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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36. Ascension

Chapter 34: Ascension

Is this Hell? I thought, as I came back to myself. Am I dead?

It sounded like Hell: banging, scratching, cracking, tearing, breaking. Where ever I was, it was pitch dark and something – or more correctly, multiple somethings – wanted in, and badly. I felt around me with my hands: mattress, sheets, crusty pillowcase. I was still in the bed at the guest house! Keel hadn’t killed me, just drained me to the point of unconsciousness. Guess he’d learned a few tricks from his father after all.

But that didn’t explain what was going on outside, or why it sounded like the end of the world. Mike must be having a conniption; the rest of motel’s guests had to be hearing this. I rolled over and flicked on the lamp. The Nosferatu had been busy while I’d been out cold. The bedroom window was boarded up with a double layer of thick wooden slats, as if they’d known whatever was out there was coming. But Keel had acted as though everything was going according to plan, at least until he’d knocked me out. Was that why he’d done it? Was it another misguided stab at keeping me safe? Something he didn’t tell me because he knew I’d never agree to it? A surge of annoyance hit me. I didn’t need to be protected like this, not when I had magic.

I dragged myself out of bed, first using the night table, then the wall to steady myself. The blood loss had left me light-headed, but I could already feel my body beginning to rebound. Sorcerer’s resilience. The more I used magic, the faster I recovered, from everything.

Familiar voices drifted in from the living room; Arthos, Boras and Keel were still here. I pulled on my dress and killed the light, then cracked open the bedroom door and peered out.

The living room had been transformed:  the windows in there were boarded up too, and the area where Keel and I had performed the ritual earlier had been reconfigured yet again. The coffee table was now tipped up against the wall, beside the pushed-back couches and chairs, leaving the centre of the room bare.

The girl from the compound was kneeling in the middle of the space, hands tied behind her back. Keel was standing in front of her in his royal robes, repeating a series of proclamations that were being read out of an ancient-looking book by Arthos. I didn’t recognize the language, but I suspected it was vamphyrric.

I glanced toward the front door. It was rattling in its frame with each insistent, concussive impact. Boras was standing near it, tense and alert.

I stayed in the bedroom, out of sight, dampening the bond, so Keel wouldn’t know I was conscious and watching. I knew he didn’t want me to see his transition. But I couldn’t look away. Maybe it was macabre curiosity – I might well be the only non-vampire to ever be privy to this, aside from the human participants who never survived it – or maybe it was love. Someone should remember Keel’s transition, and who he had been before it. Someone should bear witness to the last moments of his humanity – the final accepting embrace of the wolf beneath his sheep’s clothing.

I wondered how he was feeling, but no matter how I angled myself, I couldn’t see his face. Was he nervous? Excited? Scared? Already half-gone to blood lust? His formal-tongued reiterations of Arthos’ lines told me little about his frame of mind. And soon even they were drowned out by the cacophonous commotion outside.

More hunter-trackers? If so, they’d come en masse this time. Still, who else could it be? The sorcerers knew this was happening and while they may not have approved of it, they were allowing it – with the appropriate paperwork.

The noise had virtually no effect on the ritual, apart from causing Arthos to cast worried glances toward the door occasionally. I suspected that, like sorcerer magic, once such a thing was started, it had to be seen through to completion. Keel will be safer, stronger. I tried to console myself with that. He'd finally have the strength and speed of the full-blooded – and then some, at least during the feral part of the transition.

But if the Nosferatu assassins made it through the door before he drained the girl...

I wrapped my arms around myself to suppress a violent shudder. It wasn’t just what they would do to him – and me – given the chance, but how, when faced with the possibility of Keel’s death, only he and I mattered, and everyone else was expendable. Who the hell am I becoming? I wondered. “We are not human.” Keel’s words drifted back into my head, and I raged against them. So what if I wasn’t human? Shouldn’t I still care about all living things equally? Shouldn’t I still want to save that girl? But the bond weakened that impulse; it decreed that Keel wasn’t just any living thing. He was the most important living thing.

Apparently the blood contract didn’t change the way the bond made us feel, only the ramifications of acting on those feelings. But hadn’t my father had warned me about that?

Speaking of whom, what had happened to Ephraim? I was supposed to return to the minivan after Keel and I had completed the ritual, so why hadn’t he come looking for me? What was his excuse this time?

The bedroom window shattered and snapped me back to the here and now. I spun around, but couldn’t see anything in the dark. There was a sharp crack, then another and another. The Nosferatu weren’t just trying to pull the house apart with their bare hands anymore: they’d found tools – and from the sounds of it, that included an axe. It wasn’t going to take them very long to chop through the slats.

I pressed my fingernails into my palms – an almost automatic reaction to danger now – but stopped myself before I broke skin. If my blood scented the air mid-ritual, who knew what it would do to Keel?

The axe smashed into the boarded window again and a spray of splinters hit the floor behind me. I needed to think quickly; I couldn’t stay there. I glanced back into the living room just in time to see Arthos shutting the heavy volume.

“Your Majesty,” he announced, in a voice that was far too big for the limited audience and small domestic space. “Her life is yours to take. Do as you will and become what you are.”

Keel fell upon the girl like a rabid dog. A strangled cry got lost in her throat as his fangs found their mark.

I turned back toward the window, partly from repulsion, and partly because of the strange scuffling that was now coming from it. A large grey shape was pushing its way through the newly formed opening.

As calmly as I could, I stood up and slipped out the door into the living room, closing it softly behind me. Boras spotted me right away. I gestured at him with a series of tiny, furious motions, not daring to use words or anything else that could potentially draw Keel’s attention to me. In fact, I didn’t look at Keel at all. Focussing on the incoming threat was a lot less soul destroying.

Boras moved towards me, motioning me into the centre of the room. I’d only taken a couple of steps when the axe crashed through the bedroom door. Boras was ready for it, though. He grabbed the metal head before the intruder could pull it free, then spun it around and promptly sank it deep into the skull of the first Nosferatu through the door.

As his body hit the floor two more Nosferatu stumbled over it, only to be immediately engaged by a tag-team of Boras and Arthos. When I finally forced myself to look at Keel again, his head was still buried deep in the girl; he was either oblivious to what was going on around him or ignoring it completely.

My attention was yanked back to the fight when the vampire Arthos was duelling ducked an incoming elbow, and attempted to make a dash for Keel. Arthos dove forward and snatched at the back of the vampire’s black leather jacket, delivering two devastating punches to the base of his skull that were so fast I would have missed them had I blinked. Then he snapped the guy’s neck and tossed him aside like an empty pop can.

Just in time, too: three more Nosferatu appeared in the bedroom doorway. Arthos turned and hurled himself in their direction, attempting to engage all of them at once, but two danced past him easily.

“Protect him!” Arthos yelled at me, and I sprang into action. I back-peddled until Keel and the girl were directly behind me, then crouched down and cast my shield spell. I could’ve remained standing, but since my magic was still recharging I figured it best to keep things efficient. I wanted to have something offensive left in the cannon, just in case.

The Nosferatu rushed towards us, kneecapping themselves on my invisible barrier. As they went staggering, I turned to check on Keel, but found myself staring at the girl instead. Miraculously, she was still clinging to life. In her glazed eyes, I saw a clarity that hadn’t been there before. She knew what was happening to her and she was issuing me a silent plea: Let me die.

She didn’t understand that I wasn’t there to stop him.

Keel must have felt the girl shift her head, because he whirled around to face me, fangs still buried in her neck. His eyes had already adopted the tell-tale red iridescence.

I held his gaze and kept my expression neutral as he assessed me. Don’t let him see your fear, I told myself, then checked on the bond. Don’t let him feel it either.

Keel’s stare bored into me, but there was zero recognition in it.

He lifted an eyebrow, then began to worry at the girl’s throat. A threat? A challenge? A promise? I heard something crunch in her neck; it sounded like a nail in the coffin and a grisly reverberation of my own crushing heartbreak.

Keel may have always been meant to transition, but I was never supposed to be experiencing this moment up close and personal with him. It suddenly made all kinds of sense – this is why he'd knocked me out: he’d been trying to spare me this. He must’ve thought I’d come barging back into the guest house to try to stop it. That was stupid too; he should have known me better by now.

Or at least the Keel he had been should’ve. This Keel was looking at me as if he was trying to determine whether I was a snack or a threat or some delicious combination thereof.

As he drank and I held the shield and the Nosferatu pummelled away at it all around us, the weight of the last week threatened to pull me into the abyss. All that running, all that fighting, all that death had been for nothing.  Nothing we’d done had changed anything. Just stalled it a little. Fate still demanded what fate had always demanded, and its cost would be what it had always been: Keel’s humanity – his soul, his warmth, his love and everything else that made him mine.

For so long now he’d been my co-conspirator, my protector, my friend, my lover and my confidant, and I mourned the loss of each and every one of those things acutely. All the best parts of him were dying, inches away from me, and I had to let it happen it. Help it happen. Even as I tried to contain it, my grief took on a life of its own. And once it did, there was no holding it in. My magic sensed a potent new fuel source and pumped it out into the shield and through the bond, as if I was a ruptured dam and my sadness was water seeking the path of least resistance.

Keel’s eyes widened as my emotional shockwave hit him. I held my breath and waited to see what he would do, but Keel belonged to the transition now, and it quickly became evident that he wasn’t going to let a little magic disrupt his dinner.

When the girl began to convulse in his arms, self-loathing joined my misery. I hated that I wasn’t there as her avenging angel but just another supe – another monster – complicit in her murder, so I forced myself to watch her death throes. It was the only thing I could do to honour her passing. Her sacrifice.

As she rattled out her final weak and wheezing breath, Keel released his grip and her dead body slid out of his arms. His face was smeared with so much blood, it looked like war paint.

“Hey Keel,” I said in the most soothing voice I could muster given my horror. “It’s okay. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m trying to protect you – from that.” I tried to draw his attention to the fight, but he had eyes for only me. Just like when he’d gone all vampy on the roof.

Keel tilted his head like a reptile. I don’t think he had any idea what I was saying. I cringed as his tongue darted out from between his lips to lick away some of the excess blood from around his mouth. I was no longer safe under here with him, and if he attacked me, we’d lose the only protection we had.

I glanced desperately at Boras and Arthos, but both were locked in battle. Boras was trying to disarm a Nosferatu who’d somehow gotten hold of the axe, while Arthos was pushing a pair of vampires back through bedroom doorway. The rest of our attackers were battering away single-mindedly at my shield with the kitchen chairs and broken pieces of coffee table, as though they’d learned nothing from the encounter in the loading dock – or perhaps these Nosferatu hadn’t been there, and who ever had hired them thought they’d get skittish if they knew.

But there wasn’t time to think about that.

Keel narrowed his red eyes at me, growled once, then launched himself in my direction. The force of the impact sent both of us tumbling backwards. My shield wavered briefly and then dissipated as I passed through its invisible membrane, crashing into the legs of the Nosferatu surrounding us.

I wailed as something hard cracked across my back and tore into my shoulder. I reached around, grabbed the offending object – a table leg with a protruding nail – and yanked it out of my flesh.

As my blood scented the air, chaos became cacophony.

The two Nosferatu closest to me dropped onto my back, forgetting their orders entirely. One had just managed to push his fangs through the thick knot of scar tissue where Harck had savaged my neck, when Keel knocked both of them across the room. I felt a rush of warmth pour down my back and shoulders: the one who’d gotten the bite on me had taken a chunk with him.

I pushed myself up on my hands and knees and frantically crawled towards the bathroom. As I darted through the room, doing my best to avoid the thickest of the fighting, I noticed that my bleeding seemed to have turned the tides in our favour. Boras had the axe now and was using it to separate vampire heads from bodies as if he was hacking down trees. The remaining four Nosferatu, including the two who had piled on me, were tangling with Keel, who was literally tearing them limb from limb as they came at him. It was a display of unprecedented viciousness that both sickened me and filled me with terrified awe, because for all its grisliness, Keel's dance of death was also extremely beautiful, like the transition had honed all his previous training and moulded him into a perfect predator. The royal robes didn't seem to inhibit his movement, or his combat prowess, at all. This freed up Arthos to barricade the bedroom door, but I could still hear more Nosferatu out front.

There was only a half metre between me and bathroom now. If I could get inside and get the door shut, that might be far enough out of the fray to buy the time needed to heal myself.

But I never made it.

The moment Keel had finished dismembering his Nosferatu attackers, he was on me again. I’d tried to roll out of the way of his airborne tackle, but my no-better-than-human reflexes were ineffectual against his vampire speed. His nails, already sharper and longer, dug painfully into my upper arms as he pinned me to the floor on my back. I had a flash of frog bodies splayed apart in biology class. That’s how easily Keel could gut me right now, if he wanted to.

I’d screwed up. I should’ve cast the shield again as soon as I’d been freed of the Nosferatu, but the pandemonium had provided decent cover and I’d wanted to conserve magic, especially now that I had to heal myself too. Of course, if Keel hadn’t pulled that little knock-out stunt, there’d be plenty of power to go around and none of this would be happening. I glared up at him. Furious.

His eyes were molten lava as he stared down at me, curiosity and hunger warring for face time. The dead girl’s blood dripped from his mouth onto mine. I tried to squirm out of its trajectory, but that only made Keel hold on tighter. Then he dipped his head towards my neck, and sniffed the spot where he’d bitten me earlier, running his rough tongue over the dried blood.

“Your Majesty!” Arthos said sharply from somewhere behind us.

“Mine,” Keel growled, almost as if he were trying out the word for the first time. Never had it sounded more guttural, chilling and utterly devoid of humanity.

“Just let him eat her,” Boras said, approaching from the right. He was holding a long metal pole, with a thick wire loop at one end. “It’d solve a lot of problems.”

“Don’t make me hurt him,” I threatened.

“You won’t,” Boras said, calling my bluff without a second’s hesitation.

See, Keel, I thought, angrily. How am I ever supposed to kill you? Not even they think I’ll do it.

Then I choked down my fury, and tried something more benign: an injection of calm through the bond.

For ten or fifteen seconds nothing happened, then Keel sneered down at me and shook my shoulders so hard that my head ricocheted repeatedly off the hardwood, forcing me to stop transmitting. He swam in front of my eyes in triplicate. Owww.

“That’s enough,” Arthos said sternly. “Restrain him already.”

My vision began to come back into focus just as the loop on the end of the long pole closed around Keel’s neck, allowing Boras to pull him off of me as if he were restraining a lion. Keel’s nails tore bloody rivulets into my arms as he tried to hang on.

“We need to get out of here,” Boras announced, once he’d gotten Keel clear of me. “The front door could give at any time, and that –” he thrust his free hand out at the makeshift barricade Arthos had constructed around the partially smashed bedroom door – “is as good as useless.”

“Do you trust me?” I asked, tentatively touching the rapidly swelling lump on the back of my head. I was going to have one hell of a headache if I survived this. And that was a big if.

“Absolutely not,” Boras said.

Arthos was more receptive. “What are you thinking?”

Just as I opened my mouth to explain, the front door imploded and another group of Nosferatu flooded in. Many more than before. Too many.

“Get over here, close to me,” I yelled at Boras and Arthos. It looked like we were going to have do this without the pre-game play-by-play.

Boras ignored me, choosing to throw himself between Keel and the incoming threat, which proved awkward since he was still trying to keep Keel restrained on the end of the pole while doing so. Arthos, it seemed, hadn’t heard me at all. He was busy disarming two shovel-wielding Nosferatu, both bigger and burlier than he was.

I repeated my instructions at the top of my lungs. A command, this time, not a suggestion.

Boras inched closer, but shot me a look that said not in a million years.

“Do you or do you not want your king to live?” I hissed at him.

Boras harrumphed and closed the distance between us.

“When Arthos gets here, both of you get behind me, as close as you can," I instructed. "Put yourselves between Keel and me; you haven’t drunk from me so it’ll be harder keep the shield around the two of you. “

“We can fix that,” Boras said.

I gave him a withering look, not unlike the one he had just given me. I didn’t know what Boras hated more: the fact that he was taking orders from a sorcerer, or that the sorcerer was me.

He moved into position, then hollered at Arthos, who disengaged from his adversaries and dashed over so quickly that he was nothing more than a blur. I brought up the shield just as the vampires he’d been fighting crashed into it.

I could feel Boras and Arthos struggling behind me.

“What’s going on back there?” I asked, as more vampires piled against the force field.

“He’s hungry. He’s trying to get to you. The smell of your blood is riling him up,” Arthos explained.

“Well, don’t let him, and don’t let him kick through the barrier either: he’ll weaken it.”

“Whatever you’re going to do, you’d better get on with it,” Boras said. “He’ll outmatch us in strength soon, too.”

“Not until they’re all in the room,” I told him firmly. “Keel took a lot of my blood earlier. I only have one chance to get this right.”

“How do you know they’ll all come in?” Boras asked, his tone suggesting I was talking nonsense.

“I don’t,” I said, trying not to lose my patience. “But does this assault look organized to you?”

“I think she’s right,” Arthos cut in. “Whoever ordered this, ordered it from afar. If it failed, they wouldn’t want to be here to be implicated.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Now: can keep him off of me until it’s time?”

“We’ll try,” Boras said. “But the will to feed is like nothing else.”

I left Arthos and Boras to their struggle, and began to prepare my spell. The only way out of this was magic: we all knew it. That's why we were huddled under my shield. This time when I assessed my power, it responded with a healthier thrum. Maybe peril made it bounce back faster still.

We were surrounded by twelve or fourteen Nosferatu, including one who had retrieved the axe and was hacking away at my shield with it. I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to watch it to know it would hold up. It was an extension of myself. I felt every impact on it, albeit dully. What I did need to do was focus my energy, find its centre and channel it. You are the conduit, I told myself.

Then I gave myself over to the searing agony of losing Keel to the monster within him, and my anger at not only being forced to watch it happen, but having to participate in its aftermath. All because he couldn’t just let me walk out. That hurt worse than my swollen head, torn-up arms, bitten neck and punctured back combined.

But my magic turned it into power – psychic fuel – and brought it to a churning boil within me. I was the conduit, but I was also the amplifier.

Once primed, I attempted to shape the energy, willing it to missile-target the Nosferatu and not the rest of the building. The damage to the guest house was already substantial enough. I only hoped Bruce had my back with his brother, like he’d promised.

I slowly brought my hands up, until they were extended high above my head, where I compressed the raw power between my palms. The magical energy sparked and throbbed, and like all kept things, begged for release.

Just a little longer, I told myself through clenched teeth. Concentrate. Don’t lose 

I felt a sudden seismic shift of bodies behind me, then Keel’s arms were around my torso, nearly crushing my ribs. He buried his fangs deep in the open wound in my neck. I howled, and involuntarily thrust my arms downwards, releasing the spell and all that summoned energy. It exploded outwards like a detonating bomb. An inferno erupted around us as the cabin blew apart, and the fireball I’d conjured escaped up into the night air. I fell to my knees, with Keel still locked to my back. The pain of his bite blinding me more than the explosion.

Yet, I couldn’t fight him. All of my magic had emptied itself into the spell when I'd lost control of it.

I didn’t need to see the destruction to know that it was immense and littered all around me. I could smell the burning wood and fabric, and the nostril-singeing stench of a dozen or more half-cooked vampires.

I let myself crumple the rest of the way down to the small circle of undamaged flooring that remained beneath us; Keel’s weight and breath-stealing hold were too much to bear. I tugged futilely at his arms with my shaking hands, but they were immoveable.  Hopefully, Boras and Arthos had survived the blast, and would come to my aid. Or perhaps they’d let me die – Boras had said it would be easier that way.

When I heard boots clomping away from me in the debris, I assumed that's exactly what was happening, but then I felt a pair of long-nailed hands on my neck, attempting to pry Keel’s jaws open. The boots trudged back before the hands had managed it.

“All dead,” Boras announced. “If there were others, they’re long gone.” Then he crouched down opposite Arthos and began to apply pressure to Keel’s jaw.

It took some doing, but they eventually peeled Keel off of me, though by that point, he was throwing clawed blows at them, while still snapping his frothing jaws in my direction like a rabid mutt. Boras got the restraint around his neck again, then wrestled him through the fallen-down guest house towards the van.

“What’s going to happen to him?” I asked, as I straightened up and dabbed at my bleeding neck with a torn piece of cloth I fished out of the wreckage.

“We’ll put him under for the trip back, then he’ll be sequestered until the transition is complete.”

“What if someone else tries to kill him?”

“They won’t. Tonight was their last best chance. Transitioning Nosferatu are extremely dangerous. If they attempt to approach him now, they won't survive.”

I nodded and my neck flared with red-hot pain, reminding me of how easily Keel could have killed me. “Why did he let me live?”

Arthos shrugged. “I can't explain it, just like almost everything else with you two. Then again most of what we know about the dual bond comes from legend, not science.”

I almost told him about third bond, the magical one we’d felt when we signed the blood contract, but Boras returned, announcing that a clean-up crew was on its way. “I’ve also contacted Alistair,” he told me. I wondered if, now that Keel had transitioned, he’d tell them my father’s real name. “He should be here shortly.”

“What about the people in the motel?” I asked, thinking about them for the first time since I’d been forced out of the bedroom.

“Evacuated,” Boras said. “The owner told them there was a gas leak on the premises and arranged for alternate accommodations.”

“Guess you guys thought of everything,” I said, kicking a piece of charred wood with my foot.

“But in the end, we still needed you,” Arthos said.

A smart-ass quip was sitting at the tip of my tongue ready to launch, but I swallowed it. I knew it wasn’t easy for Arthos – or any Nosferatu who wasn’t Keel – to say that.

“Hey, Arthos,” I called out, after he and Boras had begun to make their way back to the van. He paused and looked back at me. “Keep him safe, okay?”

It was an unnecessary thing to say, but it was easier than goodbye.

“It’s my job,” he said. “I protect him with my life.”

“Thanks.”

“No, thank you. Your deeds here today will be recorded in the Nosferatu histories; the sorceress who saved the Nosferatu King.”

It looked like I was going to have a place in the Nosferatu museum after all, and not just as a scalped head. This arrangement was infinitely more tolerable, though I wondered how the history books would explain away all those I’d massacred.

I sat in the burnt-out building, aching and weary, and watched Boras and Arthos disappear around the side of the motel. A couple of minutes later, the van’s motor sprang to life, then faded into the night as they drove away.

The guest house had been completely decimated, but the motel itself was still standing, even if Mike’s pristine white paint job was now dirty and pock-marked from flying debris, and a few of the windows had been blown out.

We’d survived it. All of us.

Keel was going home. So was I. But I bet I was the only one who was terrified.

I’d rather face another horde of roving murderous vampires than New York City.

I wasn’t sure I knew how to just be human anymore. The smoking, partially incinerated Nosferatu corpses all around me were proof. I wasn’t running from them screaming in terror, or even gagging and covering my eyes and nose, pretending the carnage wasn’t there. I was guarding my handiwork until the Nosferatu-ordered clean-up crew arrived, intent on making sure this got done right.

I couldn't even mourn the dead. They'd brought this upon themselves, after all, and I'd simply done what I had to protect myself – and Keel. And I would do it again. And again. And again.

This was why my father was so closed and guarded.

The supernatural world operated on a currency of ever-shifting alliances, and a kill-or-be-killed mentality.

To survive in it, one had to be prepared to take lives. And I had taken many.

Even though I was numb to that right now, deep down I knew my body count had changed me in ways I couldn’t understand yet. When Keel said my transition had begun before his, he’d been telling me something that I hadn’t been ready to admit to myself.

But it was the truth.

And no one could know about any of it. Ever.

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