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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17. Fear the Future

 

Chapter 15: Fear the Future

The shower wasn’t worth it.

What Keel had neglected to tell me when he’d granted me my wish was what I’d have to do later: take a humiliating underwear-clad roll in the kitchen’s stainless-steel garbage cart, with a dash of oil and grease for my hair.

I made him turn away while I did this, but I still caught his shoulders shaking from a barely suppressed snicker. I tossed a wilty, cantalope-sized rotting head of lettuce at him, but missed – it bounced off the white cupboard behind him and fell to the floor with a dull, squelching thud. I regretted it almost immediately, when Keel looked over his shoulder and I had to dive back into the trash to avoid giving him a peepshow. This time when he averted his gaze, I knew he was laughing – I could hear him, he wasn’t even trying to hide it anymore. I jumped out of the mini-dumpster  and hastily yanked on my scuzzy clothes – if I didn’t do this fast I was going to totally lose my nerve – then I marched over to where he was waiting and smushed a squishy, browning tomato right into the back of his head, twisting my hand so it soaked into his hair real good. Keel whirled around in a fury, and I quickly stepped back out of arm’s reach, afraid he was about to slap me. I’d expected him to be stormy, but he was a hurricane.

“How dare y –” he roared, then he blanched. For a moment, he looked as if he was going to be sick, but he swallowed hard, turned away and began searching through the drawers and cupboards that lined three of the room’s walls. The fourth was reserved for the ovens and oversized refrigerators, and the entrance to the walk-in freezer. While it resembled a standard restaurant kitchen, it would have never passed a health inspection. Chunks of old, dry, unidentifiable food clung to the countertops, which were still gleaming with the fresh grease and juices from the preparation of the last meal. Maybe the half-vampires had punched up immune systems, but didn’t they worry the humans would get sick? Or were they that disposable? And what about me? I rarely caught colds, so maybe my sorcerer’s blood protected me too.

That didn't make it any less disgusting, though, and I didn’t know if I'd ever be able to eat again.   

Keel pulled a dishtowel out of a drawer and bent over to try to mop up the mess I’d left in his hair. I barely dared breathe the entire time.

You’ve got to stop forgetting what he is.

Maybe I should have been mad at him for being mad after he was a jerk to begin with, but instead I was angry with myself. He’d done just enough right for me to hope, but he was what he was. And while there was no way I was going to give him blind obedience, as I did with the King – he’d made it clear that he didn’t want that anyway – I needed to choose my battles better.

Still, Keel shouldn’t have been laughing. He should’ve been … what you want him to be?

That was as stupid as the girls in school who thought they could tame a guy just by going out with him.

When he was done, he strolled purposefully back over to me, his expression cold but otherwise unreadable. I flinched as he approached but held my ground. “This is really messed up,” he said, circling me, looking me over, either getting an ogle in or making sure I hadn’t missed any spots – or both. I kept my smartass comments to myself for a change. “I was furious when you did that. But then your fear – of me – drowned everything out.”

My fear?” My voice was small and cautious. It’d be harder, if not impossible, to deceive him now.  Crap. Some people you just didn’t want to be an open book around.

“Yes, your fear,” he repeated. He’d come to a stop in front of me, his expression serious. “I don’t think I could’ve hurt you if I tried. It would have been like hurting myself.”

I smirked. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. “So I give you my blood voluntarily and you have to be nice to me? I like that.”

“I don’t have to let you cut yourself,” Keel reminded me.

“And I don’t have to let you do your little experiments,” I shot back. I had this one. “Don’t forget, they require my cooperation, and I could always block you out, just like your daddy.”

“So, is that it?” Keel said, stepping into my personal space. I didn't retreat. “You finally get it through your head that you’re a sorceress and now you think you’re big stuff? You better keep that attitude in check around my father. He’d take a limb off you for what you did there.”

“So what?” I shrugged it off, and puffed up my chest in childish defiance, but the thought horrified me. I bet he could read that too.

Of course, this was yet another conversation I found myself dissecting later, after Keel had gone and I was chained to the wall once more. I hadn’t believed that a roll in the trash was all that was needed to disguise our little trip from Boras and the King, not if the Nosferatus’ sense of smell was as good as it seemed to be, but Keel was, as ever, confident. “They’re all fixated on your blood,” he assured me. “They won’t be on the alert for anything else. You’ve been down here for weeks without incident.”

I hoped he was right, but bone-deep dread still settled in like a cold, damp winter day.

Back home, when my brain refused to turn itself off, I’d call Anna or Jenny and they’d talk me down from whatever precarious cliff I was perched on: school stress, boy stress, “meddling little brother got me in trouble with the parents” stress, whatever – they helped me navigate it, and when they couldn’t, at least they were there to listen to me whine about it. But here there was only Keel, and he was part of the problem, part of what was messing up my head, so I couldn’t exactly talk to him.

Not that Anna or Jenny would have any advice to give me. I doubted even Candace and Indira – who manoeuvred every life obstacle absolutely effortlessly – could guide me through this. I mean where did a person even start, when everything they thought they knew about themselves was wrong? And all they had to go on were half-truths and speculation. It was an avalanche of overwhelming.   

And here I was wishing my friends could help me, when I wasn’t even like them. Or was I half human too? Maybe that’s why my father hid me. It was possible. I had no idea who my mother was. Could the different races breed? Was that why Keel was half human?

He never spoke of his mother and, now that I thought about it, I’d yet to see a single female vampire. Had there even been any pictures of women in the books in the Nosferatu museum? I closed my eyes and mentally skimmed their pages, trying to remember. There had definitely been a few in the most ancient tomes, but not many. And none at all in the newer volumes. But what did that mean?

Perhaps Nosferatu women weren’t involved in politics – the way the men here acted, it wouldn’t exactly be a stretch for them to demand their females be backwards and submissive – but even so, shouldn’t there be more evidence of them in the medical texts and other books? No, it was almost like they were invisible, non-existent; there was something else going on here, something more.

I carefully compiled a mental checklist of everything I’d learned about the Nosferatu so far, wishing I had a pen and a piece of paper to keep it all straight.

Oh god.

Suddenly, I knew without a doubt that this had something – maybe everything – to do with whatever Keel was keeping from me, and his absolute refusal to talk about the future – my future – except in the vaguest of ways. But he’d shown me the books: did he think I was so stupid that I wouldn’t eventually put two and two together and see that the facts just weren't adding up?

Sometimes what wasn’t said revealed more than what was.

Think, Mills, think, I commanded. You can figure this out. Picture those diagrams in your head. Did you overlook something? 

If Keel was half-human because the vampires bred with humans, where did they get them from? There was no way they went above and wined and dined them – not a lot of girls are gonna fall for a sunken-faced monster that leers hungrily at them across the table, its claw-like nails tinkling off the wineglass and cutlery while it only pretends to eat. So they either kidnapped them or used the ones they already had imprisoned. That theory didn’t hold up, though:  I’d walked through the prison three times now, and while the captives were plump, none were visibly pregnant. Maybe the human mothers lived amongst the vampires. But that didn’t fit either: the Nosferatu considered humans lesser beings; there was no way they’d share close quarters. So why would they mate with them anyway? I was definitely missing something.

And how did this relate to me? The more I thought about it, the more a soul-destroying scenario began to take shape in my mind. As it began to solidify, the contents of my gut turned to cement. I desperately wanted to chalk these deductions up to my over-active imagination, but I couldn’t. Not only were these things plausible, they made grim sense when held up against the King’s superstitious yet primitively scientific way of looking at things.  

If I was even half right about any of this, I knew what they were going to do. I was sure of it.

And it meant the King’s plan went way beyond just drinking my blood. If he couldn’t steal my power that way, he was going to try to take it the only other way there was: by breeding it into his bloodline. It wouldn’t benefit him, but it would give both him and his family the place in Nosferatu history he coveted.

I frantically rattled my chains, panic and anger winning out over reason. They wouldn’t budge, but I refused to stop. I wanted out of there more than I ever wanted out of anywhere in my entire life. The Nosferatu could have my blood, they could have my freedom, but they couldn’t have this. The thought of the King bearing down on me, forcing his monstrous self upon me amped up my hysteria to near delirious levels. Would he drink from me while he did it? I wondered. Cold sweat welled on my forehead and dripped down into my eyes. I couldn’t stop shaking. That could not happen. I would not submit. Never. There was no way I was going to lose my virginity to a monster, let alone be an unwilling incubator. No way in hell.

I would die first. 

But maybe I didn't have to.

I had magic now. Power.

That you have no idea how to use.

 Sometimes that little voice inside my head was my worst enemy.  

I drove my fingernails into my palms until they drew blood, then I watched them heal – over and over again. If my blood was the catalyst, how was it used? How did it become magic?

I stared into its moist redness as if I could will forth its secret by simply wanting it bad enough.

If magic involved spells and incantations, I was screwed, unless Keel could abscond with another book – even then he’d have to translate. Meaning, he might only dispense the knowledge he saw fit.

And if he was in on this, in on my “future,” there was no way he’d teach me the tools to guard against it. And I was sure he was: what he’d said on the first day – that "someday I’d be his” – made perfect sense now, especially the parts where it sounded as if he was talking about a lot more than my blood. I’d be his in every way; a hand-me-down of the most unthinkable, perverted kind.

And he apparently didn’t see a damned thing wrong with that.

A shudder wracked my body. Don’t think about it, Mills. Focus on the magic.

What if it isn’t about words? I jabbed my fingernails into my skin again, leaving behind five leaky red crescents. I focused on the congealing blood and thought fire, fire, fire, flames! willing a palm-sized inferno to burst up out of my hands. Totally cliché, I know, but at least it’d be immediately obvious if it worked. There may have been a slight trace of heat near the wounds, but I was just as likely imagining it. I tried again, turning those four words into a meditation, a prayer, a manta of desperation. I was positive I’d never focussed harder on anything. But still nothing happened.

How did it work?

What had the book said? “Power is individual to each sorcerer.” Was that some kind of riddle?  Maybe I’d never figure it out. I rubbed the blood from my palms onto my cargo pants – they couldn’t get any more filthy and the fresh blood might even distract from my garbage can stink-up job – and slouched against the wall.

Have patience, I told myself. You can’t know everything at once.

But...But...

None of that has happened yet. You could be totally wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. God, I hoped that was the case. Either way, I was going to confront Keel about it as soon as I saw him next, and he was going to get nothing else out of me until he told me the truth. All of it.

The dumb thing was, of course, no matter how horrible the revelation, we’d already gotten ourselves stuck with each other.

The weird blood bond would probably weaken over time and eventually subside if he stopped feeding, but so far he was the only one who could – or rather, would – teach me anything about my power, and would he really do that if my disgust was radioing itself out to him? Ugh. I dropped my head into my hands and squeezed my temples. So hopeless. Why couldn’t anything be easy for a change?

How did normal sorcerers learn magic? Were they like the Nosferatu? Did they have communities and schools? Were there classroom spell drills? What had my father denied me?

“Everything, apparently,” I muttered to myself angrily, kicking at the edge of the mattress. I was becoming as volatile as Keel.

But my mood swings were warranted.

Apart from my suspicions, we still had no idea what was causing the “reaction” between us. And it was getting worse with each feeding. What if it was another safeguard built into my sorcerer’s blood to protect me? Or kill me if I got too close to the enemy? Maybe Keel wasn’t salvation; maybe he was my short walk down death row. But what choice did I have? He still held all the keys – literal and metaphoric – and there was no hope of escape without him.

I shoved my fist into my mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed. I was so freakin’ sick of being helpless, being food, being a novelty – all of it.

Keep it together, I told myself sternly, once the moment had passed. You’ve survived this long, don’t lose it now.

Eventually my brain wore itself out from running in circles and allowed me to sleep. The dreams that followed were full of fangs, blood and broken promises, but only the blood was mine. It was as if my subconscious was issuing a blaring fire alarm of a warning, and while I couldn’t afford to heed it – not without accepting whatever sick fate the Nosferatu had in mind for me – it did give me yet another thing to obsess over. How I missed the days of fretting about essays and impending driving lessons, even though, more and more, those felt like the recollections of someone else’s life. As if, like me, they were a lie. 

The only thing that came to visit me the next day was the usual heaped tray of food. Keel, Boras, and the King all remained conspicuously absent, which, of course, cranked my anxiety back up to eleven.

Have we been caught? I wondered, as I picked at the spread, my hunger warring with memories of the filthy kitchen and, pathetically, winning. If so, I’d likely never know more than I did right now. And would Keel really keep the secret of my power? I doubted it. The King would get it out of his son one way or another. Then he’d find a way to make me comply.

The whole day was awash in apprehension. Every time I heard the King’s guards moving around inside the prison all I could think was, This is it. They’re coming for me. Panic clawed at me like a rabid animal. But there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide; as always, the shackles would force me to face whatever was coming head on.

Eventually, when the cacophony in my head became too much – there is really only so much thinking a person can do – I shut it off and made haste back to that safe place I’d constructed inside of me. Maybe it was cheating and not dealing with reality, but who was going to call me on it? My reality was a lot more real than most people’s.

This time though, I took Keel with me. Or at least the imaginary version of him I’d conjured up in my mind. I wasn’t exactly sure why, because I was still suspicious as hell about his motives and furious about the calculated omissions, but dream Keel wasn’t real Keel, and I think I just wanted the company – and whenever I imagined Mikey or my friends with me, everything ended up tarnished by an aura of sadness and regret and virulent homesickness, no matter how I set the scene. Keel was less of a ticking emotional time bomb.

In my head, I freed us from the compound and took him topside, into my world. How would it look through his eyes? I wondered. Would he think differently of humans if he could see how they lived? If he could walk among them? I took him to Times Square, just as if he was a real tourist seeing New York for the first time. There was so much life in the people who crowded the busy sidewalks that you almost couldn’t help but absorb their energy. Would Keel feel that, or would he only sense their blood? We arrived just after dark and I told him to look up. The tall, brightly lit buildings and blinking billboards all but obscured the stars, and seemed to cast a spotlight down upon us. We stood there a long time, as if dream-Keel were really drinking it all in, just like I wished he was. Later, as we wove our way through the stores that lined the streets, I pictured him wide-eyed and fondling aisle after aisle of trinkets and games and books and clothes, a treasure trove of “mysterious artifacts” just waiting for him to discover them. In my mind, I tagged along behind him, explaining the origins and purposes of each one. After that, we went on a midnight walk in Central Park – something I would have never dared in real life – then out to the pier to gaze at the Statue of Liberty. “This is my world,” I told him in my head. “My home.”

I still couldn’t take him to my actual house or school. Even in a daydream, those places were too precious and sacred to share. But the rest of the city was our playground. I even opened Coney Island just for us, so he could ride the giant Ferris wheel and truly see the scope and majesty of a city built by his so-called “fragile” humans. After that, I made him eat cotton candy – just ‘cause.

But as my waking dreams gave way to sleeping ones, the amusement-park thrills contorted into nightmarish terrors. More torture, more blood, more Nosferatu, no Keel – I awoke several times in a cold sweat, worry stealing away more and more of my anger. Each time I opened my eyes, I hoped he would be there, waiting, but he didn’t come.

He didn’t show up the next day either.

We had been caught. I was dead sure of it now.

And there was nothing to do but wait, and think the worst.

And wait I did – and then some.

 

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