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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11. Keel

 

PART TWO: APRIL

Chapter 9: Keel

Boras was true to his word.

My life in the compound was eating, being eaten and twice weekly being hosed down with freezing cold water, with my clothes on. Twenty-four hour lockdown. Solitary confinement, seven days a week. Long stretches of boredom, divided by brief interludes of hell, with clockwork regularity.

Boras had placed a guard at the door. I heard the two of them talk, but I never saw the guard. My keeper and the King were my sole visitors.

As my imprisonment stretched like soft taffy into days, then weeks, hopelessness took root and grew, polluting my soul.

Boras remained stoic and uncommunicative. Apart from the orders he squawked at me – Shove your plate over here! Hand me your mattress! Hold still and let me bandage this! – he refused to answer my questions or humour my pitiful attempts to make small talk. When the loneliness eventually became too crushing, I began talking to myself, afraid that I if stopped speaking altogether, I might forget how. Or maybe I was just going crazy.

I worried about that. Whether I would or I already was. And I worried that worrying about it would be the thing that’d tip the boat, and plunge me to turbulent, bottomless sea of insanity.

What concerned me most, though, were the moments I caught myself thinking that I might be okay with that.

But my dad died for me – and that was not the tribute his sacrifice deserved.

The wobbly scratches in the wall now numbered more than five dozen. During the first couple of weeks, I’d been ambitious: I spent four days chipping away at the concrete around the plate that secured me to the wall with the edge of my right shackle, only giving up when my wrist was bruised black from the repeated reverberations and swollen so badly the cuff was nearly cutting off circulation. After that, I spend another half-week trying to pry open one of the chain links, but if it budged at all, it wasn’t visible to the naked eye.

At one point, I became so distraught and disillusioned that I even tried to “activate” my powers, which like everything else, proved utterly useless, since I obviously didn’t have any. The two days of fruitless meditation and concentration and focussing really pounded that home.

Without anything else to do, I went back to reliving my old life over and over again in my head. Every birthday, every Christmas, every date, every field trip, every stupid party. When that wasn’t enough, I tried to dredge up details about those events that I’d forgotten. And when I could mine nothing more from my own experiences, I gave myself over to my imagination with wanton abandon, dreaming up new episodes for all those TV shows that I couldn’t watch anymore, and even fixing up Anna and Henry in my head. Someone deserved to be happy. They not only went to the spring dance together, but every one after that, for ever after. I rode unicorns and comets, ran with tigers, and slept beneath the starry sky every single night.

I created a whole world inside of myself. And I spent more and more of my time there.

Occasionally I still cried, but not often.

My hours with the King hardened me. Over time, I found a way to distance myself from his excruciating ministrations and deny him my screams. Though, the first time I did this, he left me with a bruised rib. The next time, he gave me two black eyes. The last time, he peeled my fingernails off one by one, like the tops of pop cans. I sure as hell screamed then. Three nails in, Boras showed up in the doorway of my cell and told the King he had to stop, that my wailing was upsetting the other cattle.

Later, I realized that was likely a lie, because none of my screaming ever bothered them before. They hadn’t even responded when I’d shouted directly at them through my door. Had Boras shown me a small mercy? I wondered, knowing neither of us would ever acknowledge it.

Not one of those nails had started to grow back yet.

Just another disfiguration to add to the rest that riddled my body, scabbed-up evidence of what the King had been taking and how. My skin was a roadmap of his mealtime sadism. Sometimes I traced the wounds he left behind - lumpy, painful, ugly tracks of thick, pocked flesh covered my appendages and torso; in those moments, I thought it might be better to die down here, forgotten and anonymous. Even if by some miracle I escaped, how would I ever live a normal life? I’d never wear a dress again or a swimsuit or even a t-shirt and shorts. If I did, I’d forever be explaining away my gnarled, bark-like skin, an accident victim with no believable tragedy to call her own – mauled by a pack of dogs, maybe? Perhaps people would think I had done this to myself, and lock me in another small room, the only difference being fewer monsters and more padding on the walls.

As the first two months of my captivity drew to a close, I started sleeping more.

I told myself I was just tired, but deep down inside I think I was giving up. Just because I wasn’t willing to admit that they’d broken me, didn’t mean they hadn’t.

Now, every time I heard that prison door swing open, I turned my head just like the rest of the cows. Not because I was waiting for food or waiting to become food or because I could see anything – I couldn't – but because it broke up the monotony. Even Boras was more interesting to look at than my sparse lodgings.

But lately I’d been sleeping through that too, forcing the King to drag me to my feet before sinking his fangs into me. The scars he left behind were always ten times worse when he had to do that, but what did it matter? He’d take till he had what he wanted and then it would be some other vampire’s turn – or else it would be time to die.

*  *  *

I'd been out cold when I was jostled awake by the slow, drawn-out, plaintive squeak of the hinges on my cell door.

Something was… different. Off.

Boras and the King were forceful and direct; neither would creak open the door as if they were costumed characters in a Halloween haunted house revelling in the drama of the big theatrical scare. I opened my eye lids a crack and glanced around my cell, but nothing was amiss – at least until a lanky shape in black jeans and a hoodie stole its way inside. How did he get past the guard? I wondered.

The figure crept across the room towards me, its hood completely masking its face – just like the vampires on the truck – but I could see it had the key to my cell dangling from one of its pale white fingers. Had it killed Boras or the guard – or both?

I looked for traces of blood on its clothes, but there weren’t any. Nor were there any signs of a struggle. In fact, after giving it a cursory once-over, I wasn’t sure it could have taken either of them. It was at least a head-and-a-half shorter than all of the other Nosferatu.

Am I hallucinating?

Maybe my loneliness had finally birthed me an imaginary friend.

No. Can't be.

A figment of my imagination would have no need to creep.

Could this be it, then? I wondered, as I sat up, never taking my eyes off of the creature slinking towards me. Could this be the thing Boras feared: an opportunistic young vampire with an insatiable craving?

The intruder stopped a metre in front of me, stuffed the cell key into the right front pocket of its jeans and crouched down. It bothered me that it could see my face, but I couldn’t see its. What is it hiding? None of the vampires wore hoods down here; they didn’t have to – this was their domain.

“I always wondered what one of you would look like,” rasped a male voice from beneath the hood. He sounded thirsty. Definitely not a good sign.

“We’re taught about your kind in school, you know,” he continued.

“School?” I asked, my voice wavering slightly. If I’d learned anything over the last eight weeks, it was that no one ever came down here looking for conversation.

“Never mind that,” my visitor snapped, though he kept his voice low as if he was worried about being overheard. “I want to see what you can do.”

I shrugged. “Like what?”

“Your magic. Show me your magic”

I laughed, and it stunned me, not just because it had been weeks since I’d last done that, but because it’d transformed into a cold, brittle, mirthless sound that reminded me of the King. I supressed a shudder. I didn't want to have anything in common with that monster.

“If I had magic, do you really think I’d let myself be kept like this?” I rattled the chains loudly to emphasize my point.

“But…” my visitor said, pausing to puzzle it out, “I can smell it on you.”

“So you all say,” I said, rolling my eyes at him.

He crept a tiny bit closer. If I extended my arm, I could probably yank back his hoodie and expose him, but I fought the urge, unwilling to put any part of myself too close to a strange vampire’s teeth. Lesson learned. Boras would be proud. I still had nightmares about what Harck had done to me in the root cellar, though these days, most of my night terrors were dominated by the King – my lord and boogeyman.

“I want to taste you,” my visitor whispered. “Have a little preview, if you will.”

There it is, there’s the hunger. With an extra dollop of creepy.

The vampires were nothing if not predictable.

“How about no,” I said, shaking my head, though my refusal was useless. Suggesting that I had any say in it was just another cruelty. You could scream, I reminded myself. My guard couldn’t have strayed too far from his post. I was too valuable to be left unsecured – or had they’d finally realized I wasn’t valuable at all, that they’d been keeping me here for nothing? The King certainly seemed to be getting frustrated by the lack of results; he never said anything directly to me, but he had no qualms about ranting about it to Boras – loudly. I opened my mouth to call for help – better the devil you know, than the one that you don’t – but the hooded stranger was on me before I could squeak out the first syllable. His hand clamped down tightly over my mouth and I prepared myself for the assault of rotten stench, but it never came. A second later, he’d pushed me down on my back and was straddling me. I tried to buck him off, as if I were a bull in some messed-up monster rodeo.

When he didn't budge, I tried to bite his palm.

“Stop fighting,” he ordered, clearly annoyed. “I bet you don’t fight him.”

“Go to hell,” I mumbled. I was doing this all wrong, escalating things again, but I couldn’t help myself. I suffered through my indignities with the King, but I was supposed to be spared from this. If I got the opportunity to scream, I would. I looked forward to seeing this creep die and hoped that his Majesty would do it right here in front of me. One death for what should be many.

And here you thought you’d given up.  

I fought the hooded figure with renewed vigor.

Screw this, screw it all.

I dug my seven remaining nails into his fingers and tried to pry his palm off of my face.

With his free hand, he shoved back his hood. I ceased struggling. I was face to face with the youngest vampire I had ever seen – if he even was a vampire. He had their pale skin and presumably their fangs – why else all this talk of biting me? – but that’s where the similarities ended. Two bright green, devilishly mischievous eyes stared down at me, almost entirely hidden behind a messy shock of wavy dark brown hair.

“Who –” I started to ask, forgetting he was still covering my mouth.

He studied me intently. I wanted to do the same but the jumble of conflicting thoughts in my head stole away my concentration. He was one of them – had to be – but he looked a lot more like me, like a human. What did that mean? I’d assumed if the vampires had ever been us, the monstrous makeover had been instantaneous – they died and became that – but this skinny teenage boy who had me pinned to the mattress with his sharp, bony knees and preternatural strength suggested otherwise.

“If I remove my hand will you keep quiet?” he asked conspiratorially.

I nodded, unsure if I was telling the truth, but he released his hold as promised. He didn’t, however, get off of me. Still, one out of two wasn’t all that bad. I usually had worse luck down here.

“What are you?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off of his face. He couldn’t be more than a year or two older than me.

“Keel,” he said, offering his name instead of a proper answer.

“Are you one of them?”

He curled his upper lip into a snarl, revealing a set of perfectly formed fangs. “What else would I be?” he said, with a playful smirk.

I frowned at him. “Then why don’t you look like them? Well, apart from the…”

“Fangs,” he said, finishing my sentence. “Haven’t made my first kill yet. Till then, I’m like this.”

“Is that why you’re here?” I asked dourly.

Keel raised an eyebrow and gave me a strange look. “Um, no. We have a ritual for that.”

“Sure, whatever,” I said. “Just answer me this: why the hell do you all have to play with your food?”

“Because it’s fun?”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. My grimace deepened.

“Can you get off me now?” I asked.

“Depends,” he replied. “You gonna give me a taste? That’s what you’re here for, right?”

“Why even ask when you’re just going to take it any way?” I fired back at him.

“Because it’ll be so much easier if you don’t fight.” Keel reached into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a Swiss Army knife. “Besides I only want a sample. Why should I be denied that?”

Keel must’ve sensed that my cooperation was about to come to an end because he slapped his hand over my mouth again. I stared up at him, horrified, as he flipped open the blade. He may have thought he had this under control, but one cut would drive him into a blood frenzy. Isn’t that what Boras had said? I started flailing again, but being pinned beneath Keel was like being trapped under a boulder. He used his free hand to explore the wounds left behind by the King. I flinched as his fingers roved over my body, with zero concern for my modesty, grazing several of the fresher lacerations, and occasionally stopping to prod one or two more extensively. Eventually, he settled on bite that was just over a week old, directly below my collarbone. As he used the sharp tip of his knife to work it back open, his hand dampened my shrieks. Once he’d gotten the blood flowing, he pushed my head back out of the way and lowered his mouth to lap at the wound. The steady of caress of his tongue reminded me of a cat’s. For a while, I held my breath, thinking that at any moment he would sink his fangs in, but he didn’t. Though, he did use his knife on me twice more to coax out more blood. It stung when the metal unstitched my freshly healed flesh, but didn’t come anywhere near to sheer agony of the King’s feedings. By comparison, the way Keel slurped away at me was downright gentle. But for some reason, that made it ickier.

Eventually, he’d had his fill. He moaned and rolled off of me, as if we’d just done something much more intimate than what we actually had.

I probably should’ve started screaming the second his hand freed my mouth but instead I just stared at him. He was prostrate beside me on the mattress, eyes half-closed, a look of pure contentment on his boyish face.

“It’s wonderful,” he sighed, blissfully. His expression reminded me of the ones I’d seen heroin addicts get on Intervention right after shooting up.

I glowered at him. “What?”

“You. Blood. Your blood. This. All of it,” Keel mumbled lethargically.

The King never lost his ability to speak in complete sentences after his feedings, and he took a lot more blood than Keel did. Is this another failing of the young? I wondered. Can I use it to my advantage?

Maybe while Keel was still this languid, I could wrap one of the chains around his neck and strangle him. Perhaps he had more than just the key to my cell on him. Maybe he had the key to my shackles too. And he’d have to have the keys to get out of the prison.

I began to slowly inch my way towards him.

“Don’t,” he said abruptly.

I froze. My eyes locked with his. He knew. Damn it.

I slumped back onto the mattress, defeated. “Why the knife?” I asked when he didn’t say anything else. “None of the others cut me.”

“Because I’m not stupid,” Keel said. “My father finds out I’m down here, doing this, with you…” His voice trailed off. He made it sound like we were having an illicit affair – gross.

But I saw my opportunity and latched onto his words. “Your father? You’re monsters. How does that work?”

Keel laughed. It wasn’t cruel or mean or anything; it was a perfectly normal laugh. So wrong for someone who had just sliced me open repeatedly and still had my blood smeared across his chin. “You don’t learn about us in school?”

“Umm, no,” I said. “We don’t even know you exist.”

It was totally weird having an after-dinner conversation when I’d just been the main entrée; the King typically did his thing, then left without saying a word.

“Don’t lie,” Keel said sharply.

“I’m not,” I promised. “I didn’t know about any of this until I ended up down here.”

He searched my eyes for a moment, which was weird, because he should have been able to tell from my heartbeat whether I was lying or not, just like the rest of them. “So you can’t do any magic and you don’t know anything about anything?”

When I didn’t answer, he chuckled. “You’re a pretty useless sorceress. No wonder you haven’t escaped yet.”

I felt my eyes widen involuntarily. “Is that what you think I am?”

Keel said nothing for a moment, but I thought I detected a faint glimmer of fear flicker across his features. “How can you not know?”

I shrugged again. “Guess no one ever bothered to tell me. Until you.”

“Probably shouldn’t have said anything,” he said, turning away from me for the first time since he’d entered my cell.

“Don’t say that,” I said a little too quickly, but the reality was that I didn’t want him to leave just yet. Monster or not, he was actually talking to me, like a person. And that made me feel alive, feel real, for the first time in weeks. I had to fight back the urge to tear the knife out of his hand and slice myself open just to keep our conversation going, but I didn’t dare. No matter how much his humanity beckoned me, there was no mistaking the rest of his genetics, nor the need that brought him down here in the first place.

"This was a bad idea,” he stated, as he got to his feet, leaving a Keel-shaped imprint in the mattress. “I should have never done this. You can’t tell anyone I was here, understand? Not Boras, and definitely not my father.”

I shook my head. “I don’t even know your fath–” But I did. And I should’ve figured it out a heck of a lot sooner. Holy hell. What had I done now?

“Look,” Keel said. I could only see his face in profile, but his expression was stormy. “It shouldn’t even matter – you’re to be mine someday anyhow – but he has his little mythologies.”

“And what if I don’t want to be yours?” I said bluntly.

“Then tell him about this,” he said, as if it were a dare, and I caught a glimpse of the vampire he would someday become. “Tell him what I came down here and did tonight and you’ll be rid of me. Guaranteed.”

When I didn’t say anything right away, he took one last long appraising look at me and then slipped out of my cell.

For the first time during my life in captivity, I didn’t know what I felt at all.

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