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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18. Blood Magic

 

Chapter 16: Blood Magic

By the time the King returned, I’d doom-and-gloomed myself into believing every worst-case scenario my brain put forth. We’d been found out. What other reason could there be for their collective absence? Neither Keel nor his Majesty nor even Boras had been down in over a week.

Which was why, when the King finally stormed through my cell door, with Boras trailing behind him, my insides were quaking so bad that I wasn’t sure if I could move, let alone obey his commands.

“Neck,” he barked, as he dragged me to my feet. Was he angrier than usual or was I just imagining it? Even if he knew, he might not say anything about Keel. The prince’s fate – and the undoubtedly harsh corporal punishment he faced for his act of treason – wasn’t exactly knowledge befitting the King’s prisoner and personal blood bag.

I tilted my head and he sank his fangs into my neck with a sharp, snake-like, forward jerk of his head. It was the same place he’d taken a bite out of me last time, which pitched up the pain and almost made me cry out. But I refused to give him the satisfaction. I shoved my mind away from the five-alarm fire in my neck and retreated deeper inside myself.

My brain took me to my bedroom closet. In my life before, whenever I wanted to lock myself away from the world for a while, whenever I needed time to think alone, I’d throw all the shoes and other stuff out of it, then cover the floor with pillows and shut myself inside. I’d been doing it since I was a kid; it was my favourite hiding spot.

And that’s what all this was about: hiding.

But I didn’t want to hold back anymore. I wanted to cast open the emotional floodgates, as I had with Keel and ensure the King couldn’t hurt me anymore. But Keel was right: it wouldn’t be that easy. If the King knew what we knew, it would change everything and put me – and everyone I loved – in even greater danger.

And if I was wrong, and this was just another grouchy feeding – which it very well could be, since the King’s mood never much strayed beyond “bad” and “worse” – and nothing had been discovered, it’d be a grave mistake to give myself away like that. As much as I couldn’t stand the idea of being a docile victim a second longer, I couldn’t do this yet. I needed to wait for the right opportunity and that certainly wasn’t when Boras was standing just inside the doorway overseeing everything. Even if I could momentarily stun the King, Boras hadn’t drunk my blood, so I would have no power over him and no hope in hell of bolting past him.

No. I’d have to wait, even if that had become my least favourite word in the dictionary.

My thoughts grew muddy and incoherent as the blood loss brought me closer to unconsciousness.  When I began losing my hold, instinct told me to fight, but I still had enough awareness to know the resulting beating would be worse than the bloodletting, so I gave myself over to the descent, and hoped this wouldn’t be the time he drained me dry.

* * *

When I came to, I had no idea how much time had passed – the lights in my cell never dimmed. The only thing that showed up like clockwork was food, and there was a meal waiting, which suggested I’d spent most of the day out cold.

Every muscle in my body ached. Apparently the King had just dropped me like a discarded rag doll when he’d finished feeding and I felt rigor-mortis stiff after lying in a crumpled, motionless heap for so long. I rubbed my arms and legs, tenderly trying to coax circulation back into my limbs, and eventually I was able to stretch out into a less tortuous position.

I eyed the still-warm plate of food that awaited me a few inches away from the edge of the mattress, but weakness trumped hunger and my heavy eyelids closed the blinds on consciousness once more. I didn’t eat until I woke next, and even then I just picked at my meal. The food that had always been so appealing – even after I discovered the filthy conditions it was prepared in – held little interest for me, and when I was done pecking at it, I shoved the tray away still mostly full. All the promise that Keel and my newfound magic had brought was waning, and depression was creeping back in. No matter how many times I dug my nails into my skin, or raked the edge of the shackle across my arm to draw blood, I couldn’t get a handle on how my power worked. I’d started to worry that, even with Keel’s help, I might never unravel its mystery. Maybe a tease would be all I’d get, never enough to actually accomplish anything – or to escape.

And just like that it was back to the helpless waiting. What would come next? More hope or more hell?

Speculation was torture in and of itself, but I couldn’t stop.

* * *

When Keel eventually slunk back into my cell, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was running on empty, but my imagination wasn’t. I figured my subconscious had conjured him up to soothe my sorrow.

As the days had worn on, I was forced to admit that I actually missed Keel himself, not just what he could teach me. His company had brought my renewed solitude into sharp focus. Never mind that giving up hurt like hell, but I’d been hanging on for so long now that I felt like an idiot to keep doing it. I'd decided he wasn’t coming back – the reason never mine to know.

So when I realized it was actually him – in the flesh and blood – my relief was all-enveloping.

Keel gave me a knowing, slightly gloating smile. The bond had held.

My cheeks flushed. There wasn’t even any point in playing tough anymore.

“You’re happy to see me,” he said, but it was clear he didn’t share my enthusiasm. Something was wrong.

“I was worried about you,” I confessed, since I had no choice but to be honest. “Where have you been?”

“I’m a prince – I know that doesn’t mean much to you, but it comes with duty and obligation and responsibilities. And you’re not the only one who needs sleep.”

I came close to pointing out that one all-nighter hardly justified almost two weeks of absence. But  I didn’t pursue it, nor did I launch into the interrogation I had planned. Something told me that he wouldn’t be receptive to it right now.

“What’s going on, Keel?” I asked. I wanted answers, and finding out what was eating at him wasn’t the worst place to start.

“This,” he said, like I was supposed to know exactly what he talking about.

“What?” He was usually better at words than this.

“Us. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have you in my head?” His sudden vitriol stunned me. His anger went from 0 to 60 in no time at all. “It’s the middle of combat practice in the arena; Malik is hunting me with a shotgun, so I need to get the jump on him; and suddenly I’m so scared I can’t think straight. Only I’m not scared. You are. Every time you feel anything – rage, sadness, loneliness, pain, emotions I don’t even know the names for – I feel it too. Doesn’t matter if I’m in class, or with my father, or asleep.”

My face was candy-apple red by the time he stopped yelling. While I’d thought about the blood bond, I’d gotten so lost in my own head that I’d forgotten it was still transmitting. Or had I just assumed it wouldn’t work over a distance. Either way, I’d spent almost two weeks laying myself bare for him – and I’d been worried about him seeing me in my gitch. I wanted to crawl beneath the mattress and never show my face again.

“Embarrassment,” Keel said, reading me perfectly.

“Shut up.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, backpedalling and quelling his temper. “It’s amazing. It’s just messing me up. We have to figure out how to control it.”

“You could just stop drinking my blood.”

“I pretty much have, but you’re still in my head loud and clear. Besides that’s not an option.”

“Not an option?” I repeated, turning the last three words into a question.

“Not if you want to learn magic.”

“That’s blackmail!” I said, springing to my feet.

“How is it blackmail when we both get something out of it we want?”

His absence hadn’t made him any less annoying. I rooted my feet in the mattress and stared at him obstinately. “I don’t have to give it to you voluntarily.”

“Also not an option,” Keel said.

“I really don’t think that’s up you,” I snarked back. His attitude reminded me about my own unfinished business. “But, of course, you’d think so, because you think you own me now.” Didn’t understand his role as a prince, my ass. I got it just fine.

Keel’s face darkened; my anger was mirroring itself in him.

“I know,” I told him, meeting his eyes with a cold, unrelenting glare. It was cards-on-the-table time and I spoke slowly so he’d be sure to hear every word. “I put it all together, even the parts you wouldn’t tell me. Why you’re half-human. Why I haven’t seen any female vampires. Why you refuse to talk about what’s going to happen to me.”

Saying those things out loud, making them real, and then having Keel just stand there and deny none of it, fuelled my fury like gasoline on a flame. I was wildfire. “And that is what I’m going to be used for. Isn’t it?” I snapped.

Keel growled. He was clutching his sides as if he was trying to hold himself together. “Please… you need to calm down,” he choked out, roughly. “Or I won’t be able to…”

His eyes had gone hunger dark, and that should have stopped me in my tracks, but his unspoken confirmation of my fate planted a seed of self-destruction that spread through me like a weed.

I opened my arms wide. “Come on, do your worst, vampire,” I spat, meaning every word of it. I was sick of the games, the feedings, the lies, the fate-worse-than-death that somehow always had yet another deeper, darker layer to it. If Keel was to be a monster, than he shouldn’t be playing at being anything else.

He looked at me with abject terror. “Stop, Mills,” he pleaded. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“But let me guess,” I shouted. “You do?!?”

My rage boiled over, and Keel flung himself at me. We careened off the wall with a bone-jarring thud before crumpling to the floor in a flurry of fists and fangs – my fists, his fangs.

He shouldn’t be able to attack you.

I shoved my right shackle into his mouth to prevent him from clamping down on my side and the thought was lost.

I should have been scared, but it was as if Keel and I had gotten caught up in some ever-amplifying feedback loop of anger.

As my limbs grew more battered and bruised from the struggle, adrenaline failed me and Keel was able to pin me down. His eyes were still full of hunger – feral and unrelenting – but there was something else there too: white-hot torment. But I didn’t understand it.

“Mills…” My name a plea from his lips. He didn’t deserve to use it like that. Softness was reserved for those who cared about me, not those who believed they owned me and could do as they pleased with me. “I can’t…” He was shaking now. The syllables fell out of his mouth in an uneven stutter.

“What? Resist?” I said incredulously. “Then be what you are.”

And he was. He tore into my shoulder with a savagery that matched Harck’s. I head-butted him, but he would not unclamp his jaws. I struggled beneath him but his death grip on my forearms was immovable. He was exactly like the rest of them – even just half-Nosferatu, his viciousness was barely contained. I’d suspected it, but now I had my proof. Now I knew the whole horrible story about all of it. And it scorched everything out of me but the hate.

I loathed the Nosferatu. I loathed my father and his wicked-useless plan to keep me safe. I loathed my magic for being equally useless. I loathed Keel for his secrets and for this – the blinding, screaming, heartbreaking agony of his fangs digging ever deeper into my shoulder. And most of all I loathed myself, because self-destruction was stupid, but here I was buying into it wholesale – again.

I was definitely cracking. And my only ally was about to kill me.

Is that what I really wanted, for Keel to do me in like this? Hadn’t I asked myself the same thing when I’d goaded Boras into attacking me and found the answer wanting? But I knew more now, understood more. And wasn’t dying – even like this – better than being fed on, tortured and raped by monsters for the rest of my life? On the other hand, was I really willing to accept those things as given, as a forgone conclusion, as an absolutely-would-happen? Was I really going to stop fighting, stop surviving, just because I was pissed off and wanted to feel something – anything – other than horribly betrayed? Maybe my anger made me nothing more than a coward with a cowardly escape plan.

But what choice did I have? My blood was useless. It was supposed to stop Keel from hurting me and it wasn’t even doing that. I suddenly wished it wasn’t power or sustenance or even just ordinary hemoglobin; I wished it was an acid – a poison – that would eat at those who stole it from me. Why did the Nosferatu deserve all the pleasure when it was born from pain alone – my pain? Blood as poison. It was perfect, and Keel’s teeth grating against my collarbone only helped solidify the image in my head. I tuned into the pain, harnessed it and became one with it in a way I’d never dared with the King. When he doled out the suffering , I sought escape; now I was welcoming it in – owning it. And it didn’t matter anymore who started this; I just wanted to hurt Keel as badly as he was hurting me.

Keel yelped, released my shoulder and skittered away from me one-handed. His other hand was clutched over his mouth, white acrid smoke gushing out from between his fingers. As I tried to figure out what the hell was happening, his yelp transformed into a keening, anguished howl.  “Stoooooop!” he wailed. His screams rattled my ears.

Stop what?

The smell of burning flesh reached my nose. I flashed back to that last night at the cabin. My father’s magic. Was I was doing this? How? HOW?

Keel was trying to talk, but his words were garbled, lost in the suffering I was somehow inflicting upon him.

How could I make it stop? Think, I screamed silently at my panicked, shock-frozen mind. It was one thing to wish terrible things upon someone, another to see them brought graphically to life right before your eyes. I had no right to call anyone a monster. If I was capable of this, I was just as monstrous as all of them. The revelation slammed into me like a punch in the gut; what little wind was left in my lungs was walloped out by the guilt that immediately followed.

Keel’s face was still steaming, but he’d managed to get himself to the far end of the cell, where he was rocking and moaning and clutching at it as if it were in danger of sluicing off, which for all I knew it could be.

This had all gone so much worse than I’d ever expected. I looked from the wreckage of my shoulder to Keel’s smouldering, mostly hidden jaw, and I wondered if there would ever be any coming back from this. Every rule – everything we knew we had to avoid – had been thrown aside, and the consequences would go far beyond our damaged bodies.

And somehow, I knew this was all my fault – or rather my blood’s.

But that also gave me an idea – a crazy, desperate idea that just might work. Or at least convince Keel not to kill me, as I was sure he would when he gathered his senses.

“Hey,” I said quietly, the way I might speak to an injured animal. “Come here.”

Keel raised his eyes. The things I saw in them – horror, fear, untold misery – amplified my guilt into a veritable storm, distracting me from my own torn and gushing shoulder. When he refused to budge, I tried again. “I think I understand now, Keel. I think I can fix this. Please let me try.”

He sized me up, obviously trying to determine if my offer was genuine or if this was a ploy for me to get him close enough to finish him off.

“We’re done for anyway, aren’t we?” I continued. “You bit me. They’ll know – they’ll all know – and then this will be over. So, honestly, what more do you have to lose by letting me try to make this right?” Apparently it was my turn to beg, since my shackles wouldn’t allow me to get anywhere near him. “I know you can read me, so read my intentions. Please.

Keel nodded and closed his eyes. Was he trying to tune into me? I imagined myself as the open book that I never wanted to be, but I needed to do this – offer this – if I wanted any chance of winning back his trust. It appeared to work. He began to crawl towards me. The closer he came, the worse his wounds looked. It was inconceivable that I had done that – caused that – but there it was: Exhibit A. When he reached me. I extended my arm, clasped his wrist and gently guided his hand away from his mouth. What awaited me behind his palm was like some gruesome special effect from one of those awful torture-porn horror movies. His lips had melted away completely, leaving his mouth a permanent gaping tooth-filled chasm. Third degree burns extended down his chin and neck in violent, blistering, charred red and black streaks. If this was the external damage, what toll had my blood had taken on him internally? Keel’s father, the King, had done dozens upon dozens of terrible things to me, but none of them as awful as this. This would have killed Keel outright, if he’d been human.

And what if I was wrong? What if I couldn’t fix it?

Then Keel dies and so do you.

“Drink,” I urged him, reaching around to delicately cup the back of his head and guide it towards my still-bleeding wound. He resisted, but could I really blame him? “Come on, you dragged yourself over here; now just let me try. I swear I didn’t know this would happen. Please believe me.”

Keel gave me another mildly suspicious look before acquiescing and leaning down to lick my blood with what remained of his tongue.

As he did, I wrapped my arms around him until my fingers met at the middle of his back and then I dropped my head onto his shoulder. Emotions were what got us here in the first place, so I was hoping they were the thing that was going to get us back out. I focused on the warmth of Keel’s skin bleeding through the fabric of his hoodie, on his pained inhalations, on that fragment of humanity inside of him that I loved each and every time he allowed me a glimpse of it. And I thought about my own guilt and horror, how much I wanted to undo this, cease his suffering and heal his wounds. How much I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t the monster that I currently felt like. That uncomfortable current zinged between us, but instead of allowing it to distract me, I embraced it, just as I was embracing Keel. I imagined it had the force and power to undo my handiwork, to turn back time, to rebuild him. My regret was real. Absolute. And I poured all of it into our bond. Heal him, I commanded my blood. Make this right. I’m not a monster. I don’t want this. It was a mistake.

When Keel’s hands eventually crept around my waist, completing our embrace, I allowed them to. And when his fangs sank back into my flesh, I resisted the urge to flinch away from him. Eye on the prize, I reminded myself, and continued imagining his flesh mending itself and knitting back together just as mine had when I’d sliced myself open with his knife.

When I ran out of strength – both mental and physical – I collapsed the rest of the way into his arms. Was my exhaustion from blood loss or magic? I wasn’t sure. Keel had certainly drunk more from me than he’d ever had before, but that didn’t mean it had worked. And if it hadn’t…

Oh right.

The end.

My hand was shaking so badly as I reached up to touch his face that I was worried I was going to poke one of his eyes out, but I was too scared to look at him, fearing that I’d failed and fearing the hatred I’d see there. But when my fingers touched down on his cheek and drifted over to his surprisingly soft and supple lips – lips that hadn’t been there ten minutes earlier – I knew I hadn’t.

“Oh, thank god,” I exhaled.

“You’re the scariest thing I’ve ever met, you know that, right?” Keel said, his lips vibrating against my fingers.

“Is that supposed to be some kind of backhanded compliment?” I asked, as my hand fell away from his face. I was too tired to keep it suspended there, never mind that it felt like way too intimidate a gesture considering I’d just almost murdered him.

And healed him!

“Kinda,” Keel said. “But it’s also a statement of fact.”

“Sorry,” I muttered into his chest. My head had slipped down off his shoulder and come to rest in the middle of his ribcage.

“Hey, hey, you can’t fall asleep yet,” he said, unwrapping his arms and trying to coax me back into alertness. “You still have to fix your shoulder. I bit you; they’ll know.”

Keel’s voice sounded very far away and the urgency of his words got lost in gauzy fog of exhaustion.

“Mills,” he repeated. I liked the way my name rumbled in his chest. “You have to finish this.”

“Can’t,” I mumbled, sure the letters were slurring into one another. “Too tired. Got nothing left.”

If Keel said anything else after that, issued any other pleas, I didn’t hear them.

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