He wasn’t exactly conventionally handsome – his angular face contrasted a little too sharply with his soft, floppy, always unkempt-looking dark brown hair – but he was still attractive. Hot, even. If he went to my school, he’d definitely have his own fan club. The girls back in New York would totally eat up his effortless wildness, his rebellious cool, and his terminal aloofness – especially packaged as they were in a body toned from a lifetime of combat training. And when he laughed, and that not-quite-lost boyishness erupted across his face, dissolving all traces of Nosferatu-ness from it, he was absolutely enthralling. In those moments, what I’d said didn’t matter: I was irrevocably his, a slave to his sparkling green eyes and the way my chest always felt like it was going to explode from joy whenever he was nearby.

I reached out and gently placed my palm on his left cheek, allowing my thumb to drift across his impossibly swollen lower lip. He flinched a little, the edges of his eyes creasing, but didn’t retreat from my touch. “You know, I never wanted this to happen, right?” I asked. “I wanted you to transition, even if it meant I’d lose you – this you.”

Keel reached up and retrieved my hand, clasping it in his. “Mills, I knew what I was doing and what the risks were. Of course, I never thought he’d go this far, even if he found out, but I don’t blame you.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “Earlier, you…”

“Stated the truth? Yes, I did. You are bad for my people, but that doesn’t change us. I want to protect you, but whether I transition or not, I want to protect them too.” It was easy for me to forget about Keel’s lineage, because at some point I’d simply stopped seeing him as the prince. He wasn’t royalty to me; he was just an amazing guy I had a great, big, still mostly unrequited thing for. But when he talked like that, it slammed it all back home. He’d spent his life training for his role, so the lives and needs of his own kind would always factor in. He was honour-bound to that.

“Then why were you coaching me to kill them?” I asked.

“Because if you won’t, they’ll kill us. If you want to escape, you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes. Because they’ll be doing whatever it takes to stop that from happening.”

“Oh.” After all these months and after what the King had done to Keel, the absolute ruthlessness of the Nosferatu should have sunk in and taken root in my mind, but I always underestimated their capacity for awfulness, for savagery. If I didn’t stop doing that, it’d be the death of me – us. “So they’re going to be armed?”

“Some of them probably, but it won’t be with anything you’ve haven’t faced already.” Now I was sure that almost everything Keel and I had gotten up to over the past month – from the endless magical experiments to the industrial spelunking – was in fact very specialized training, cleverly dressed up as fun.

“So, no guns then?” I said, relieved. Keel had smashed and bashed all sorts of gnarly instruments of war into my magical shield, and it had withstood all of them. It could probably make short work of bullets too, but something about their speed, size and penetrative design worried me, as did the likelihood of a barrage.

“No, no guns.”

“Why not?”

“Same reason you didn’t hear alarms blaring when they found out we escaped,” Keel said, patiently. He never seemed to tire of explaining things to me, no matter how basic. “Nothing is more important than keeping our existence secret from the prying eyes of humans, particularly human law enforcement. So no matter how bad my father wants to stop us, he’s not going to order them to do anything that's going to bring attention to this place. Even if he’s mad like some of them say, he’s not that mad.”

“But guns can have silencers,” I pointed out.

“There won’t be any guns,” Keel insisted. “It’s not the Nosferatu way. Haven’t you figured it out? We prefer our fights up close and personal.”

“Okay,” I said, finally. “But if not guns, what will we be facing out there?”

“The tactical team, the security force and the reserves. Good thing is that none of those units are used to working with one another. And while they’ve trained for situations like this, they’ve never actually faced one, and definitely not one involving magic. If we’re smart and quick, we do have a chance.”

“So what do we do?”

“We work together,” Keel said, making it sound so much simpler than it undoubtedly would be. “I’ll guide you to the van, but you’ll need to do exactly what I say. You’ll need to trust me.”

“I trust you,” I said without hesitation, leaning forward to kiss him on the only part of his cheek that wasn’t bruised. “I trust you with my life.”

Keel smiled, a genuine, buoyant smile that would have spread to his entire face if it weren't so painfully discoloured. “I know,” he said, but a moment later the smile faded and his expression darkened again. “There’s one more thing, and it’s very important. No matter what happens out there, no matter how much you may want to, you can’t kill my father. You can incapacitate him, but you can’t let him die.”

“Even after everything…” I lost my voice to white-hot, nuclear rage. If there was one vampire who deserved to die, it was the King.

Keel gave me an anxious look and squeezed my hand, urging me to calm down. Oh right, the blood bond. Fury was suddenly dangerous again. It was hard to remember all our rules when they kept changing, and when I kept wanting to change them.

“You have to understand that it’s so much bigger than him,” Keel said; there was a note in his voice imploring me to hear him out. “If he dies and there's no heir, it’s going to throw the compound into chaos and there’s going to be no one here to stop my people from going out and wreaking havoc. And if that happens, then the whole supernatural world’s gonna come down on us and lots, if not everyone, down here will die. But so will many others. Picture my father as the pin in a grenade. He needs to be in place.”

I scowled. How was that supposed to take the edge off my rage? After what he’d done to Keel and I, he deserved whatever wrath I flung at him, however brutal. But if what Keel said was true – and why wouldn’t it be? – was justice worth the cost? Hundreds of lives to avenge one. Even it was Keel’s. The one.

“Mills,” Keel said, gently shaking my hand, “you’re drawing blood.” It was only then that I noticed how tightly I was clasping onto him: my nails had left a set of glistening red semi-circles in their wake – either they’d become sharper or I’d become stronger. Regardless of which it was, it was definitely a sorcerer thing. I quickly let go, embarrassed, but Keel snatched my hand back up just as fast, snaking his fingers through mine so I couldn’t pull away again. “We’re going to get through this,” he assured me. “But we can’t endanger the whole world doing it.”

“Okay,” I acquiesced. “Help keep the world safe” was a damned convincing argument when it came right down to it. What kind of person would say no to that?

“Now, are you ready?” he asked.

“Almost,” I said, “but I need to do something first.” A thought had popped into my head while we were talking, a beautiful, wonderful, this-could-really-save-us kind of thought.

“What’s that?”

I let go of Keel’s hand and raked my nails down my arm from shoulder to wrist. His gaze was instantly transfixed on the fresh river of blood welling up out of the incisions. Sweet temptation.

“What are you doing?” he said, low and dangerous and full of teetering restraint.

“Making sure my shield will cover you,” I told him. His face suddenly looked much more sinister in the low light. “That is, if you can stop yourself from licking it off the second I smear it onto you.”

Keel stared at me hungrily. Suddenly, my good idea seemed like the height of stupidity, but then he grunted and nodded.

“Trust me,” I murmured at him, while I drew a red line down each of his arms and across both of his shoulders, before applying it to his face like war paint, careful to avoid any open wounds. Then I told him to turn around. The rest of it got smeared into the back of his tactical suit and his hair. Keel would need a shower if we made it out of here alive, but so what? If this did what I thought it would, I’d just given us our first real advantage.

“Now, remember,” I said when I was done. “Leave that blood alone. I need it to make this work.” Keel had been doing a thoroughly impressive job of keeping a rein on the bloodthirsty monster, but it was wide awake in his features. God, those black, bottomless eyes were unnerving.

He nodded again and I pretended to not hear the feral growl emanating from deep within his throat. Now that that was done, we needed to get out of the vent to where there was more fresh air and less of my blood scent as fast as possible. I picked up the discarded screwdriver and curled his fingers around it. “Okay, let’s do this thing.”

Keel shook his head, trying to clear the blood fog, before returning his attention to the grate. Once he finished unscrewing it, he swung himself down into the hallway below. I followed, but as soon as I landed I put a bit of space between us.

“That’s the last door,” Keel said, gesturing to the hulking metal monstrosity in front of us. “As soon as I throw the lock, they’ll know we’re here.”

“Okay, give me a second then,” I told him, and began to channel my rawest emotions into the two spells that we needed to start – one to dampen the potent odor of my blood and the other our shield.

I hadn’t even been at it a minute, when Keel started sniffing at the air, at me, at the blood trail on his arm. “How?” he asked, looking completely confused.

It worked! I thought, ecstatically.

“Just something I thought up in the vents. Think it’ll confuse them?”

“Absolutely,” Keel said, grinning. This may be life or death, but part of him obviously thrilled at the challenge of a real, no-holds-barred fight.

“Good. Now don’t forget, stay close.”

We were barely through the door when it became obvious we were sorely outmatched. The loading dock was approximatelythe size of two high school gymnasiums butted up end to end. The Nosferatu had formed two offensive fronts inside it. The smaller one was already rushing up the metal stairs and across the catwalk towards us. The rest had formed a long line, three-deep, between us and the row of vehicles. And unlike the vampires who were determined to cut us off before our feet even touched the concrete floor, they were armed. The King stood half a metre in front of them barking orders.

I felt my shield waver as my fight or flight instinct took hold, then Keel’s hot breath brushed across my ear. “Hey, don’t forget you were born for this. Now hold on.”

I was about to ask him what he meant by that last part, when he scooped me up into his arms and leaped over the metal railing. Together we plunged almost a storey to the hard, unforgiving floor. As Keel’s feet hit the concrete, I heard a snapping sound followed by an anguished choked-back yelp, then I was falling again. A moment later, we were laying in a crumpled heap just beneath the platform. Keel was clutching his leg, the one he’d been limping along on all night, his face all screwed up in agony.

“Even in your final hours, still a traitor,” the King shouted at Keel. “Look at you. Pathetic. Mewling. Fallen before the first sword has even swung. A disgrace! Schoolchildren will defile your grave.”

Keel gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge his father’s taunts. “Leg’s broken,” he told me. I could already tell by the stoic way he was speaking that I wouldn’t like what he was going to say next. “You’re going to have to go the rest of the way on your own. It’s not far. See that black panel van over there,” – Keel pointed to the fourth vehicle in a line of mismatched vans and trucks – “that’s the one you need.” Once he was sure I knew which one he was talking about, he dug his hand into the breast pocket of his jacket and retrieved a set of keys, forcing them into my palm.

“No,” I said, giving them back. “I’m not leaving without you. Besides I don’t know how to drive, I –”

The King interrupted us with another round of heckling. “Was she worth it? She’s property, payment taken for a debt owed to me. Yet you’d steal her. From your own father. From your King. You're not just a traitor, but a thief! And a coward!”

Keel's father must have believed us truly debilitated, or else he would have already sent his troops in to finish us. Instead, he was using our captive audience to gloat and put on a show for his soldiers, who looked almost as smug as he did. They figured us easy prey too. We’ll show them, I thought angrily.

“You’ve got to go,” Keel insisted, more forcefully. “Staying will be suicide.”

“Shut up,” I told him, wrapping both my hands firmly around his leg. Even through his pants I could tell that the bone had broken skin and was protruding at a wholly unnatural angle. I had no idea how he was still so calm and coherent. If our positions were reversed, I’d be a screaming, blubbering mess. Chalk another one up for vampiric resilience, I thought, before turning my willpower towards knitting Keel’s femur back together.

“No, Mills, don’t,” he pleaded, but I tuned him out, along with the King’s latest explosion of searing insults. Soon, I felt that familiar, soothing heat rise up under my palms as the bones pushed themselves back into position and began to fuse together, while the flesh reformed under Keel’s damp and bloodied pant leg. Normally, using my magic to heal egregious wounds required a surplus of concentration, but this time, with the renewed blood bond, the process was largely intuitive. But it wasn’t just the connection. Something else had changed too, making this easier than ever. I had my suspicions about what that was, but there wasn’t any time to dwell on them, not when the King had stopped shouting and was looking at us with a loathing so intense that I knew with absolutely certainty that if we didn’t make it out, this was definitely going to be our last night on Earth.

The rest of the Nosferatu may not have known what we were doing as I sat there clutching Keel’s leg, but the King understood. If he was the least bit unclear about the extent of his son’s betrayal, it was now laid bare before him. Keel had access to me and my power in a manner that he’d only dreamed of.  Take that, asshole, I thought, as I removed my hands from Keel’s freshly healed leg and helped him to his feet.

Even as I’d been casting my spell, the King didn't send forth his troops. In fact, he’d been so blindsided by Keel’s latest treachery that he was temporarily rendered immobile in grim-faced, vitriolic outrage. Keel had it bang on: surprise really was our best weapon. Score one for the good guys.

Of course, a second later our luck ran out.

“Kill them!” the King roared.

Boras immediately stepped forward to protect him, which was fine by me since I had taken what Keel had said to heart and already felt guilty enough for my part in Fredrick’s fate, without adding dozens, if not hundreds, more innocent lives to the final body count. The Nosferatu could keep their king if that’s what it took prevent an interspecies war. As soon as Boras was at his Majesty's flank, the remainder of the troops charged. With their matching black uniforms, thin frames and gaunt, white faces, they looked like the Devil’s unholy army, and I was pretty sure they’d fight like it too, not hesitating to rip me limb from limb before suckling my appendages dry in an orgiastic feast.

“How’s that shield?” Keel asked. He was standing right behind me, chest pressed up against my back.

“Hot and bothered,” I joked. If any moment needed levity, it was this one.

“Good,” he said, as the first sword collided with my invisible barrier, sending an explosion of sparks flying in all directions. Then all hell broke loose.

I’d wondered why the King hadn’t warned the rest of the Nosferatu about my magic before ordering their attack, but now it was clear: it would have incited instant panic and pandemonium.

“She’s using magic!” wailed the wild-eyed Nosferatu whose sword had reverberated off my shield.

As those three words spread through the troops, sinking in and gaining traction, two things happened: roughly half of the vampires collectively took a few steps back and removed themselves from the fray, either out of fear or in hopes of assessing the sudden dramatic swing in power. The rest surrounded us, pummelling my shield with their maces, flails and blades, as if our magical barricade was something that could be cracked open by brute force alone. Each impact rattled my bones. A thousand tiny tremors. The magic protected me, but it was also part of me, an extension of myself, and I was always acutely aware of it. A blessing and a curse.

Keel and I started to shuffle towards the van. He was so close behind me that he was practically my shadow, his every step perfectly in sync with my own, but I didn’t mind. It made extending the shield over both of us less taxing – as did the blood I’d marked him with – but it was also reassuring just feeling his presence there. Knowing we were in this together had a bolstering, empowering effect on me. But that wasn’t enough to stop us from getting barricaded in by the King’s troops.

All around us blades glinted, wielded by hands that moved faster than the human – and sorcerer – eye could see, creating a strobe effect: beautiful and devastatingly deadly. But we were safe in  here. For now, anyway. The faces of our attackers stared in at us through the transparent force field, all red eyes, hollow cheeks, and twisted, snarling mouths. These were creatures who weren’t used to having to work this hard for their prey.

The sparks flying off the shield were singeing their uniforms  and leaving tiny smoking holes, but the  Nosferatu didn’t react to the fiery threat; they just kept beating on the shield, completely indifferent that their blows had little effect. Drone soldiers on a mission from their King.

“There’s too many,” I said, coming to a halt. “Even if we keep inching forward like this, it’s going to take too long.”

“Then I think it’s time you showed them what you can really do,” Keel suggested.

I turned slightly so that I could tilt my head upwards and look him in the eyes.  I saw a lot of things there – some of which I knew were echoed in my own – but none of them was doubt. Even so, I asked, “Are you sure? Because this is going to get all kinds of ugly.”

“It’s nothing they wouldn’t do to you, given the chance,” Keel reminded me, and I was thankful for his honesty. We were at war, fighting for our lives. I needed to stop being so damned human. They weren’t.

I needed to be a warrior.

“If I do this, we’re going to lose the shield and the spell I’ve been using to block the blood scent,” I warned. That was the one problem with big offensive manoeuvres; they required complete concentration.

“That might not be a bad thing,” Keel said, watching the onslaught. I wondered if his eyes were fast enough to pick up our attackers’ movements; their preternatural speed rendered most of them a blur to me.  “A bit more chaos could work in our favour.”

“Just be ready to run,” I told him, then I got to work.

I started by dropping the damper on my blood. As its scent drifted out over the attacking vampires, everything seemed to slow down for a few seconds, even the impacts on my shield. Then it all resumed with even more vigor, infused with the instinctual predatory hunger that drove the Nosferatu to live forever apart from humankind. A few of the creatures even discarded their weapons, attempting to take on my shield with their claws and teeth. The smell of their burning flesh made the bile rise up in my throat. Even as their skin blackened and flaked off, they refused be dissuaded, completely losing themselves to the suicidal madness of their need.

“Don’t look,” Keel growled. His words were well-meaning, but he’d never sounded so monstrous.

He’s covered in your blood and pressed up against you! Without the damper he’s as susceptible to its allure as any of them.

I forced myself to tear my eyes away from the twisted, villainous, half-charred faces baring their teeth at me, but not before noticing that their fangs had stayed pearly white. Freakin’ creepy.

When I opened a fresh set of wounds to smear my palms with blood, the frenzy became insanity. I could feel Keel practically vibrating behind me. “Hold on,” I whispered. “Please.” Unsure if he could even hear me over the crackling din of the attack.

The vampires shoved in at us so hard that the ones along the front line were crushed into the barrier, where they were roasting alive. The air around us became thick with smoke and an acrid, charcoal-like odour that burned the back of my throat.  I coughed, gagged violently, then swallowed hard. I wouldn’t be able to pull this off if I was buckled over hacking. Taking only small, shallow breaths, I focussed on what I needed to do.


Slowly, I stretched both bloody hands out wide to my sides, extending the circumference of the shield around us, pushing all the Nosferatu back at least half a metre. A fresh chorus of inhuman shrieks erupted as more fell against the force field. But I didn’t think about them, or what I was doing to them; I couldn’t allow myself to. I worried that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do what I had to do next. Instead, I focused on channelling even more power into our defences. Soon, the shield was crackling and sparking even where it wasn’t being directly pummelled. Some of the Nosferatu who’d been holding back misread this as weakness; they thought the first wave had made some progress, and leapt into the fray. Good for us, very bad for them. I slowly raised my hands above my head, until magic was whirling around us like a tornado with Keel and I in the eye of the storm. It felt absolutely amazing. I was a conduit, the conduit. The flow of power – so much power rushing through me, around me – made me feel like a goddess. A wrathful, vengeful goddess about to wield lethal payback for all the vampires’ trespasses, even if I couldn’t touch the one Nosferatu who truly deserved it.

“Ready?” I snarled, my magic bucked against my restraints, demanding to be released.

“Ready,” Keel snarled back.

I slammed my arms down, causing the entirety of the shield to explode outwards like the shockwave from an atomic bomb.

At first I thought the vampires nearest to us had simply been knocked off their feet, but the ash on the floor told the true story. I’d incinerated them. Further back, I saw Nosferatu stumbling, clutching at their eyes, their faces, while their uniforms hung in tatters over their charred and cracking torsos. Others lay quivering on the floor, scalded and broiled to the bone in places, but impossibly still alive and whimpering. I had done that. They were monsters, but this was… there were no words for it.

The air reeked of burnt flesh and cooked organs – this was Hell’s barbecue and I was the head chef.

I could barely process it, my mind already reeling from the power I’d expelled. More than ever before. More than I'd imagined possible.

The room became a topsy-turvy carnival of death all around me.

It felt like hours went by as I stood there swaying, thinking, I did this. Oh god, what I have I become?

Then I wasn’t on my feet anymore. I was in a familiar set of arms, and we were weaving through the field of destruction. There were more survivors, but the lucky few who managed to escape the blast unscathed kept their distance, rather than test fate should I unleash a second incinerating burst.

I tried not to move too much as I drooped wearily against Keel’s chest. He shouldn’t have been carrying me with his injuries, and the proud, self-sufficient part of me wanted to demand that he put me down right now, but the smarter part knew I was too weak and still in too much in shock to walk.

I may have been a goddess a couple of minutes ago, but not anymore.

Now I needed him.

I tried to keep an eye out for incoming danger, but the loading dock and everything in it danced before my eyes like some macabre, charnel ballet, forever going in and out of focus.

“Shit,” Keel cursed, and a second later something barrelled into us, knocking me out of his arms and sending me sprawling roughly across the floor.

“Keel,” I shouted, but my cry was choked off by a pair of hands clamping around my throat like a vice. They lifted me into the air, bringing me eye to eye with the King – eye to eye with pure, reeking malevolence and hostility. I’d stolen his son, decimated his troops and denied him his greatest prize, and the disgusted look on his face told me that I was about to die for it.

Where was Keel? I tried to search the room for him, but my vision was too messed up. My other senses were just as useless. All I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears, like the ocean. And everything else was consumed by fear. Invasive and all-encompassing.

I kicked uselessly at the King’s boned robe, as my burning lungs screamed for the oxygen they were being deprived. How long until I lost consciousness?

Wait. The word momentarily stopped the grey that was sneaking into the edges of my already sketchy vision. He’d drunk from me. Meaning I could…

But did I have anything left?

I closed my eyes and sought strength in how much I didn’t want to die, and how much I didn’t want Keel to die, and that he might be dying right now. Sleep! I channelled the thought at the King and the King alone. I’d promised Keel I wouldn’t kill him, and I did plan on keeping my word. When nothing happened immediately, I pushed harder – mined every beating he ever gave me, every bite he purposely made more painful just to drink my agony as well as my blood, all the pain he’d caused me and the ones I loved – then pictured my blood as a narcotic, a tranquilizer, a handful of sleeping pills. Finally, I felt his fingers loosen slightly and I was able to suck a tiny bit of air into my starved, spasming lungs. Please, I thought, and kept channelling. Eventually, the King fell to his knees, groggy and wobbling, but still fierce in his grip. It took my flaming palms and one hell of a struggle to pry his fingers off my neck.

Once free, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled past him, gasping and wheezing, frantically looking for Keel. When I found him, Boras was kicking him in the stomach – and he wasn’t moving.

“Hey!” I shouted at my former keeper.

Surprised to hear my voice and not the King’s, Boras spun around to face me, his eyes widening as they fell on Keel’s father’s body lying prone and motionless behind me.

“He’s not dead,” I said, my voice ice cold. “Keel explained why the Nosferatu need a leader. But I will kill him – kill both of you – if you kill Keel.­ Don’t think I won’t.”

Boras stared down at me, weighing the challenge. I’d dared him to come at me once before, but this time the odds were much more even – or were they? I’d just taken out a sizable chunk of a Nosferatu army and debilitated the King. What exactly had he done? Beaten the hell out of an injured, dying half-vampire.

Still, I was running on empty. And Boras probably knew that. The fact that I hadn’t gotten to my feet yet had to be a dead giveaway.

“Let us leave,” I demanded.

Boras looked from me to Keel, then laughed. It was a heartless sound that made me want to stumble up just so that I could shove my bloody palms against his chest and burn a pair of holes clear through him. “If you can make it out of here, you can go,” he said still chuckling, then strode by me to check on the King, who was still, thankfully, very much unconscious. 

I scuttled over to Keel, who was breathing, but just barely. Blood seeped out of his mouth and nose in a steady stream. He’s dying, my brain shrieked, do something, do something, DO SOMETHING! I felt like I was shattering, watching Keel’s lifeblood – blood that was once again intrinsically joined with mine – spilling out on floor in front of me. There was no way to scoop it up and put it back, but I wanted to. I wanted to turn back time to that moment earlier in the vent, to the afternoons spent lazing around his room, to the first time I saw him as so much more than a merciless halfling vampire, to that incredible, game-changing kiss.

I scooped Keel’s limp, unmoving hands up in mine.

You can’t die, I thought. Not without saying goodbye. Not like this.

I had no idea if he heard me; my telepathy, as always, was woefully one-sided.

Something wet splashed down onto our hands. Tears. My tears. When had I started crying?

We’d come so close only to lose everything – even our last day. I couldn’t believe it.

An ocean of despair swelled up around me, suffocating me in a way that even the King’s rock-hard grip couldn’t.

I kissed Keel’s hands and set them down gently on the floor, careful to place them well out of range of the pooling blood. Then I crawled around behind him and wrapped my arms around his torso like I’d done a dozen times before.

Now I knew why Boras hadn’t put up an argument when I’d made my demand. He’d known we’d never leave. Not together. Not both alive.

I buried my face in the blood-matted hair that hung in sticky clumps down the back of Keel’s neck and closed my eyes. Heal, I thought desperately, attempting to turn the black cloud of grief that was swallowing me whole into a final ounce or two of magical fuel. Take everything I have, everything I am and heal. Please. It’s yours. All yours. Just live.

I need you.

I love you.

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