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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19. Arthos and the Boy Who Would Be King

 

Chapter 17: Arthos and the Boy Who Would Be King

When consciousness returned and I opened my eyes, I found myself staring at an unfamiliar Nosferatu in black fatigues. He was standing just inside my cell, leaning against the closed door, observing me, frowning. He seemed younger than the King and Boras, but his hairlessness, elongated face and sunken cheeks made it difficult to gauge by how much. My eyes darted around the small space searching for Keel, but he was gone. It was just me and this stranger.

The throbbing ache of my shoulder drew my attention away from the vampire and back to the fight I’d had with Keel.

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.

This Nosferatu had to know Keel had bitten me; at this distance there was no way he wouldn’t. My heart broke into a gallop. I sat up, and attempted to brace myself for whatever was about to happen. Be brave. You’re a sorceress, and a dangerous one at that.

“You need to heal yourself,” the vampire said, finally, when I thought the dread-filled silence that hung between us couldn’t get any heavier or more awkward.

I stared at him blankly. Only Keel and I were supposed to know that I’d discovered my powers.

“Don’t play dumb,” he told me. “Do you think the prince would have ever gotten anywhere near you without me?”

He didn't say it like a tough guy, but casually, as if it bored him to have to state that.

“Who are you?” I asked tentatively.

“Arthos,” the Nosferatu said. “Your day guard.”

Arthos' calmness threw me. Even Boras had trouble keeping his blood-hungry nature in check when I had an open wound, but if Arthos was affected by my scent, it was impossible to tell. His stance was as even as demeanour. Almost relaxed.

“You’re the one Keel pays off,” I said, putting it all together. But that didn’t mean we were off the hook.

“Not pays exactly, but yes, I am the one.”

“Why? How?” Even if Keel had bought his allegiance, it didn’t make sense that Arthos was still playing along, not when we were so close to being caught.

“Has the prince not explained anything to you?” Arthos asked. I detected a trace of disappointment in his voice, which surprised me. I’d thought that telling me those sorts of things was expressly forbidden.

“Bits and pieces,” I allowed, unsure of how much I should say.

“Well, it’s like this,” Arthos began, with much more patience than I expected from one of them. “You want to make anything of yourself here, you either train for a career in the arena – fighting – or you ally yourself with a royal. I chose the latter. I just didn’t choose the current royal.”

“And that’s why you want me to heal myself?”

“Yes, because if you don’t... well, I think you know what would happen.”

I definitely did. These days, that scenario figured in to most of my nightmares, and few offered a fast death. But he wasn't worried about me, he was worried about Keel.  Could the stakes in this be higher than Keel had let on? He'd said that his father wouldn't kill him, but...

“And you think that I can do that?” I asked carefully.

“I suspected, but what you did last night confirmed it.” It wasn't an accusation, but it still felt like one, and a familiar warmth crept across my cheeks. I was really turning out to be a crap sorceress. I should be proud of my powers, instead what I had done embarrassed me. “I wasn’t spying on you,” he said quickly, misreading me. “But I came running when I heard the prince screaming. I didn’t just swear allegiance to him. I swore to protect him.”

“But you didn’t,” I said, half under my breath.

“By the time I arrived, it was clear you weren’t going to kill him.”

“But... but...” The memory of the smoke pouring off of Keel’s flesh as my blood scorched it away momentarily stole my ability to speak. I thought I could still smell it in the cell. Was I imagining that, or could Arthos detect it too?

“Don’t beat yourself up too much,” Arthos said. “It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Somehow I didn’t quite believe that.

“Seriously,” Arthos insisted. He must have seen the doubt scrawled across my face. “He’s been raised to believe he’s invincible, and now he knows he’s not.”

“Good for him,” I said. “But what about me? He probably agrees with the rest of them now, that I’m too dangerous to keep alive.”

“You give him far less credit than he is due. I’ve known the prince his whole life, and he’s different.” Back in school when people used that word, it was always derogatory, but when Arthos said it was buoyed by admiration.

“Different, how?”

“We Nosferatu are incredibly set in our ways – tradition is as much a god here as the King is – but the prince has always been curious, and that's not something that comes naturally to our kind. He had this whole compound mapped out by the time he was ten, including the duct work. He probably knows more about Nosferatu history than the King and all of the council combined. If anyone has any chance of leading us into a new era, it’s him.”

“And yet you let him in here with me? Shouldn’t the Nosferatu’s biggest hope be kept as far away as possible from its greatest threat?”

“That’s exactly why I did it,” Arthos said bluntly. “Most Kings don’t meet anyone from any of the other races until long after their transition and long after they’re crowned, and by then everything that’s been pounded into us since birth – all that superstition, all that half-knowledge – has become engrained, become truth.”

The longer we talked the more comfortable I became. Like all the Nosferatu, Arthos was a scary mo-fo, but a scary mo-fo with a sense of honour – or at least ambition masquerading as honour – and a great deal of self-control. It was a likeable – if not exactly charismatic – combination.

“But isn’t it truth, if I am what I am?” I asked.

“No, it’s half-truth. The King thinks he’s conducting science, but he’s unable to think beyond the pages of the histories, which is why he left out a key part in the equation: interaction. And now the young prince has bested him. And you’ve not only learned that you have the power to kill them both, but you’ve proved twice over that there’s one you won’t.”

“You know?” Just how much had Keel told him about our little encounters?

“He’d asked me if he should do it, and I told him, ‘Only if you’re sure she isn’t going to actually slit your throat.’”

The dimensions of Arthos and Keel's partnership kept shifting. Keel had dismissed it as a simple deal, but apparently it went much, much deeper than that. Never mind, that they talked about me, and that Keel ran his plans for me by him. I felt like a specimen under a microscope all over again.

“Why are you telling me all this? Don’t you think Keel is going to be angry?”

Arthos laughed. It wasn’t a cruel laugh, just an ordinary amused chuckle. It had a clown-like effect on his face, as his upturned mouth gave his pale complexion the illusion of white pasty makeup rather than what it actually was: just his inhuman skin. “The prince really hasn’t told you much, has he? I think that’s one I'd better let him explain.”

“And you really think he’s going to be coming back down here and doing any more talking to me after I nearly killed him?” In terms of ways to screw up a friendship, that had to be pretty much number one.

“As I remember it, you healed him too.”

“What if it wasn’t enough?”

“It was enough,” Arthos said. “You know, he sat down here with you until I threw him out. And I only did that because I had to; questions would have been asked if he didn’t turn up for class again.”

Keel had stayed with me all day? I could barely believe it. I doubted I would have done the same if our roles were reversed. I’d have wanted to get as far away from him as possible.

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“Maybe you aren’t the only one who needs a friend,” Arthos said. “Now, enough talk. You have to heal yourself.”

I looked at the wound. It was red and angry and glistening, and seemed to hurt more the second it had my full attention. “I’m not sure I can do it, let alone with an audience,” I said.

“Then I’ll step outside and give you your privacy, but hurry up. I won’t be able to keep the other guards out of the vicinity forever.”

I nodded. If it’d been so urgent, why the conversation? Maybe he knew I’d only do it after I believed this wasn’t a set-up. Arthos seemed smart like that – wise, even. And I bet that's why Keel trusted him.

“Clang your shackle on the wall when you’re finished, so I know.”

I nodded again, and Arthos let his tall, gangly self out of my cell. I could see why he hadn’t become a fighter: his spidery limbs would have only gotten in his way. He did have his own kind of grace, but it was lithe and stealthy, completely unlike the toned physiques and brute force of the King and Boras. Not exactly guard material, but apparently he excelled at staying awake when the other Nosferatu could not – and after our little chat, I was pretty sure Keel had had a hand in his placement too.

Once I was alone, I set my mind to the task ahead. I was almost positive that I understood how my power worked now – I’d healed Keel perfectly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But then again, hurting him had felt the exact same way. Hello, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde! Who knew it was possible to be both amazed and terrified by yourself – at the same time? Was that something I'd eventually get over? Or would getting over it mean losing my conscience?

I brought my hand up to my savaged shoulder and worked more of the wound back open with my fingernails. The tearing didn't hurt – it was just like the other times I forcefully drew my own blood – but the warm elasticity of my torn flesh on my fingertips triggered my gag reflex all the same. If this was going to work, I’d have to block that out. I rubbed the fresh blood all over the wound – if it was the catalyst, extra coverage couldn’t hurt – then I closed my eyes and tried to repeat exactly what I’d done to heal Keel. It wasn’t enough to merely will the action, I had to want it, need it and be willing to give myself over entirely to that want and need to make it real.

So I thought about Arthos – the ally I never knew we had – who was as different as he claimed Keel was. And I thought about what he’d said about Keel, the prince he believed in so completely that he’d not only commit treason, but shut himself up in a cell with a known threat just to serve him. Maybe I had misjudged Keel – ambition could only count for so much; loyalty like that didn’t just materialize out of thin air. It was earned. But even if I had gotten him all wrong, that was partially his fault. Still, blaming him wasn’t going to heal my shoulder. It was going to require a lot more positivity than that.

So I thought about how I wanted to get to know the Keel that Arthos had told me about, the one who had faithfully kept vigil over my unconscious body even after I’d tortured him, and proved myself as monstrous and as capable of atrocity as he was – maybe even more so. If I didn’t do this – and succeed – all my efforts at reparation last night would be pointless: our discovery would still be guaranteed. But more than all of that, I needed to do this because now the playing field was actually level for the first time. My power could pave the way for my escape – even if I didn’t know exactly how yet. So I needed to heal for me, for Keel, for hope – always for hope. I prayed that would be enough. I directed all those things at the wound until the slow, tingling burn spread across my shoulder, and I didn’t stop until my skin felt entirely normal again.

I was learning sorcery. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

I banged my shackle against the cell wall hard, twice, just to be sure Arthos had heard, then laid back down on the mattress. I was tired again. Apparently magic was a lot like working out – physically exhausting. But it wasn’t like I had anything better to do than sleep and wait; at least being out cold passed the time. But before I could do that, I wanted to try one other thing with my magic.

I’d been able to transmit my emotions to Keel, but could I send an actual message? I decided to keep it relatively simple: “Can we talk?”

I closed my eyes and put all of myself into those three words.

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