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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20. Hard Truth Served Cold

 

Chapter 18: Hard Truth Served Cold

Someone was lying on the mattress next to me. Close, but not touching. I didn’t need to roll over to know who it was. Even without feeling the electricity, I could sense his proximity. It could be the blood bond, or just my innate teenage boy sensor, a perfectly human, completely not supernatural thing. A small smile formed on my lips. After everything I’d done, he was still doing this – just being Keel.

“You’re brave,” I whispered, hardly believing he’d shown up.

“Are you sure you don’t mean crazy?” he asked.

“That too,” I agreed.

“So, you wanted to talk.”

It had worked. I’d called out to him and he’d heard me.

“And you came,” I said with amazement. “Even after I –“

“– made me attack you?” he offered.

“What?!” I’d been so lost in my guilt and horror over melting his face, I hadn’t considered what else my magic might have influenced.

“You haven’t figured it out yet? When I ingest your blood, it gives you control over me. Yesterday you wanted me to attack you – be what I am, you said – so I was forced to.” Keel explained. “I tried to fight it. I tried to get you to stop, but it only made you angrier.”

“So you’re saying that it was all my fault?”

“No. You didn’t know what you were doing,” he said. “And the monster was me. You just incited it.”

The monster: the real Keel – or at least, equally as real as the Keel that was laying beside me. When we’d met I thought we’d have nothing in common, but we were not so different. Not anymore. Now I was scary too.

“You don’t have to protect me, you know,” I said, rolling onto my back so I could look at him. He was lying on his side facing me, half-propping himself up with one arm.  “I know what I am now. I saw what I can do.”

“Mills –”

“Honestly, it’s okay,” I told him. He didn't need to spare my feelings. “If anything, I should be saying thanks to you for not killing me after –”

“Mills –” Keel repeated, cutting me off.

“Arthos told me about how you stayed,” I blurted out. There was so much I needed to say, wanted to ask, but what were the right words? I knew how to apologize for breaking curfew, for disappointing a friend, for picking on my kid brother, but how did you say sorry for attempted murder?

Keel reached over and grabbed my hand. The sudden zing of our physical contact shut my mouth more effectively than his interruptions had. “You had every right to be angry. I just wish you’d given me a chance to explain first.”

“What did you expect?” I said. Keel had interlaced his fingers with mine,and was using the constant thrum of energy to root my focus on him. “I’d just found out that I was going to be impregnated by your father!”

Keel laughed, but it was nervous and reserved. As chill as he was acting, there was no denying that what I had done affected him. The only question was whether he was trying to hide it from me or from himself. “No, you hadn’t.”

“This isn’t funny,” I snapped. I’d asked him here – I wanted him here – but he was already pissing me off. And knowing everything, shouldn’t he be trying not to do that?

His smile faded immediately.

“You wanted to explain, so explain,” I said.

Could I make him talk? Could my blood do that? How much “control” over him did I have? As curious as I was, I wouldn’t manipulate him. That would be yet another step over the line. Keel had been right: we desperately needed some ground rules here. If last night had proved anything, it was that.

While I tried to find a balance between magic and morality that I could live with – one that didn’t make me feel like an evil hell-bitch – Keel was struggling to say what he needed to without making things all volcanic again. He started speaking three or four times only to keep stopping.

“You are intended for me,” he said finally and simply, looking away as soon as the confession escaped him.

“To –” I really hoped he wasn’t going to make me say it again.

“Yes.”

A stinging sandstorm of emotions whirled through me, and I knew he was feeling every one of them: the relief, the anger, the fear, the uncertainty. He’d known all along what he was expected to do someday, yet he’d come down here and pretended to be my friend, pretended to care. But there’d been an ulterior motive, above and beyond my blood, a bigger, infinitely more traumatizing experiment just on the horizon. I was mortified. I pulled my hand out of his, setting us free from the cyclic hum.

“And if I don’t want to?” I demanded.

“My father would say that it doesn’t matter, that it’s how things are and how they have to be, but personally I’d rather not get my face melted off again.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Don’t want to what? Further the Nosferatu species with me or melt my face off again?”

“Either,” I told him, adamantly.

He clasped his hands behind his head, closed his eyes and dropped back down against the mattress with a drawn-out sigh. Not for the first time, I wished I could read him, know what he was thinking. Or could I? I focussed in on his mind and urged it to open itself to me, just a tiny bit, but Keel’s thoughts remained safely locked within him. My power, it seemed, had some limitations after all. I was left studying his face, where the monster was only beginning to intrude on his boyishness. I searched for any lingering trace of his injuries, but if there were any, I’d need to get a whole lot closer to see them, maybe even magnifying-glass close. My handiwork was impressive for someone who barely knew what she was doing.

What was even better, though, was the realization that if I could learn enough magic to escape, I wouldn't have to return home scarred and disfigured anymore. If I could grow Keel a new mouth and perfectly patch up my gnawed-open shoulder, I could heal the rest of me too. But, of course, it wouldn't be the same, because I wasn't the same, I'd only be prettying up the surface.

“Okay, I think can work with that,” Keel said when he was done mulling things over in his head. “Besides – and I’m going to be completely honest here, so don’t set me on fire or anything – mothering would be a waste of your talents.”

I wondered if I should I be insulted by that.

“What about your father?” I asked. “I don’t think the King is going allow his plans to be derailed just because we’ve made a clandestine deal.”

“You let me worry about him, okay?” Keel’s expression was sincere, but something about that line sounded so dismissive, so pandering, so patronizing. It occurred to me that he might not do anything about it at all, since Keel had a habit of only stepping up when it benefitted him in some way. Maybe he wanted that future. Maybe he wanted more than just a friend and a science experiment. And maybe he wanted it any way he could get it.

“How do I know you’re not just saying that?” I countered. I wanted to believe him, to have the same faith in him that Arthos had, but as long as he was keeping secrets, I was going to be perpetually suspicious. Omissions were bombshells around here.

“You don’t,” Keel said. “I know it’s hard for you to do, but you’re going to have to trust me.”

“Trust you?” I said incredulously, shoving myself up into a sitting position, away from him. “Kind of hard to do when you won’t tell me the whole truth about anything.”

Keel sat up too, positioning himself directly in front of me, well within my personal space. Both of us equally quick to forget last night’s lessons and give in to the heat of the moment. “I’m a prince,” he rumbled. “I know we’ve established that means nothing to you, but it’s my life, like it or not. I have to watch what I do, where I go, what I say. The only reason I can even come down here is because most of them sleep during the day. I have to protect myself. That’s how princes become kings. How much truth am I supposed to offer a sorceress, one my father imprisoned and tortured who now, thanks to me, knows she could destroy all of this, all of us? How much truth am I supposed to offer when everything I tell you makes you loathe us – me – even more?”

“That’s not true,” I insisted.

“Isn’t it?” Keel said, brusquely. “Your feelings say otherwise.”

“If you know what I feel, than you also know how confusing, how overwhelming this is,” I retorted, “and how confusing and overwhelming you can be.”

“Which brings us to the problem of your emotions," Keel continued. "How can I tell you things, explain about them, when you constantly fly into a fury and threaten to drag me into it with you?”

“You’re making excuses,” I accused, though both points were more than valid.

“You think?” Keel said. “Then prove me wrong. What do you want to know?”

“Why aren’t there any vampire women?” This had been bothering me ever since I clued into it.

“Nobody knows, but there haven’t been for a long time. All our offspring are born male.”

“And you use humans to produce those offspring?”

Keel nodded. He was still right in my face, so close I half expected that weird electricity to start throwing sparks between us. “What other choice do we have? It’s that or die out.”

“What about other supernaturals?” I asked. If they planned on mating me, then that must also be possible.

“We don’t mix, remember? It’s forbidden by our laws and theirs, all laws.”

“Yet you were going to do it to me.”

“My father believes he can breed sorcery into our bloodline – and admittedly it’s a sound theory, since sorcery is hereditary. Besides, he’s the King, so who’s going to stop him? Other Nosferatu can try, but they usually end up headless.”

“If it’s so important to him, why are you supposed to do it and not him?”

“I am first born, crown prince, heir apparent, destined to be King. If you produced a second son for him, the only way that child could rule is if I was assassinated, so I would either have to kill him or accept my own premature demise. That kind of familial instability is unthinkable; it makes the throne more of a target for those who would overthrow us, which is why royals seldom sire more than one child and why that part of my father’s plans fell to me,” Keel explained. Sometimes his words took on a weirdly formal format, as if he were quoting them from a book. They made him sound years older.

“But what about love?” I couldn’t wrap my head around a world where reproduction was strict and regimented and feelings didn’t play any role in it at all.

“Love?” Keel asked. He mispronounced it slightly, making me doubt he used that word much, or ever.

“Really?” I said. “You don’t know what ‘love’ is? You know all these humans words, speak English almost perfectly, but that one is missing? Figures.”

Keel slumped back against the cell wall, allowing me some breathing room at last. I’d never met someone who turned every moment into a dare the way he did. He was constantly challenging me, pushing me to the edge of my comfort zone – to the point of irritation.

“Lots of words are missing. I already told you, they only teach us enough about human society to communicate and fit in for the short periods we need to be topside, acquiring supplies and conducting business. Most of the human world – like this idea of love, which, just so you know I have heard of, and the box of things under my bed – remains a mystery. A mystery I was hoping you’d help me solve, if we can ever get past all of this.”

“I’m not solving the mystery of love with you any more than I’m gonna be your baby momma," I said bluntly.

“You know what I mean,” Keel said, in an exasperated huff. I was making this hard on him, and probably a little unnecessarily tedious as well, but the truth – the whole truth – was what I needed to hear to move on.

“So how does it work with the women?”

“It’s something that is taken, just like your blood.”

I suspected as much, but not the nonchalant way that Keel said it, as if even after we’d talked about it, he didn’t understand my outrage, my aversion to it. A wave of revulsion washed over me – and him. Exactly the thing he’d been worried about. First chance I got, I needed to figure out how to mask my feelings. This much honesty was unbearable.

“And you wonder why I didn’t tell you,” Keel said, swallowing hard. “I know that it would have been different with you. But with the rest of the women down here, I don’t know if they even understand what’s happening. They say the humans don’t fight. And being chosen for mothering means a much more comfortable life, actually.”

“How can you say that?” I couldn’t imagine anything comfortable about bearing an unwanted child in a prison run by monsters.

“Want me to show you?” Keel asked.

Now that was an offer I hadn’t expected.

“But you’d have to do the whole shower and dumpster routine again,” he reminded me.

I wasn’t thrilled at the idea, but I wasn’t going to let a little garbage stop me either.

“Yes, show me. All of it,” I demanded.

Keel nodded and got to his feet, immediately offering me a hand up. I ignored it and stood up on my own.

“Mills,” he said, seemingly surprised that I’d rejected his help. My name drew my eyes up to his face and the earnest expression that awaited me there. “Please try to remember, this is the only world – the only life – I have ever known. I know what you think of it – oh hell, do I ever, you’ve made sure of that – but it’s not something I chose to be any more than you chose to be a sorceress hidden amongst humans. I’m trying to understand you, so can you try to do the same for me?”

“Just show me what you were going to show me,” I said. I probably owed him more than that, but I was trying and I hated that he couldn’t see it. Trying and accepting were two separate things, however, and that’s what he didn’t understand. I could try to come to terms with the brutality and sexism and lunacy of the Nosferatu all I wanted, but I doubted I’d ever accept it. It stomped on my worldview too hard.

I thrust my shackles towards him, and he dutifully unlocked them. A small jolt hit me as his skin briefly grazed mine, but neither of us acknowledged it. He let go of my restraints, and they swung back to hit the wall with a loud clang and a puff of concrete dust, then he removed a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. “We have to. Like last time. Just until we get out of the prison.”

“You better not shove me,” I warned him, as he snapped them on.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Keel said innocently, and I gave him a scathing look. “Hey, you want me on my best behaviour? Consider me on it.”

Keel remained silent as he guided me through the prison gently and almost solemnly this time. The heads still turned and the captives’ eyes still found us, but we weren’t giving them a show today. When we hit the hallway, Keel unlocked the cuffs and we walked side by side the rest of the way to the showers. Getting clean was just as awesome the second time, though slightly tainted by the ick factor of what I knew would have to come later. Once I was done, and had climbed into a fresh set of Keel’s clothes, we took the elevator up one level, then ducked into a nearby utility closet. It was stocked full of brooms, mops, buckets and racks of shelves loaded up with various cleaning supplies. There was also a pair of metal folding ladders, one short, one tall. If everything hadn’t been neatly ordered along the walls, it would have been seriously cramped.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“We can’t just walk into the Mothering. It’s kept under heavy surveillance.”

“Why?”

“The Mothers are sacred. Once a woman is chosen to carry a Nosferatu, she is no longer fed on. They are protected.”

I hadn’t believed the vampires would ever stop drinking my blood, but if what Keel said was true… Still, there was no way I was going to change my mind about birthing a future Nosferatu king, even if it did excuse me from being dinner. “But what are we doing in here?”

“We take that the rest of the way.” He was pointing up at a metal air duct in the ceiling, flashing me back on what Arthos had told me about Keel’s childhood penchant for mapping out the place.

“Is it safe?” I asked with trepidation. If elevators made me claustrophobic, how was I ever going to navigate myself through that?

“Sure, but you’ll have to follow my instructions. Do that, and I’ll get you there and back in one piece.” Keel’s confidence was steadfast and unyielding, just like the warrior, hunter, leader he was trained to be. My confidence? Not so much. Some things not even superpowers could fix.

I squinted up at the air duct unhappily. “Are you sure there’s no other way? If your mom’s in there, why can’t you just go in and see her?”

“Even if I could, do you think I'd be able to take you?” Keel asked. “Anyways, it’s not that easy. We’re not supposed to see them.” He paused and his expression became unreadable. “They say it’s not good for us to get close to them.”

“Why?”

Keel acted as if he didn’t hear my question. He retrieved the longer of the two ladders, carried it into the centre of the room, and set it up so that it stood just below the duct. He climbed up its rungs until he could touch the ceiling, then reached out and snatched a screwdriver from behind a couple unopened bottles of floor cleaner on the top shelf and began unsealing the grate. He obviously kept it stashed there, meaning he came to visit the mother he was forbidden from seeing at least semi-frequently. Arthos had been right: Keel had many layers – complicated and contradictory ones at that – but he only ever half-revealed them to me. What do they all add up to? I wondered. Will I ever find out?

“Why aren’t you supposed to see them?” He was avoiding my questions again, so I knew I’d struck a nerve. And unlucky for him, I was done giving hall passes for uncomfortable truths. “What are you still not telling me?”

Keel yanked off the vent cover and set it on the same shelf that’d held the screwdriver. “Can I just show you this first, then explain the rest?”

“No. You can tell me now,” I insisted.

“But you won’t understand,” he said, climbing back down.

“Stop telling me what I will and won’t understand,” I barked at him. “I get it, okay, this is your society, your people, and that you feel like you have to tiptoe around me, especially after yesterday, but if I’m going to do this – or anything – with you ever again, all the secrecy ends here.”

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea, with the… you know.”

“I could make you spill it.”

Did I really just threaten that? What reason did I have? He hadn’t even said no, just that this thing between us was becoming volatile and unstable again. And what exactly had happened to all my resolve about boundaries and right and wrong? How could I expect Keel to be honourable when I couldn’t live up to those same expectations? I dragged my fingers through my knotted, still-wet hair in frustration. Sooner or later, I’d have to accept that he brought out the worst in me: the strong, brash, resilient monster side that I didn’t even know existed until he’d awakened it. He was turning out to be as much a catalyst to all of this as my blood was.

“They’re part of the transition ritual – the key part,” Keel confessed, thankfully making no mention of my latest ultimatum.

“What do they do?”

Keel started fidgeting with one of the ladder’s metal joints. As far as I could see, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, this was just yet another thing he didn’t want to tell me, so he was stalling, but I wasn’t going to let him off the hook.

“What do they do, Keel?”

His grip on the ladder became white-knuckled, as he stared at the floor. “They’re our first kill,” he said quietly, but it was loud enough in the small space. “We drain them and their blood fuels the change.”

There was no gulping back my disgust, no corking the creep factor of what I’d just learned. My legs went limp like over-boiled spaghetti and I had to reach out to grab one of the utility shelves to steady myself. Once my balance stabilized, I rolled away an upright vacuum that had been tucked between two of the shelves with my foot and slid into the tiny space where it had been housed. There, I sank to the floor.

Keel took a step towards me.

“Don’t.” I growled at him, drawing my knees in close and wrapping my arms around them. “I need a minute.” Sure, Keel had promised that wouldn’t be my fate, not anymore, but what if it somehow ended up back on the table? What if he couldn’t change his father’s mind?

The Nosferatu offspring ate their own mothers. Keel would someday soon eat his own mother. I suddenly felt like I was in a National Geographic special about the deviant and the damned. Fed upon and raped by vampires, and then murdered by your own child – a triumvirate of terrible. And yet this was how they lived…

“Mills.” I heard my anger – at the world, at the Nosferatu for being so twisted and cruel – gaining traction within him. Keel’s face had gone to lines and sharp angles, and his fangs were showing, but he was keeping it caged. For now, anyhow.

“Don’t say my name.”

“Come on. You got by all the rest of it, why not this?”

“Because it’s horrible. It’s sick.”

“You’ve got to stop thinking of humans as being top of the food chain,” Keel said, holding court in the middle of the room, since I’d prevented him from coming any closer. “Our numbers are so small that we don’t even make a dent in the human population, and we have to do this to survive.”

“But your own mother? How can you eat – kill – the person who gave you life?”

“It’s just how it is, how it has always been. Besides, they are not who they once were.”

“But they’re still alive,” I argued.

“Yeah, that’s kind of the point.”

I glared at him. Sometimes he could be so callous. “And what about me?” I shouted. “You would have done that to me and I’m not hollow, not a shell of my former self.”

“Mills, you need to calm down. This is getting dangerous.”

“No! Why should I? Because you’re feeling it too, and it’s making you uncomfortable? Maybe we shouldn’t do anything about the blood bond at all, Keel – ever. Maybe you deserve to feel every horrible thing you ever do to me.”

“I’m not going to do anything horrible to you,” he said. “I promise.”

“Not good enough," I declared.

Keel swung the ladder around so that its steps faced me and took a seat on its third lowest rung.  Frustration was etched on his face, but his green eyes were sad and tired, and devoid of their usual brightness. “What would be good enough?”

There was only one thing.

“Swear that if it ever comes down to that," I said, "if I’m ever going to be used as a mother – regardless by whom – you’ll help me escape.”

“Do you have any idea what you’re asking?” Keel implored.

I rolled my eyes at him. “Not too long ago you asked me if we were going be friends or enemies. Now it’s your turn to make that decision. So tell me, Keel, which one is it?”

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