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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24. Hit and Run

 

Chapter 22: Hit and Run

Worry.

It filled up every moment that wasn’t consumed by sleep. Then it crept into that too, in a frenzy of violent night terrors: blood, fangs, death. Mine, Keel’s, everyone’s. Corpses in the streets. Torn apart. Rotting. Visions of night becoming the new day. Monsters everywhere. Vampires, sorcerers, things I didn’t recognize – impossible profane, barely describable things that made me shriek myself awake every single time they entered my nightmares.

I’d never had dreams like that before: so vivid, so real, so gut-wrenching that I preferred to stay awake, hounded by uncertainty, than give myself over to the madness of them. Insanity awaited otherwise. And I couldn’t lose myself to that, not now that I was so close to freedom.

So I worried.

About my escape. About going home. About calling my father.

What was I going to say to the man who was responsible for all of this? I didn’t even know his real name.

But most of all I worried about Keel. I couldn’t help it. Despite what he’d said, he’d given me everything I wanted: answers, magic, freedom, my father. And it still wasn’t enough. Not anymore. Not after he’d kissed me back.

But it was all so hopeless. In a few dozen hours he wouldn’t even be Keel any longer.

Everything I loved about him would be gone. Only the dark side would remain. With the ghastly visage and reek to prove it.

Unless our last little slip up had foiled things. Then what would happen? Could that kill him, too? As much as I loathed to admit it, I’d rather have Keel evil than dead – not that I wanted to see that Keel, or experience him.

I worried that my blood had doomed him.

But still, I couldn’t regret that kiss. It’d been perfect. Incredible. Unforgettable.

Until the monster got in the way. But that was a running theme for us.

Keel will be okay, and so will you, I reassured myself. I couldn’t keep obsessing over all this stuff I had no control over. I needed to be paying attention – to the arrival of meals, to the sounds of movement in the main prison, to the changing of the guards – because that was the only way of marking the passage of time now. And if I lost track of it, and embarked on my jailbreak too soon or too late, it could mean the difference between success and failure.

And there could be no failure.

But, in the meantime, there was worry.

And nightmares.

And no Keel.

* * *

I’d been so deep in the throes of another night terror that when I first felt the piercing agony of a pair of fangs sinking deep into the back of my neck, I’d just assumed it was part of the dream. But when I opened my mouth to scream, I couldn’t: there was a very real hand cupped tightly over it, preventing me from howling like a wounded animal. It was also forcing me up into a sitting position, for easier access.

It was the day before Keel’s transition, which meant I should have been temporarily forgotten by the Nosferatu, who were deep in preparations for the big ceremony. So who was feeding on me? It didn’t have the stench of the full-blooded. Another half-vampire? I wondered. Keel had told me next to nothing about his peers, always quickly changing the subject whenever I veered it in that direction. But how exactly would one of them get down here, past security?

Focus, I told myself. Stop struggling; block out the pain and use your senses. Figure this out. Easier said than done when somebody was gnawing on you, but what choice did I have? It was either that or unleash a barrage of magic at him. And what if it was Keel? Then what?

But why would Keel be here, doing this, now?

A trickle of blood crept across my collarbone and I resisted the urge to wipe it away. Instead, I reached behind me to paw clumsily at my attacker, seeking more info, an identity. Whoever was doing this was decked out in the paramilitary fatigues of the Nosferatu soldiers.

My panic spiked. But a moment later, the jaws clamped on my neck relinquished their hold.

“Don’t scream,” a taut voice whispered in my ear.

It was Keel, but he didn’t sound anything like himself. His voice was shaky, scared, and utterly devoid of his usual royal confidence. My gut churned, just like it always did when I got the feeling that something really, really bad had gone down.

I nodded, and his hand promptly fell away from my mouth.

“Sorry about that,” he said, immediately going to work on the shackles around my wrists, “but I think we’re going to need the blood bond tonight. I didn’t take too much, did I? You can still do magic, right?”

“I think so. Why? What’s going on?” I desperately wanted to look at him, but something about the frantic, clumsy way he was tending to my cuffs kept me locked in place.

“He knows,” he said. The words dropped like a pair of bombs around me, instantly decimating everything I’d hoped for.

“How?” I asked, as the shackles fell free from my arms. They clanged against the wall a few times before coming to rest a couple of inches off the floor.

“Doesn’t matter,” Keel said dismissively. “It doesn’t change anything.”

I turned to face him and balked. The only injuries I’d ever seen on Keel were the ones I had given him, but these were far worse than anything I’d done – except maybe the face-melting. But that had happened before I truly knew what I was capable of. And it’d been an accident. This beating looked one-hundred percent intentional.

Both of Keel’s eyes had been blackened; his right one could barely open. His nose was broken in at least one place, and his lips were swollen and bloody. And those were only the injuries I could see. He was also hunched over to left and breathing shallowly, suggesting he had some internal trauma as well.

“What happened?” I choked out. The words sounded stilted, like someone else’s.

“What do you think happened?” Keel said sarcastically. Admittedly, it was a stupid question, as there was only one person in the compound who could do that to the crown prince and get away with it, but I was so shocked by his bruised and bloodied face I didn’t immediately put it all together.

“Let me heal you,” I said, reaching out to him.

“No time,” he retorted, grabbing my hand, pulling me to my feet and dragging me towards the cell door. “Besides you’re going to need your strength, so don’t waste it on me.”

I didn’t think healing Keel was a waste of anything, but I left it at that. In this mood, he wouldn’t hear any of my protests anyway. “Where are we going?” I said instead.

“We’re busting out.”

“You’re coming with me?” I asked. I stopped dead in my tracks, causing Keel to nearly yank my arm out of its socket.

“Yeah, why?” he snapped. “Don’t you want me to?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wanted nothing more than for him to run away with me. But I didn’t want him to die for me. How would I ever be able to live with that?

“Of course I do. But what about the transition?”

“It’s not happening,” Keel said, angrily. “My father found out about us and he killed her. He killed my mother. Right in front of me. But not before doing this.” He gestured at his wounds. I winced. As someone who’d been the recipient of more than one of the King’s beatings, I knew how brutal they could be. I wondered if Keel would even be up and moving at all if it weren’t for his resilient Nosferatu genes.

Right then, I hated his Majesty more than I’d ever hated anyone, anywhere. What kind of father would do that to his own son? Only a monster would.

But that’s exactly what they are, I reminded myself. Just because you’ve been having a humanizing effect on Keel doesn’t mean any of the others are any different.

“It gets worse,” Keel said. I wondered what he was talking about, before realizing that the blood bond had put him inside my head again. “You know why he didn’t kill me outright?”

I shook my head, and though I was positive that I didn’t want to know the answer, I let Keel tell me anyway.

“He wants to use me as an example,” he said bitterly. “He wants my death to be a public spectacle. He thinks if he shows exactly how unwilling he is to accept dissention – even from his own son – that it’ll scare the rest of the Nosferatu into blind obedience, and stop them from questioning him and his actions.”

“Think it would work?” I asked, my outrage swelling exponentially. Keel did not deserve this fate. He deserved to die with dignity, not at a public execution, as a lesson in mindless compliance to be gawked and gaped at.

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Because that’s not going to happen either,” he said adamantly. “As I figure it, I’m going to die anyway, so I’d rather die knowing that you are free. He doesn’t deserve you. He doesn’t deserve anything. So I’m keeping my promise to you. Both of them.”

In my groggy, overwhelmed state, what he talking about didn’t immediately click. Then it hit me like an eighteen-wheeler. When Keel failed to transition and died, there would no longer be an heir to the throne. And if he was dead, I could no longer be intended for him. The King was going to take me for himself. He was changing the plan. He was going to… the rest of the thought was lost to the shudder that quaked through my body and almost brought me to my knees. Keel snaked his arm around my back, steadying me, and guiding me forwards again. The reinvigorated electric connection packed a secondary wallop to the revelation, but I stayed upright, somehow, and dampened it. I was out of practice with that, but it didn’t matter much.

“Mills, I know you’re scared. I can feel the fear surging off of you, but I need you to pull it together, okay?” Keel said, softening his voice, as we slid cautiously out of the cell door into the main part of the prison, pausing just outside to listen for any approaching danger. But there were only the groans and faint rustling sounds of the other captives. “We don’t have much time and we’re going to have to fight our way out. I’m going to need your help for that.”

Of course, he was right. I doubted a half-vampire could ever truly take on a full-grown Nosferatu as an equal, and certainly not in this kind of diminished state. Keel's battered face and hunched body provided ample evidence of that.

There were no handcuffs tonight, as there was no longer any reason to posture for the benefit of the other captives. As Fredrick would have said, the jig was up. No amount of pretending was going to change anything now. By the time we were weaving through the cell block, I was wide awake, alert and keeping up with Keel just fine. Though it wasn’t hard; even tapping into some of his preternatural speed, his limp was slowing him down considerably. I tried to send him a blast of fortitude through the blood bond. We hadn’t experimented much with our connection since Keel had stopped drinking from me around the same time that I’d begun practicing magic seriously, but I hoped the renewed link would prove good for something other than sharing memories and melting his face off. He appeared to pick up his pace a bit, which I took to be a good sign, and shot another burst of energy his way.

The other prisoners showed no more interest in our hasty exit than they had done any other time we’d passed by them. I vowed that someday, somehow, I’d come back and free them and put a stop to their soul-destroying blood servitude. Tonight was not the night for that though. Tonight we were too busy running for our lives.

I wondered how we’d finally been found out, but didn’t ask. He hadn't answered me earlier and now wasn’t the time to bring it back up; we needed to shut up and hoof it out of here, quick. As if to affirm that, a metal door on the far side of the prison slammed open and the loud, angry voices of several agitated Nosferatu echoed through the extensive labyrinth of barred cells. I could’ve sworn I heard Boras’ among them. Figures.

I had magic, but they had preternatural speed, so there was no way we were going to be able to outrun them. Keel maybe, but not me.

Keel seemed to realize that at the same moment I did, so he rushed ahead to get the door to the elevator alcove unlocked and open. Once we were through it, he slammed it shut, and whirled around to face me. “Can you seal it?” he asked. “We need to buy ourselves some time.”

“I can try,” I said, wiping the blood off my neck and onto the edges of the door where it met the frame. The voices of the Nosferatu guards grew louder on the other side, which amplified my terror in equal measure. This whole thing – from Keel’s injuries to the sudden heart-breaking change of plans – was wreaking absolute havoc on my focus.

I couldn’t save us if I couldn’t get my mind off of Keel’s impending demise.

“Mills,” he snapped. The urgent sound of my name on his lips helped centre my focus, as did acknowledging what would happen to us if I let my spells fritz out now.

I wasn’t going to allow us to die like this.

If Keel only had one day left, then I was going to spend it showing him as much of the human world as I could.

Nothing else would suffice.

Seal, I bellowed, flinging all of my fear and anger right along with that command, while planting both my hands along the red smear that lined the door frame. The Nosferatu knew we were here, so there was no advantage in trying to stay quiet. I imagined my magic acting on the thick metal like a blowtorch, welding the exit shut and trapping our pursuers on the other side. A second later, I was nearly knocked to the floor by the raw, unbridled power that flared to life within me, then burst forth with a dramatic, bone-rattling physical jolt. Spellcasting had never been quite so intense during our practice sessions; life-threatening danger and my sudden, intense desire to protect Keel, combined with the rest of my heightened emotions appeared to kick it up a notch. Made sense, I guess. Keel caught me, refusing to let go until he was sure I’d regained my balance. By then the edges of the door began to glow red, then orange, as it melted into its frame.


“Okay, that’s enough,” Keel said, gently yanking me towards the elevator, which had arrived and was waiting for us. “We have to go – now. That’s not going to hold them for very long.”

As soon my hands broke contact with the metal, disrupting the spell, my legs turned to mush beneath me. I fell forward, my whole body sagging against the freshly warped door, still warm from the heat I’d poured into it. I’d only used my power a few times tonight and already the drain was beginning to debilitate me, and we hadn’t even made it off the prison level yet. This was not good. Not good at all. Keel slid his arm back around me and navigated us into the elevator.

I was thankful for his closeness, his touch, even if it meant I had to expend more energy to keep the electric current muted.

Sure enough, just as we stepped onto the elevator, we heard a loud reverberating impact from the other side of the prison door. It shook mightily in its frame, as if it had been head-butted by a full-grown elephant, but my supernatural welding job held. As the elevator closed, there was another massive rattle and bang; the Nosferatu were clearly throwing everything they had at it.

How long did it have to hold to be long enough?

Keel and I kept leaning on each other as the elevator rumbled upwards; it was no longer clear who was holding whom up. But it was also unimportant. He was my anchor.

“Keel, let me heal you. Even just a little. Your ribs and your leg, at least. Before I don’t have enough energy left,” I pleaded.

“Save it. This has to be you. I’m no match against them. But you are a hunter of Nosferatu. It’s what you were born to be.”

“Are you saying I should kill your people?” I was flabbergasted. Sure, I’d fantasized about slaughtering the vampires countless times, but now when faced with the possibility of actually having to do so, I felt nauseous. Death was something that could never be undone. I recalled the tsunami of revolt that washed over me when the King had beheaded Harck directly in front of me, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Keel would feel when he saw me murdering his brethren, vampires he someday would have governed, vampires he’d known his whole life. Would he be equally repulsed?

“You have to do what you have to do,” Keel instructed, grasping both of my shoulders and looking me in the eyes, just as if he were giving a pep talk before a big athletic meet. “You don’t belong here. My father never should have kidnapped you. It was incredibly wrong. Look at everything it has wrought upon the compound, on us, on me, and what has my father achieved? Nothing. You have to leave tonight, for yourself, but also for the Nosferatu. Things will only get worse as long as you’re here.”

His words were a hundred tiny daggers, each one poisoned with guilt. It was true: if I’d never been brought here, Keel would still have a full life ahead of him. And what made it even worse was that, while I loathed the King and almost everything else about this place and my confinement in it, I didn’t regret Keel for one second. And I should. I really, really should, because I was his death sentence.

I turned my head away and stared up at the elevator’s numerical display. What was I supposed to say to that? I silently urged the floor numbers above the door to climb faster. But after just three levels it squealed to a halt abruptly between floors. As Keel leaned forwards to thumb the “1” button again, the lights flickered and went out.

“They’ve cut the power,” he said, sounding like he’d expected it.

“Now what?” I asked, afraid the darkness would invite my claustrophobia out to play.

“There’s an emergency hatch at the top of the elevator,” he said. I felt his arm shift and figured he was pointing at it, but I didn’t share his exceptional night vision. I couldn’t see a thing in the dark confines of that dangling death trap. “I’m going to need your help with it, though. I can jump up once it’s open, but until then I’ve got nothing to hold onto up there.”

He didn’t have to ask twice. I dragged a nail along the back of my shoulder blades just hard enough that a thin trickle of blood welled up. Then I dropped to my hands and knees and threw up a shield. Shields, I was good at. But instead of imaging it as a weapon, as something that would sear anyone that dared come too close – as I usually did –  I pictured it as a shell that could be used as both protection and a platform, something we needed desperately right now.

“Okay, step on,” I told him, once the flow of magic solidified and levelled out.

“Are you sure?” Keel asked nervously, tentatively tapping the barricade with his foot. It didn’t spark or sizzle or anything. To his credit, he worked fast. Two minutes later, the hatch was open and he was hoisting me up through it. I blindly dragged myself out onto the top of the elevator and then listened as he jumped up after me. I took it as a good sign that the only people I could hear were me and him.

“I could have just stood on your back,” he said. “You didn’t need to waste magic on that.”

“Says you. There was no way I was going to let you step on me with those combat boots. Your sneakers, maybe, but those things? No way.”

Keel laughed. “Guess you’re not so tough after all.”

“Shut up and tell me where we go from here.” It was frustrating having to rely someone else to be my eyes.

“There’s a ladder just over here on the wall.” Keel grabbed my hand and guided it to the rungs. “I’ll go up first. You follow.”

“Will do.”

I could hear the clank of Keel’s boots as he began ascending the side of the elevator shaft. Once I thought he was far enough up that I wouldn’t accidently get kicked in the face, I started climbing too. I thought we’d exit out onto another floor of the compound, but instead Keel guided me through a maintenance hatch into a narrow corridor. Of course, I had no idea what any this was until he told me.

“We can’t take the direct route,” he explained quietly, as we boosted ourselves from the maintenance corridor up into the structure’s vent work. It suddenly occurred to me that all our exploration of the compound over the past few weeks could have been training for this; that was why I hadn’t succumbed to claustrophobia or panic yet. Keel had been slowly desensitizing me to my triggers. “They can smell your blood. This route will confuse them a little. No one knows how well I know the ductwork in this place except Arthos. There are rumours, but they always underestimate my talents, and most assume I gave up the hobby years ago. I can get us almost all the way to the loading dock from here.”

“What if he turns on us?” I asked. Someone had betrayed us: it could have been Arthos.

“He won’t,” Keel said. If it was possible to reek of confidence, he would. This was the first time he sounded like his old self all night. “He’s the one who told me to run. Though I would have done it anyways.”

“Is that why no one was guarding my cell?”

“Yeah. He was creating a diversion to give us a head start,” Keel explained. This vent was roughly the same size as the duct that led to the Mothering, which meant that while it was a bit awkward we could still traverse our way through relatively quickly, without making too much noise. In that department, Keel’s clunky boots were the biggest culprit. I cringed every time they thumped heavily off the metal, gonging out our whereabouts to anyone within earshot. Injured, Keel was even less stealthy than I was.

“What’s going to happen when they find out what he’s done?” If what Keel had said was true, I didn’t want Arthos to die because of us either.

“They won’t,” Keel assured me. “Arthos is smart. Probably better at tactics than all of them, except maybe Boras. Besides, we’ve had this contingency plan for a while now.”

“Really!?” That came out a lot louder than I’d wanted it to, but I just couldn’t believe it. The whole time I’d be planning my breakout, Keel and Arthos had had a plan of their own?

“When I told him what you wanted me to promise, he said I was crazy not to accept, and how did I not realize that you’d make a much better ally than an enemy. And despite how all of this has turned out, I agree. But my people aren’t ready for you yet. What my father did tonight is proof. It’s a good thing they have no idea what they’re up against here.”

I grinned. I liked that Keel thought I was all that. It gave me an extra boost of self-confidence, which had a regenerative effect on my dwindling strength.

“Well, I’m glad you don’t regret all of it,” I said, half under my breath. I could still hear the echoes of his earlier rant about how none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for me.

“Hell, no,” he said, coming to an abrupt halt, causing me to crash into him. “I may not get to be King, or Nosferatu, but I got to have an adventure that no one else here has ever had, and I got to have it with you – a sorcerer who knows everything about everything I don’t. You know how cool that is?”

“I don’t know everything,” I said, and couldn't help laughing. Until I met Keel I didn’t even have an inkling of an idea about what I was; he'd taught me more than I ever taught him. “Also, you’re sure trying on a lot of human phrases there.”

“Am I using them right?” he asked, cheekily. I didn't have to see his face to know he was smirking and being only half-serious. “Figured I better practice for topside.”

I gave him a firm but playful shove, doing my best to be respectful of his wounds. “Well, if you don’t get moving you’ll run out of time. Do you really want the last thing you see to be this vent?”

“Good point,” he said, and started crawling forward once more. “Let’s go, Mills. It’s time to get you home.”

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