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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21. Always

 

Chapter 19: Always

My question hung heavy in the air between us, a dead weight, anchoring Keel and me to this moment.

“Friends or enemies? Tell me, Keel, which one is it?”

Perhaps it was always destined to come to this.

I had finally drawn my line. Everyone had one. And, on the other side, was the thing which you would do anything to prevent. And while you could guess at where it might be and what that thing was, you never could really be certain until you came toe-to-toe with it.

Somehow I’d begrudgingly accepted the King’s bloodletting and torture – as long as the he was doing that, he wasn’t killing me; as long as he wasn’t killing me, I still had some chance at escape – but being a vessel for the next generation of vampires was something I was never going to accept. I’d sooner die; death would be the final, inevitable outcome anyway – a horrific, perverted, eaten-alive-by-your-young kind of death.

But I hoped it wouldn’t come to that – kill or be killed.

I needed a back-up plan. I needed Keel. But he was far from on board.

“He’d kill me for helping you escape,” he said. It was a stock answer that lacked Keel’s usual bravado, and his eyes flickered off mine when he rolled it out, belying the deeper truth underneath. As much of a free-thinker as he was, he was still Nosferatu royalty. By asking him to help me escape, I was quite possibly also asking him to compromise everything he had ever worked for, just to save me – from him. Or not him. It didn’t matter to what was on the line. My life. Friend or foe. Fellow explorer of mysteries or complete stranger.

“But you’re his only son,” I reminded him.  We’d made it as far as the utility closet before we’d started arguing again, which had to have set a new record.

“Wouldn’t matter. He’d kill me, then sire another. We’re long lived. He still has time, if he wanted to.”

“Keel, please,” I implored. “Who’s to say you’d even get caught? You know this place better than everyone, if anybody could get me out unseen, it’s you. Besides, I’m not asking you to do this tomorrow, only if… when –”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.” Keel was massaging his temples and staring at the floor, as if this whole thing gave him a head full of stampeding elephants. “I’ll find another way to stop it, but I can’t help you escape. That’s asking too much.”

“It’s asking for my life.”

“Listen, if I can’t talk him out of his plan, we’ll just fake it. It doesn’t always work with the humans, so who’s to say it would work with a sorceress at all? And once I’m King, it won’t matter.”

“Won’t it?” I asked. “Who will you be when you become King, Keel? Who will you be after the transition? I know it changes you. How much? What if what I want doesn’t matter to you anymore then? Maybe I’m stupid to even be asking you for your word; maybe I should just be stating my terms.”

“Mills –” Keel tried to break in, but I didn’t let him.

“You saw what I can do, right? So you know what I would do – to your father, to you, to any vampire I could – if any of you ever tried to force yourself on me.” My voice cracked, my composure wobbling like an amateur tightrope walker. I hadn’t wanted to threaten him. I wanted him to do the right thing and say he would save me. That if it came down to it, he would save me.

“There’s a really good reason we’re taught to fear sorcerers and it seems I’m no better at learning my lessons than my father,” Keel said dourly, getting up from where he’d been perched on the ladder. “I can’t promise you what you want, so I guess we’re done.”

His words had a finality to them that was alarming. He didn’t acknowledge me as he ascended the ladder and replaced the grate covering the entrance to the duct – the Mothering would be forever unseen, along with anything else he might have shown me. He didn’t look like a vampire as he folded up the ladder, and tucked it back into its spot beside the mop and bucket; his distraught expression was totally human, and totally my fault, since the blood bond kept screaming out my feelings.

But it also meant he knew how much this whole day had torn me apart – yet he was going to allow it to end like this anyway.

It was your ultimatum, that annoying voice in my head reminded me. He’s just honouring it.

That was all it took to unleash the first wracking sob. Keel froze where he was in the middle of the room, inhaled sharply and clasped both of his hands to his rib cage, as if his chest was aching right alongside mine. When he turned to face me he wasn’t so much pale as white. But he was about to walk out of my life, so what did it really matter what he thought of me? I was bone-weary of playing it tough and always trying to figure out how best to behave around the Nosferatu. Couldn’t I go back to just being Mills, the wallflower, who had half the life experiences of everyone else and was a little bit jealous about it? That Mills wasn’t afraid to cry, and never had to worry about whether it showed weakness or not, because she didn’t care. Down here, I had to. Everything was a game, a role, a ploy. If I wasn’t engaged in it, I wasn’t trying hard enough to survive, but between the captivity, the sorcery and Keel, I didn’t know who I was anymore. And now I’d made a wager, and lost, without truly considering what I was losing first.

Worse still, I’d just gone with my gut again. If I’d considered it even ten seconds longer, I would have realized that I’d likely know enough magic to escape long before the King’s plans of “mothering” me turned into actions, but now I’d sabotaged that too, and would have to finish figuring out my powers all by myself.

Keel found his momentum and strode over. “Come on. Let’s go.” he said, tight and controlled. Guard Keel, not Prince Keel. He played his roles too.

“I don’t want to,” I cried into my knees. If I was going to be pathetic, might as well go all in.

“Well, you can’t stay here forever,” he stated stoically, resisting my swirling whirlpool of grief.

“I don’t want this,” I told him through the waterfall of tears.

“I know. You told me.”

“No, this,” I said. The water in my eyes had rendered him into a blurry, detail-less shape. “Us like this. Done.

“I thought you said…”

“Screw what I said.”

Keel glanced at the shelf where he’d hidden his tool and then back at me. His odd look told me he didn’t get the slang, but I was too depressed to explain it. He didn’t ask either. “We can’t go on like this, Mills. Always at each other’s throats. One day we’re going to go too far, and not even your magic is going to help.”

He was right, of course. This was all too volatile. And if it needed to change, I was going to have to step up, because it was my emotions we both kept tripping over.

“What else don’t I know?” I asked, hoping this wasn’t too little too late.

It took him a second to catch the direction I’d swerved the conversation in. “Lots. But if you mean about you, you know it all now.”

“And you meant what you said about my not having to participate in that other part of your father’s experiment?”

“Yes,” Keel sighed. “Just like I meant what I said about not wanting to have my face melted off again.”

I balled my hands into fists and jammed my palms into my eye sockets, wiping away the tears. Then I looked up at him towering over me. The ceiling light was behind him, so some of his face was lost to shadows and I was infinitely grateful for that. I’m not sure I could have said what I did otherwise.

“Can we try again?” The question came out small and scared. I wished more than anything I could go on without him, pretend we’d never met and become supernaturally entangled, but I couldn’t bear the thought of it, nor the endless, unrelenting hell that my life would become again. Keel had gotten too far under my skin. Cutting him out now would mean injuring myself. Of course, I’d already been laid bare to him in almost every other way over the past few weeks, so why not like this too? Even so, he had every right to say no, and probably should. Our worlds were just too different.

Keel crouched down in front of me so that we were face to face. His mouth was a hard, unyielding line, but his eyes had regained a bit of their foresty brightness. Was I responsible for that? Hope fluttered amongst the vise-like knots inside my stomach. He studied my face for a long time, making me wonder what he was looking for in my puffy, red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. When he did speak, he only uttered one word: “Always.” Then he promptly stood up, spun on his heel and went back to work setting up the ladder all over again. Just like that, our duct crawl was back on.

I stared after him in wide-eyed shock. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I said. Was he trying throw me off balance or was it… No. I refused to consider that.

“It means you get your second chance,” he told me, this time taking full advantage of his preternatural speed to get the grate off. “Now are you coming or not?”

I used the shelves to drag myself to my feet. The revelations, the emotional outpouring, and the way he’d ultimately called me on my bluff had left me unsteady and I needed a minute to gather myself. By the time I had, all I could see were Keel’s black sneakers sticking out of the ceiling. Then they were gone too, leaving me zero opportunity to obsess over my claustrophobia. We were going and we were going now.

My hands and legs shook as I climbed the ladder and pushed myself up into the rectangular passageway after him. It wasn’t quite high enough that I could crawl on my hands and knees, but I could inchworm along rather successfully.

“Follow me,” Keel whispered, as if he were worried our voices would carry through the network of metal. I vowed to keep my mouth shut unless absolutely necessary. It’d been getting me into way too much trouble lately anyhow.

But what of his mouth, and what he’d said? What of “always”?

He had to be screwing with me. This was just his way of getting back at me for my incessant grilling and that impossible ultimatum. He knew my brain would trip over this for hours, if not days.

It’s also classic Keel, I told myself. You should be relieved he was willing to punch the reset button one more time.

But always? It kept coming back to that. What did it mean? Keel and I, always? I stopped crawling as the concept slipped into soft folds of my brain tissue and set up shop there. That was something I’d never considered, not for one second, not even in that imaginary world I’d built myself to play in. This had always been about getting home for me. But for him…

Ever since I arrived, he’d believed I was part of his future. Maybe even before that.

“Hey, you okay?” Keel said quietly. He’d gotten nearly three body lengths ahead of me in the time that I’d lost myself to that thought. “We’re almost there.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, happy to shove the word and whatever else it might imply away again, at least until my claustrophobia flooded into the newly vacated space. As I looked ahead at Keel, the duct seemed to elongate, stretching like bubble gum, carrying him off into the distance, even as its sides closed in on me. It was getting hotter, too, turning into an oven, an inferno that would roast me alive. I started yanking my sweatshirt off before remembering I was only wearing a grotty bra underneath. That was my last coherent thought. Then I was lost to the panic.

My fingernails clawed at the metal, scrabbling, seeking purchase, escape, something, but I felt disconnected from them – as if I were drugged or they belonged to someone else. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to curl into a ball, but the duct’s walls stopped me. Help, help, help! my brain shrieked, wholly convinced it was dying.

It was answered by a sharp burst of electricity that only terrified me more until I recognized it. Keel had his hands on my shoulders. “What was that?” he asked, looking a little wild-eyed himself.

“Small spaces,” I gasped, trying to catch my breath, “freak me out.”

“I can tell,” he said. “We can go back if you want. We don’t have to do this. You don’t have to prove anything here.”

Didn’t I?

I shook my head. “No, I’ll be fine. Just don’t get too far ahead. It makes it worse.”

There were two more bends and long stretches of duct to navigate, then we were above an area that appeared to be laid out much like the prison I was housed in. There was a metal grill roughly every four metres, and many pathways branched off from the one we were in, leading to many more metal grates. Peeping down the first one I pulled myself over confirmed these were more batches of cells – sort of. They were concrete like mine and roughly the same size, but furnished, with draperies covering the walls and rugs on the floor and a proper bed and reclining armchair. Each one also contained an empty table, with a matching stool for meals. Keel had been right: this was more comfortable than my digs, but the heavy metal doors broke the homey façade. It was still a prison. Just a cushier one to await death in.

“Here,” Keel whispered. He’d reached his mother’s grate. As I inched my way up to the stretch of ductwork he was sprawled out in, he offered me his hand, presumably to pull me up beside him so I could see too. I didn’t take it right away. The blast he’d given me through my shoulders was still fresh in my mind and once we touched, we’d be touching until we were done here. The duct was simply too small to lie side by side in without making contact.

Keel sensed my hesitation. “Try to block it out.”

“And if I can’t?”

“You have to learn.”

I took a deep breath and grabbed his hand. Electricity flared out from our point of contact like a supernova, igniting the rest of my body, and expelling the air I’d just sucked into my lungs in a hot rush.

“Okay, now push it down,” Keel said, gently. “Focus on the connection and try to dampen it.”

I closed my eyes and attempted to isolate the electricity, and how I felt about it, but I couldn’t separate the charge from Keel himself. In my brain, they’d become one and the same.

“I can’t,” I said miserably, after three or four minutes of useless exertion.

“Yes, you can,” Keel asserted, and raised our clenched hands between us. “Concentrate on this. On the feel of your hand in mine, not on what the blood bond is doing.”

I nodded and shut my eyes again. Instead of grasping futilely at the sparks his touch set off, I focused on what my nerve endings – the human part of me – were telling me. Beneath the electric thrum, Keel’s grip was firm, warm and a tiny bit sweaty. Was he nervous about this or just hot from pushing himself through the duct and keeping me on this side of sanity? It didn’t matter, so I let it go. Beneath my fingers, I could feel the hard ridges of his knuckles under his skin and the softer valleys that fell between them. I mapped them out in my mind as if they were terrain, a landscape I could get lost in. There was something else too, but the buzz was getting in the way, blocking it out. What am I missing? I went through all the messages my nerves were delivering a second time, but again the electricity sparked away some of the details. The blood bond had its own manner of keeping secrets, I was discovering, but only from me. Keel, on the other hand, it confessed everything to. I felt a sudden flush of anger, but instead of turning it on him, as usual, I directed it at the thrum. The current flickered, like a dying florescent light bulb, then lessened. I gave it another shove, backed by more raw and confusing emotions, and it weakened further, becoming bearable. I suspected it would always be there in some form – unless he stopped drinking my blood entirely – but it didn’t have to be a disorienting wail.

Keel was drawing slow, concentric circles on my hand with his thumb, that’s what I’d missed. When I opened my eyes, he stopped, but he was smiling. “I told you that you could do it. Now, are you ready?”

I don’t know why he bothered asking, because he didn’t wait for my reply, just yanked me forward so a second later we were sardined side by side in the duct, staring down through the metal mesh of the grate at his mother. I tried to absorb what I was seeing, but everything was eclipsed by the sensation of Keel’s strong, lithe body pressing against mine. Without the electro-shock therapy, there was nothing to buffer me from the firmness of his shoulder next to me or the way the denim on our hips was grazing or his peculiar yet strangely inviting smell. Great, I’d managed to overcome the blood bond, only to be felled by standard-issue teenage hormones. And a word. Because, really, would I even be thinking about this without it?

Always.

A confusing, weighty set of letters that took me places I was not ready to go, with someone that I should never go there with. There were laws against it, for god’s sake. Laws.

“Umm, Mills,” Keel said, his voice low and husky beside me.

And, of course, I was sharing! Again! I’d dampened the electricity, but none of the rest of it. This kind of thing shouldn’t have an audience.

“Forget it,” I said, refusing to look at him because I knew I’d see dark eyes and fangs. Keel shouldn’t be the only one trying to be on his best behaviour here. “So this is your mother?”

“Yes,” he said, trying to eke out a little space between us and failing.

The woman below was sleeping. She had a brown and gold duvet – not all that dissimilar from Keel’s – pulled all the way up to her chin, but I could still see the family resemblance. He had her cheekbones and unruly hair.

“Who is she?” I whispered. I felt a strange kinship with this woman who had endured the King’s cruelty – and worse – and survived. At least for a little while longer.

Keel shrugged, his shoulder brushing against mine, rubbing in our close quarters. “Like the others, she doesn’t speak. I’ve spent so many hours here watching her, looking for...” He trailed off.

“Why do you do it?” I asked. I wanted to understand, if not the whole of Nosferatu society, then at least Keel.

“If you had to do what I’m going to have to do, wouldn’t you want to know?”

I wasn’t sure how to reply. Nothing could ever make me consume and murder my mother.

“Does it change anything?” I said. “Knowing, I mean.”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Keel said. “But you change things.”

Like “always,” these words confounded me. My stomach did several uncomfortable backflips in their wake.

“I asked questions before I met you,” Keel explained, “but you’ve made me ask the harder ones, the ones I’m not sure our histories have answers for. Arthos warned me that you would change everything. I should have believed him.”

Who knew it would take the inherent weirdness of lying in a ventilation duct ten feet overhead of his catatonic mother for us to finally have a real conversation?

“Is it so bad to change?” I posed the question to him, but it was just as much for myself.

“You tell me,” he said. “You’re the one who’s so worried about my transition.”

“Not fair. I asked you first.”

“Arthos doesn’t think so, but he might be the only one,” Keel said. His honesty seemed to amplify his presence. I’d never been so hyper-aware of anyone in my entire life.

“What do you think?”

“I think I’ve gone too far to take any of this back.” He could have been talking about the nebulous concept of change, but he wasn’t. Some things I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know.

“I still think the blood bond will fade over time,” I told him.

“But you won’t.”

Another sledgehammer. I rolled onto my side and fixed him with my gaze. The way he was looking at me was just as confusing as what he was saying. The bloodlust, I recognized instantly, but the rest was a mystery. “What do you want from me, Keel?” I asked.

This had begun with blood, then morphed into an explosive friendship, but now in the tight confines of a duct above the Mothering it was threatening to turn into something else.

“I want you to stay,” he said solemnly.

“What?!” I blurted out, aghast. Keel’s hand shot out to cover my mouth. I’d been too loud.

“Exactly what I said. I want you to stay,” he repeated, withdrawing his arm.

“Because?”

“Because everything, Mills,” Keel said. “It was dull here until you showed up. There was nothing left to do, nothing left to learn. Even the fights got boring. I thought the transition would fix it, allow me to move on, and I couldn’t wait for it, but then I met you, and every moment has been an adventure, and now things are… confusing.”

I couldn’t believe Keel was asking me to stay because I entertained him. Of all the selfish, arrogant, self-serving...

“You’re changing me, and your sorcery is changing me,” he went on. “My Nosferatu instincts should be telling me to run, but they’re not. I know in my head I should too, but that’s not what I want, and I don’t know if it’s your blood clouding my judgement, or if this is… is…”

“Is what?”

“Arthos says everything happens for a reason, that I’m going to be important in Nosferatu history someday and that I need to stop fighting against my destiny. But what if he’s wrong? What if this is all a big mistake?”

“Do you think it is?” I asked, glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of that question. Like Keel, I worried this was wrong – and growing more wrong everyday – but I couldn’t stop it. It was as if we were trapped in an avalanche, absolutely helpless against the pull of gravity.

“Sometimes, but Arthos says you can’t have wisdom without doubt.”

“He’s wise.”

“But is he right?” Keel said. “That first night I came to your cell, I thought I knew what I’d find and what was going to happen, but you’ve been proving me wrong ever since, and,” he paused to take a shaky, uncertain breath, “I don’t think I want you to stop. Ever.

“And now who’s asking too much?” I whispered, wondering if he could even hear me over my pounding heart. Being what he was, it must have sounded like a kick drum in that tiny passage. If Keel had been human – not just half-human, with an expiry date – and I hadn’t been a prisoner, those words may have had me making whatever crazy promises he wanted. I mean, weren’t there girls who waited their entire lives to hear something like that? But the realities of our situation could not be overlooked. Neither could the realities of who – and what – we were, and what he was going to become.

“I know. Forget I said it,” Keel said, but that was impossible. It had already taken up residence with “always” and “but you won’t,” and all the other things between us that could not so easily be squared away. “Do you want to get out of here?” he asked. “I think my arm is starting to cramp up.”

“Okay,” I agreed. Maybe I’d be able to think all this through better once I had my personal space back.

We took one last, lingering look at his mother – alive but broken – and then attempted to turn ourselves around in the narrow passage. It would have challenging enough if we hadn’t been crammed in there side by side, but as it was, we quickly became a tangle of manoeuvering limbs. Keel’s elbow bounced off my chin. I accidentally kneed him in the gut hard enough to make him grunt. Thankfully, I was still stifling the majority of blood bond’s electric force, so other than a heightened tingling awareness of him, there were no sudden zaps.

“When do you transition?” I asked him, once we were scuttling back towards the utility closet.

“Thirty-two days,” he said, “on my eighteenth birthday.” Two thoughts walloped me at once. The first: that’s hardly any time at all! In just over a month, Keel would be Nosferatu, and where would that leave me? The second: I was absolutely, positively certain I’d missed my own birthday, my sweet sixteen, and the big party that would have – should have – gone along with it. How many scratches were on my wall? I still marked the days, but they had lost their meaning.

Till now. Thirty-two.

“How does it all work?” I said, clenching my stomach and mentally preparing myself for the worst.

“It’s a big ceremony – a ritual – and since I’m a prince, it’ll be conducted in the arena, because everyone not assigned to a critical duty will be expected to be there.” A picture of Keel standing in a sandy ring under an entire rig of spotlights, face stained with fresh, glistening blood, and the corpse of his mother – throat torn out – lying crumpled at his feet flashed into my mind.


“You do it in front of an audience?” Biting back my horror was nearly impossible, but if I didn’t give myself over to it, it wouldn’t flood into Keel.

“It’s a rite of passage, as much a physical transformation as an indoctrination. The idea is that I must voluntarily slaughter my weakness, kill my human half – my mother – to embrace all that it is to be Nosferatu.”

“And what if you don’t?”

“There is no don’t. We all transition like this. We want to; our Nosferatu side hungers for the kill. Even when I drink from you, it beckons to me.”

I shivered. Keel never let me forget what he was for too long. None of them did.

“But what would happen if you didn’t?”

“I’d die,” Keel stated. “That’s why the Mothers are so protected. If they die before our eighteenth birthday, there is no way to complete the ritual, no way to transition.”

A full-blooded monster, or dead. Both options were complete crap. Thirty-two days.

“And the transition…”

“Begins as soon as I do the deed,” Keel said. “Freshly turned, I’ll be ravenous. Some of my father’s council will likely bring me gifts to help sate that temporarily, but after the ceremony I’ll be locked in my room until I learn to control it. I won’t be allowed to kill after that first night either, but it could be weeks or months before I am able to fully control the impulse. It’s different for everyone. But yeah, supervised meals.  Prison. Just like you.”

Keel was using pretty words – “deed,” “gifts” – but I knew their translations. I doubted he’d have any problem using the blunt terms once he was Nosferatu. He wouldn’t be the Keel who asked me to stay anymore either. That was unquestionably his human side at work, maybe more than a little helped along by my blood. Nosferatu Keel would be… I didn’t know what he would be, but I was sure it would break my heart.

And I wouldn’t be sticking around to find out. If most of the vampires were going to be at his transition, then that was my opportunity. The one I’d been waiting for. Escaping at night, while they were all awake and active, would be completely unexpected and so would the timing. Only Arthos knew about Keel and I, and I wouldn’t be letting him or Keel in on my plan. There was only one catch: between now and then, I had to learn enough magic to pull it off. Thirty-two days.

When we reached the utility closet, Keel swung himself down into the room, ignoring the ladder completely. I opted for the more traditional route. Sure, I could heal myself, but why suffer the indignity of a broken leg in the first place?

As Keel hid the evidence of our expedition, I made a mental checklist of everything I needed to learn. 

“Hey,” I said, as he rolled the vacuum cleaner I’d displaced back into its spot. “Can we go to your room?”

Keel turned and stared at me, his expression layered and complicated. Guilt pooled in my gut immediately, but I swallowed its acrid ache; he could not know.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” I said with a wink. “Just say yes.”

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