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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14. Artifacts and Artifice

 

Chapter 12: Artifacts and Artifice

“The compound has eight levels,” Keel said as we walked down the grey hallway side by side. I snuck a furtive glance at him, shocked by how keeping step with me seemed utterly natural for the half-vampire, even though he was slowing down to pace himself with my limp. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves – big time – ever since we’d left my cell, but now he was just trudging along beside me as if none of it had happened. Looking “pleased as punch,” as Estella used to say. Keel was a chameleon: I never knew who I was going to get with him – man or monster, friend or colossal prick. But here I was, wearing his clothes and listening to him tell me everything Boras, his father, and the rest of them had sought to keep hidden from me.

The hallway emptied into a featureless alcove – the Nosferatu took minimalism to a whole new obsessive level – with an elevator. It looked exactly like the one at the other side of the prison, only smaller.

“Service elevator, for guards, staff, royalty, and the council,” Keel explained. “It only goes up as far as the second floor, though.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him, as we came to a stop in front of its doors. My wet hair had left a damp trail down the back of the hoodie Keel had lent me, so I gathered it up and  knotted it into a drippy, makeshift bun at the base of my neck.

“Why not?” he said, thumbing the “up” button. “I don’t think you’ll use it and, if you do, I’d love to see how far you’d get.”

“Is everything a game to you?”

‘Might as well be,” Keel said, his tone low and oddly confessional. “I’m combat trained in twenty different weapons, but no one will take a proper swing at me. Not as long as my father’s alive anyway. My whole life has been spent practicing for what comes next. A series of calculated risks, where nothing’s really at stake and I’m never really in danger.”

“So this is…”

“Exerting my independence,” he said, cutting me off.

Before I could ask what that meant exactly, the elevator arrived. It was little more than a metal box with a handful of round, black, numbered buttons to the right of the door. Keel pressed “2” and turned to face me, then he leaned back his head and closed his eyes, as if he were basking in the sun.

“What are you doing?”

“You’re clean,” he murmured, so faintly I could barely make out what he was saying at first. “This tiny space – it amplifies the smell of your blood, and now that there’s nothing to taint it, it’s like it’s all around me. It’s like you are all around me.”

“Umm, ick,” I said, nervously scanning the tin can that was rumbling us upwards towards the museum, and trying to look anywhere but at Keel. “Why do you always have to go there?”

“Why do you refuse to acknowledge what we do?” he retorted, snapping out of his rapture.

“I don’t. You drink my blood. I have no say in the matter. Why can’t you understand that I might not want to talk about that?”

“I didn’t realize it was so horrible for you.”

“Everything about this place is horrible,” I told him flatly, not caring how that sounded.

“That so?” Keel said, feigning hurt, and I was sure it wasn't entirely an act. “Even me?”

The elevator arrived at its destination and the doors slid open; the question hung in the air for a moment as we disembarked.

“Keel, you’re…” I struggled to put words to the complicated array of things he made me feel. “What you are. Frustrating. Confusing. Scary. And sometimes, incredibly, mind-bogglingly dense. And I still don’t know what this is about.” I waved my hand between the two of us. “I know it’s about more than my blood, because if it wasn’t, you’d do just what the King does. Take it and leave. Stuff like this,” I grabbed the front of my hoodie and balled it up in my fist, “makes it about something else. And I’m trying to ‘not fight.’ But you never ever, ever say the right thing. And I get that you don’t know better, that you were raised by monsters – literally! – and it’s not your fault but…” My sentence trailed off into a defeated groan.

“Do you always do that?” he asked. “Just blurt out whatever’s on your mind?”

The intensity of his gaze rattled me, making me feel as if I was being held under a microscope. “Yes. No. I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to anyone but myself,” I admitted, exasperated. “But see, there you go again, saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible time.”

“What was I supposed to say?” he asked.

“How about ‘Sorry’?”

“Sorry.” Keel repeated the word with the same inflection I’d used.

“Not like that,” I rebuked him. “Like it means something. It’s supposed to be an apology.”

Keel didn’t attempt it again. “You’re fascinating, you know – so emotional.”

Awesome, another backhanded compliment. Just what I’ve always wanted. “Keel, shut up.”

“Okay, but come on,” he said, grabbing my wrist, and urging me down the hallway. “Museum, then. You can just look at the stuff. I won’t say anything.”

I could have demanded that he return me to my cell, and he might have. But I didn’t drag my wobbly, broken body all this way to see a hallway, have an argument, and then just go back. Keel wasn’t terrible company; he was just terribly annoying company. I snatched my arm away and ambled after him, my balance getting steadier with almost every step.

The corridors had durable, dark red carpet on their floors, like the kind in movie theatres, meant to withstand steady wear and tear – and spills. The walls were still grey, but painted several shades darker than the raw concrete of the prison. The sconce lighting was identical to the kind in the entranceway of the throne room; the Nosferatu obviously bought in bulk. I wondered how that worked, but I was enjoying the brief respite from Keel’s tactless banter too much to ask.

When we reached an ornate door, adorned with carvings of what appeared to be a great battle, Keel stopped and removed a large, gnarled key from his pocket. “This is it,” he said excitedly, as he unlocked the door and shoved it open. It looked heavy as hell, but he barely had to exert himself.

I hung back for a moment to take a closer look at the woodcut, which depicted vampires locked in vicious combat with at least a half dozen creatures – some hulking and hairy, others lithe and toothsome. Was this historical, or a reproduction of some grim piece of Nosferatu folklore? If vampires existed, the next logical step was to ask what else did.

When Keel decided that I’d lingered there long enough, he ushered me into the museum, softly closing the door behind us. It reminded me of an installment at the American Museum of Natural History. To the right hung a variety of weapons, from their earliest, crudest beginnings to their modern counterparts. To my left were rows and rows display cases, with artifact-laden shelves mounted on the walls behind them. Everything was meticulously ordered, if not readily identifiable. The centre of the room was devoted solely to ancient, leather-bound tomes, which were exhibited on oversized oak lecterns that formed a rectangle in the middle of the room. The books weren’t covered with glass or even roped off; it was if visitors were encouraged to go up and touch them, which is exactly what I did. The weapons unnerved me – how many had Keel said he was proficient with? – and while the artifacts carried their own mystique and allure, the books were irresistible. When I saw the indecipherable language written within, I was even more fascinated. I might very well be the only non-Nosferatu to ever see these, to ever lay hands upon them, I thought. I carefully turned the parchment-like pages of the nearest one. No illustrations, just walls and walls of crisp, hand-inked script.

“Your history?” I said, turning to Keel. He was still standing by the door, watching me, hands sunk deep in his hoodie pockets.

“Our history. Our physiology. Our rituals. Our laws. These are the oldest existing tomes in each of the fields.”

“What language are they written in?” I said, dragging my forefinger along a bone-straight line of hand-inked text. I could still feel where the pen had indented the paper.

“Vamphyrric. It’s where your word vampire comes from.”

I moved to another book; this one appeared to be a medical text. There were diagrams of the body and formulas and equations unlike any math I had ever seen.

“Most of the Nosferatu don't know vamphyrric,” Keel admitted. “The ancient knowledge is reserved for royalty and select members of our council.”

You can read these?” I asked.

“Yes, and I have. Every one of them.”

For the first time, I was genuinely impressed. Maybe even a little awed. I hadn’t guessed Keel for a reader.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he said, translating the expression on my face perfectly.

I looked back at the books. There were at least two dozen of them propped up on the lecterns. And those were just the ones displayed. Who knew how many other volumes were squirrelled away deeper in the museum?

“One day I’ll have to rule over all of this,” Keel continued. “I’ll have to see to my people’s safety and to their needs, and I’ll have to balance all of that with maintaining our secrecy. I’ve been training to be King since the day I was born, with the sword and with my mind.”

“And yet you’re slumming it with me.”

Keel seemed completely clueless to the fact that he was a total hypocrite. One minute he was telling me that he was actively undermining the rules just ’cause and the next he was asserting that he was taking his Princedom oh-so-seriously.

“You’re not unlike a book,” he said.

“That’s better,” I told him. “Almost flattering.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

I spent a lot of time with the Vamphyrric literature, even though I couldn’t decipher any of it. Like the books themselves, their old knowledge seemed to call to me. I leaned over their pages drinking in centuries-old alchemic formulae and bizarre ritual diagrams; browsed through volumes of Nosferatu portraits – leaders, perhaps, or warriors? Two heads of the same coin. Keel eventually came and joined me, standing so close behind me that I couldn’t be anything but overwhelmingly aware of his presence. He wasn’t touching me, but it felt insanely intimate nonetheless. I resented the way my body had begun to thrum whenever he was near, as if his proximity brought with it a low-level electrical charge. Is this because he drinks from me? I wondered. If so, why doesn't it happen with the King?

I desperately wanted to step away from him, to regain my personal space, but I held my ground and kept my focus glued on the texts. He would not get the better of me. Not this time. Occasionally, he would reach around to point something out, like the diagram of just where and how humans and Nosferatu branched off in our collective evolution. This exploded my brain a little. Not just our common history, but that there was so much science in the supernatural. No wonder humans hadn’t found any proof of the paranormal; they were looking for it all wrong.

Eventually I drifted over to the artifacts: chalices rimmed with Vamphyrric script, much like the one that rested on the table next to the King’s throne; long, hollow, straw-like metallic tubes that could only be for bloodletting; and a device with six of those tubes interconnected, presumably to increase the flow by allowing for multiple puncture points on the victim. I was quickly coming to the conclusion that for every civilized element of Nosferatu culture, there was an equally barbaric one.

I briefly considered retreating to the much more benign book section, but Keel was still doing his best impersonation of my shadow and I knew how it would look. He was – regardless of any ulterior motives, which I was positive he had – inviting me into his world. I owed it to him to try to understand it, stomach-turning as it all may be.

Unfortunately, what came next absolutely obliterated both my resolve and the tiny bit of intestinal fortitude I’d managed to muster.

As we ventured deeper into the museum and the Nosferatu’s history, things got stranger and less identifiable. There were more books, but these ones were kept behind glass and bound in some kind of tattooed skin. Keel admitted that he’d read most of these too, but claimed to not know their origins. He was clearly lying, but I didn’t press him. I was soon distracted by the jars of malformed creatures in formaldehyde and what I could only assume were trophies from great battles or hunts. Mummified hands and feet and the occasional dried-out, rock-like clump, which Keel informed me in a curator-style voice was a smoked heart.

“We take yearly class trips here,” he told me. “We’re never allowed to stray from the group and the spiel is always exactly the same. I pretty much have it memorized. Ask me about anything.”

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to what looked like a matted, gnarly chunk of dark hair hanging on the wall between a necklace made out of bones – those were big around here – and a shelf holding the skull of something humanoid except for the dual rows of very sharp, shark-like teeth.

Keel’s gaze followed my finger and froze on the scraggly artifact.

“Keel?” I said, when he didn’t answer. He turned towards me, face awash with trepidation.

“Mills,” he began, raising his hands, palms out towards me. “You need to understa–”

“What is that?” I said sharply, but I’d already figured it out. The vampires weren’t the only ones who could read people.

Keel looked down at his feet, then back to the thing on the wall, before meeting my eyes again.

“Say it,” I growled. “I want to hear you say it.”

He could have refused. He could have dragged me back down to the prison. He could have ignored me completely, but instead he took a deep steadying breath. Then he said very calmly, very clearly: “It’s the scalp of a sorcerer.”

“One of my people,” I said slowly. While I was still unsure of my lineage, it didn’t change the meaning one bit. Regardless of what race I was, I was prey to him. “Let me get this straight: your kind kills mine, rips their flesh off of their heads, and then mounts them in a museum?”

Every time I thought the Nosferatu couldn’t get worse, they did – times a hundred.

“Not often,” Keel said. “Believe it or not, sorcerers are very hard to kill. When they know magic anyway. Your people have murdered a lot more of my kind than we have yours. That sorcerer,” he motioned towards the scalp, “took fifty-four Nosferatu lives alone. We hunt humans; you hunt supernaturals.”

“I don’t believe you,” I snapped, even though I myself had fantasized about massacring my captors hundreds of times. If I had the power…

“It doesn’t matter if you believe me,” Keel stated. “It’s true.”

“Is that what’s going to happen to me then?”

“No,” Keel said. “Not that. At least I hope not.”

“Can we go somewhere else?” I asked, abruptly. We hadn’t seen half of the museum yet, but to hell with playing it tough and stoic and open-minded. I suddenly couldn’t stand the thought of being in there any longer, not with that sorcerer scalp just hanging on the wall like that. It made me queasy – but more than that, it made me feel like a traitor. Not just because I was rooted there gawking at the horror of it, unable to stop myself from imagining the blade sliding up under the skin of the forehead and hitting bone, but because despite initially dismissing it, I knew Keel was right about sorcerers killing vampires. That’s why the Nosferatu had been so concerned during my capture. Maybe my desire to annihilate them was as much instinctual, as it was a result of my imprisonment.

Keel was disappointed that I didn’t want to see the rest of the museum, but he only pouted and complained for a couple of seconds, before perking back up again. “Come to my room, then,” he said.

“Really?” I asked, incredulously. “You think that’s an appropriate thing to follow up ‘There’s one of your murdered people with?”

“Mills, I don’t know what to say. I honestly don’t,” Keel said, frustration leaking into his words. “These days, interactions between our races are handled like business relationships; what my father has been doing with you just isn’t done. And what I’ve been doing with you – well, it’s downright sacrilegious. And you would know that, but you were raised by humans – and that’s pretty screwed up too. There’s no precedent for any of this.”

“What do you mean?”

“If your father hadn’t hidden you, your kidnapping would have started a war. And that would have meant his annihilation or ours.”

I let that sink in. No matter how many I choked down, there was always another terrible pill to swallow. If my father hadn’t spirited me away to Fredrick and Estella, pretended that I didn’t exist, then the cavalry would have ridden in ages ago, spells blazing? I wanted to scream.

“Why did he do it then?” I demanded. “Why did my father hide me?”

“How should I know? But it’s as stupid as my dad thinking drinking your blood is going to give him magical powers,” Keel opined loudly, before pausing to gauge my reaction. “And if you want to know why I did it, why I showed up in your cell, it was because everyone had me convinced you were the most dangerous thing here, apart from my father.”

“Which means you came to me looking for –”

“I don’t know. Something.” I couldn’t tell if he was being intentionally vague or if he really didn’t know.

“Did you find it?” The moment I said it, I wanted to take it back.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. I’d expected one of his smarmy, vampire come-ons, not something so… revealing. “I’m curious, mostly. It’s forbidden, and I want to know why.”

“And you’re not worried there’s a good reason for that?” I could think of about eight dozen.

“Nope.”

“You’re insane.”

“Is that what you think?” Keel asked. “Well, you’re wrong. I’m just like you – bored. Everyone here is either protecting me or kissing my ass. It’s duller than you can imagine.”

“Not duller than being chained to a wall,” I said.

“Okay, you have me there, but… you know what I mean," said Keel, shortly. My stubbornness was clearly testing his patience. "Now, if you want to go, let’s go. There’s something I want to show you.”

“In your room?”

“Yes.”

I couldn’t have wiped the suspicion off of my face if I’d wanted to.

“Mills, what’s it gonna take for you not to question my intentions every single time I suggest something?” Keel asked with an earnestness I hadn't thought possible.

“Oh, I don’t know," I said, but that was just a delay tactic. The only answer I could give him was the honest one: "Maybe you not being a monster.”

“You know that’s impossible, right?”

“Ditto."

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