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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12. My Captor, My Friend, My…

 

Chapter 10: My Captor, My Friend, My…

It took me a long time to fall back asleep after Keel crept out of my cell.

Our encounter had energized me. I felt more awake and clear-headed than I had in weeks, but also much more conflicted. I replayed our conversation over and over again in my head, searching my memories of our fleeting time together for anything I might have missed – for any information that might prove valuable.

Part of me was deathly afraid I’d wake up and discover it had all been a dream. But why would that be so bad?  I asked myself. It wasn’t as if Keel had ridden down here on a white stallion, like some fairy-tale knight, bringing with him the promise of rescue and salvation. He wanted the same thing the rest of them wanted – my blood – but apparently with a chaser of companionship.

That part intrigued me.

It was something new, a change in the monotonous, hellish routine – an oasis in the desert.

In my old life, Keel wouldn’t be my first – nor second, nor probably even tenth – choice for a friend, but he was best one the compound had offered up thus far.

But he fed from you! Every aspect of my curiosity was tainted by that.

Worse still was the knowledge of what I’d been prepared to do to keep him talking. Fredrick and Estella would be absolutely ashamed of me. Devaluing myself like that just for a little attention.

But I….

No.

I silenced the thought before it found a comfortable place to settle in my cranium.

Keel is a vampire, and the Nosferatu are bad news.

But maybe there are all kinds of vampires, just like there are all kinds of people.

He drank from you! And he hasn't even bothered to ask you your name!

It came right back to that. My internal argument reached an uncomfortable stalemate.

I thunked my head up and down on the mattress, no matter how hard I tried or which way I came at it, I couldn’t untangle my feelings. I had no idea what to do next, if there even was a next. Keel himself had said coming down here was a bad idea, so why was I sitting here torturing myself with “what ifs” when I’d likely never see him again – at least until the King was done with me, and Keel had become a full-fledged bloodsucker.

Would he keep me imprisoned too? A slave to his appetites.

I reached up and probed the wound he'd worked open with his knife. It throbbed dully when I touched it, but it wasn’t bleeding. It’d scab over soon.

Maybe the King would still notice; he always seemed to know right away whenever anyone spilled my blood. What then? Would I give Keel up? Confess what he’d done?

Maybe I should do that anyway.

No.

But could I even trust my judgement anymore? Just because Keel was less evil and less sadistic than his dear old dad didn’t mean he was a good guy or should be forgiven for his vampiric trespasses.

Still, I knew I wouldn’t snitch on him.

And that was probably yet another stupid mistake on top of the mountain of them I’d already made. But I just couldn’t do it.

That meant going back to being invisible, to being completely and utterly alone.

When sleep eventually came, I was haunted by Keel’s emerald eyes and the shiny blade of his knife, his humanity and his monstrosity forever at war within him, with the vampire ever fated to win. In my dream, he was carving the lines of battle into my flesh, and blood blossomed from each and every one of them.

I awoke to the sound of Boras and the King arguing loudly outside my cell door.

“You drink from her every day already. Are you sure this is a good idea?” Boras was asking. “You could kill her.”

They were clearly talking about me and dread fluttered in my chest. Yesterday, I might have lain there accepting my fate, but not this morning.  Sometime during the night I gave up caring if Keel was a good thing or a bad thing. He was something.  And after a long bout of nothing , that was enough. Hope needed only a tiny seed and just a droplet of water to spring back to life.

“It must be done,” the King snapped. “I will not fail.”

A second later, the door burst open. I managed to stumble blearily to my feet as the two of them entered my cell.

“Neck,” the King ordered immediately, and I cringed outwardly, unable to disguise my repulsion. Some spots were more intimate than others and when the King chose those, it always amplified the violation of the feeding – never mind that the mottled flesh that permanently scarred the back of my neck where Harck had savaged me was perpetually tender to the touch.

For the first time in weeks, I glared back at him defiantly. Maybe I wasn’t giving Keel enough credit: sure he was an arrogant, half-monster jerk, but with the King for a dad, he should be much, much worse.

His Majesty didn’t repeat his command. Before I could even register movement, he’d slapped my face, raking all five of his nails across my cheek and forehead. My hands flew up in a desperate, instinctive bid to protect myself - far too late.  When I pulled them away, they were streaked with blood. The left side of my face burned as if it had just been flayed. If I reached up again, would I discover my torn skin hanging in tattered ribbons from my cheek? I was too freaked out to try it. If my face had been destroyed, I’d rather not know.

I stood there frozen, staring at my bloody palms until the King grabbed my wrists and jerked them behind my back. “Why do you continue to insist on fighting when there is no point?” he hissed, his face so close to mine that I could see his pores.

I said nothing. He didn’t really want an answer. He just wanted to hear himself talk.

The King was drunk on power. And he thought I was his gateway to more.

He leaned in and inhaled the scent of my freshly spilled blood. “What is your secret?” he whispered to it, as if the red stuff were simply playing coy. Then he licked me.

Oh god, he knows.

That flutter of fear swelled to an angry flapping.

Now what?

Stay calm, I told myself. It might just be a coincidence.

Yeah, right.

Stay calm. Easier said than done when the biggest, baddest, scariest vampire of all is licking your face like the top of an ice cream cone.  His tongue soon found a repository of blood welled up at the corner of my lip and he went to work on it; as he did, I flung my head away, repulsed by the feel of his tongue’s slick heat that close to my mouth and the overwhelming death stench that washed over both of us. The King used that opportunity to sink his fangs into my neck. He must’ve clipped a nerve or muscle, because my whole back burst into violent, seizure-like spasms. But he just held me against him and bit deeper.

I closed my eyes and willed myself to drift off to my safe place. My world within worlds.

I didn’t scream. Just floated around inside myself and waited for it to end, like always. But it didn’t.

He wasn’t stopping.

I realized it far too late, and when I tried to kick out at him, my legs were tingling and ineffective, weak. I opened my eyes to shoot Boras an urgent look, but room swayed in front of me, like a ship caught in turbulent seas. Blinking didn’t help. Then dizziness took over and I gave up trying to see. Who had I been looking for anyway? The answer suddenly eluded me. It had been important, though, hadn’t it? I felt so heavy, so tired. Good thing I was being lowered to the floor.

I needed to rest… needed just a little…

*  *  *

In my dream, someone was holding me.

I don’t know how I knew I was dreaming and not dead, but I did. And I did not want to wake up.

Whoever it was, was curled up behind me. I could feel his – her? – knees jigsawed into the backs of mine, arms locked around my chest. Not restrictive, just secure and protective.

Was this what it felt like to be safe?

I couldn’t remember.  A tear escaped and slid down my cheek, leaving a little stinging trail in its wake.

I didn’t want to have that reminder of the King’s razor nails so soon. Yet another disfigurement to make peace with. I was just as monstrous as the monsters now. Had that been part of their plan?

The dream was still there but I could feel it fading. Consciousness beckoned, as did… a warm tongue. 

Is the King still here!? Maybe he’s decided to kill me slowly.

No.

Wait.

Panic chased away the last of the vestiges of sleep, but the arms and knees and warm embrace remained, as did the tongue on my neck…

I opened my mouth to shriek, but a familiar hand clamped down over my face. “Don’t,” Keel whispered into my ear.

I nodded and he tentatively lifted his hand, though he kept it close by, in case I changed my mind about hollering.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I asked groggily, attempting to drag myself out of his embrace. I felt about ninety years old. Keel could have easily stopped me, but he didn’t.

“You were bleeding,” he said bluntly, as he lazed on the mattress and watched my slow turtle-like retreat.

“And let me guess,” I said, laying on the sarcasm thick, “you just couldn’t resist.”

“Pretty much,” he admitted, shrugging. “But I really don’t see why you’re making such a big deal about it; you were bleeding it out anyway. It was just going to waste.”

“You took advantage of me while I was unconscious,” I growled, pushing myself up into a sitting position.  My head spun anew, but I managed to keep myself upright.

“And how’s that so different from taking advantage of you when you are conscious?” he asked. “I mean if there’s one you prefer over the other, feel free to let me know.”

I searched his face for any evidence that he was joking, but his expression remained serious. He thought all of this was perfectly okay, and why wouldn’t he? I was the one who’d been building a whole world of false hopes around a monster.  I was the one who was still way too naïve. It really was a freakin’ miracle I’d survived this long.

I turned away from his green eyes and the mop of hair that did so much to diffuse the more inhuman aspects of his appearance and stared at the scratches that I used to mark the passage of time down here. The Nosferatu never commented on them, though I’m sure they noticed the slow spread across the wall. “Go away,” I told him.

“You don’t really mean that,” he said.

“Try me,” I challenged.

“Don’t have to,” he replied, rolling over onto his stomach and grabbing my foot. My hands skittered uselessly on the concrete floor as he dragged me back towards him. “You’re chained to a wall and nearly drained dry. All you can do is scream, but as you already know I have a solution for that.” His hand returned my face, and a moment later he had me partially pinned beneath him again. “Now, I really don’t want to hurt you, but your blood is far too delectable to just go to waste. Understand?”

I clawed clumsily at his hand, while he settled himself back in at my throat, his mouth seeking out the rawest part of the wound.  He suckled it dry and then followed the sticky red trail up towards my face, but my composure broke. Tears mingled with blood on the torn canvas of my skin. With any luck they’d water it down enough so that the bastard wouldn’t get pleasure out of it anymore and would have to stop.

He did anyway. Keel raised his head, studied me for a moment, then propped himself up beside me on one elbow and stared at me like a boyfriend might – possessively.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, shifting his hand away from my mouth to allow me to answer.

“Are you really that dense?” I shouted at him, angry for his dual violation. “You all come in here and take whatever you want from me as if it’s your right, but I had a life once, up there.” I gestured at the ceiling and the world that existed many storeys above it.  “I was a person, with dreams and hopes and friends, and I could go pretty much where I wanted, and do pretty much what I wanted and no one ever tried to eat me. It wasn’t a big life, maybe it wasn’t even an important life, but it was a life. And it was mine! You haven't even asked me my name!”

“Keep your voice down,” Keel said, as he looked warily at the door, worried that my sudden outburst might have given us away. “And you are important – or you could be.”

I levelled an angry glare at him, but conceded and lowered my voice a bit. “Well, you sure don’t treat me like it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, as he searched my face for unspoken answers, as if he honestly didn’t know what was so wrong about his behaviour.

He didn’t deserve my pity and I battened up my resolve.

“For one, don’t lick my face. Okay?” I said, pushing him off of me. “It was bad enough when your father did it.”

I thought I saw Keel’s eyes darken, but it could have just been a trick of the light. He frowned but a moment later nodded in agreement. “But next time…”

“We do it on my terms,” I said sharply, cutting him off. My voice was steadier now that I’d stopped crying.

Keel’s expression turned stony. “I don’t make deals with sorceresses. Besides, I think you like my company.”

“Yeah, right. Says who?”

“Says you,” he said. “You haven’t screamed and you haven’t ratted me out. That tells me everything I need to know.”

I glowered at him, unwilling to admit that he had a damned good point there. Why hadn’t I done either of those things, especially tonight? “You’re a real dick. Anyone ever tell you that?”

A wide, cocky grin spread across his face, and for a moment he was not a monster, just a spoiled, head-sure teenage boy. The kind I used to avoid like the plague. “Consider it a leadership trait,” he offered.

“How do you get in here, anyway?” I asked. This had been bugging me since he first appeared in my cell.

“Told the guard I’d give him a place on my council when I was King. Most of my brethren will do anything for a chance at true power. Besides, he knows I won’t kill you and that’s all that really matters. That you don’t die.”

I rolled onto my side to face him. It was weirdly intimate to lie like that – inches apart – talking as if we were the closest of friends, but I wasn’t scared of Keel so much as I was annoyed by him, by his infinite sense of entitlement. I also loathed the way I couldn’t stop thinking about how his arms felt when they had been wrapped around me earlier; my dream was probably skewering my perspective something fierce, but I had never woken up next to someone before – injured or not – and it was… nice.  Just having someone else there. I bet it was even nicer when the arms didn’t belong to an unrepentant bloodsucker. Keel didn’t need to know any of that though. His ego already practically needed its own limo, and there was no way I was going to feed that as well.

“Then why did your father try to kill me earlier?” I asked, immensely glad that he didn’t have the same perception skills as the fully transitioned Nosferatu.

“He wasn’t trying,” Keel explained, meeting my eyes and imploring me to believe him. “Your blood isn’t having the desired effect, so he thinks that maybe he’s not consuming enough.”

“But why didn’t Boras dress my wounds this time?” This was not only the first time I’d blacked out during a feeding, but also the first time I’d been left unbandaged, which was supposedly a big no-no.

“There was too much blood spilled, and you were just too vulnerable; he’s strong, but he’s not a rock.”

I nodded. It made sense. “But you’re not affected the same way because you’re not a full vampire yet?”

“Nosferatu,” Keel corrected me. “And yes, you’re right, it affects me in other ways. Your blood makes me stronger, more alert, more in tune with the preternatural part of my lineage.” Whenever he talked about feeding from me, he got this dreamy, swooning expression on his face. It reminded me of the way that guys looked at Anna: as if she were a prize, rather than a person.

“Just mine, or blood in general?” I said pointedly.

“Wouldn’t know,” he said. “Yours is the only blood I’ve tasted, but it’s delicious.”

I sat up abruptedly, suddenly uncomfortable with our close proximity. “If you’re trying to creep me out, congratulations. Mission accomplished.”

He gave me a quizzical look. “You’re too sensitive,” he told me.

“You’re talking about drinking my blood!” I said, exasperated.

“It’s what we do,” he said, sighing. “It’s who we are.”

“But… but,” I stammered, unable to close the logic loop. “You just said that you hadn’t drunk any until you drank mine.”

Keel laughed his impossibly human laugh. “I guess you weren’t lying when you said that you really don’t know anything about us. We don’t need blood to survive until the ritual and the transformation. After that, it’s all we need. Truth be told, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to drink yours until I did it last night.”

“What do you eat then?” I asked.

“Human food. Just like you.”

“Oh.” That seemed so terribly mundane and un-monstrous. “But you’re going to keep coming down here and drinking from me, aren’t you?” I asked. Not that I really needed to hear his answer. It had pretty much been spelled out from our first meeting: Easy or hard?

“Unless you tell,” he said.

“What’s in it for me?” I asked, knowing I should be happy that he agreed not to lick my face and leave it at that.

“I am.”

I gaped at him, speechless. What did that even mean? And why was it so shocking to hear it coming from his mouth, when it had never been a secret that someday I’d be passed down to the King’s son? It was something in the way he said it, as if that phrase carried so much more weight and meaning than it should have, as if he knew something I didn’t. But that was a rabbit hole I had zero interest in venturing down.

“And that’s supposed to be good enough?” I asked, when I finally regained my mastery of the English language.

“I think it already is.” Keel winked at me. “And you gotta admit, I’m a lot more fun than my dad.”

I shot him a dirty look. “That’s definitely still up for debate.” But I didn’t argue further. I hated him, but at least I hated him a lot less than I hated all of the other vampires.

“So you need me to prove it to you?” he said, as if I’d just given him a challenge he couldn’t resist.

“Whatever,” I said dismissively. “Just, for next time, can we do it without the creepy molestation thing and hand-over-my-mouth part?” I asked.

“Entirely up to you,” said Keel. His grin swelled into a 100-watt smile.

“Don’t look so happy,” I told him.

“My time with you always makes me happy,” he replied, the goofy teenage boy eclipsing the monster even more completely this time.

“No, my blood makes you high,” I corrected him.

“That too.”

As he got to his feet, I squinted at his black hoodie, trying to determine if any of my blood had gotten on it, but he appeared to be a meticulous eater. Maybe once his dad was gone he’d show his true colours and be savage as the rest of them – maybe he would be even more so. Maybe gaining my trust was all part of his game.

“Till tomorrow?” he said, glancing back at me as he made his way to the door.

“What choice do I have?”

“Absolutely none,” he teased. “Besides, you’re gonna miss me the second I walk out of here.”

“Fat chance,” I told him, but he was right. I did.

Might as well add that to the ever-growing list of things to beat myself up over, I thought.

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