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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31. Slide Away

 

Chapter 29: Slide Away

They say the last moments of your life pass slowly, allowing all your deeds and misdeeds to flash before your eyes. That’s exactly what it felt like after Ephraim’s thunderous entrance. Slow-motion terror.

Keel, Bruce and I had all craned our heads at the front door when he’d burst in, but none of us had moved since.

“Don’t make me repeat my question,” he snapped, and suddenly I understood what Fredrick meant when he’d described him as volatile, dangerous and frightening. Ephraim was easily the most lethal thing in the room. And everyone knew it, even Bruce, who kept glancing around nervously, as if looking for a discreet way to duck out. Monstrous intruders he expected, this not so much.

Keel reached out and squeezed my arm. “Keep your cool,” he mouthed at me, sending it as an emotional directive as well. Then he slowly turned to face my father, maintaining his protective stance in front of me the whole time. At that moment, Keel was the bravest person I had ever met. Through the bond, I told him that, and then I sent him love – if there was ever a time to fess up about it, it was now.

This Keel – handsome, stupidity smart, insanely courageous – deserved to know how I felt, for whatever it was worth. To hell with the consequences.

He straightened immediately, newly emboldened, and I stifled a smile. I felt that way, too: with him, I could face anything, even my father’s rage. But that didn’t mean my knees weren’t still shaking and my heart wasn’t pounding out panicked beats.

And all the while, Ephraim was watching us with his eagle eyes, saying nothing.

“My name is Keel Argarast,” Keel said, in a strong, unwavering voice, “and until three days ago I was heir to the Michigan throne. Now,” he paused and made a sweeping motion at the house’s interior, “it seems I’m more or less at your mercy.”

“Is that so?” Ephraim said, as he clomped towards Keel, straight through worst of the grue, leaving a trail of red sole prints behind him. He didn’t stop until he was right up in Keel’s face, then he reached out, wrapped both hands around Keel’s neck and slammed him into the wall as if he was nothing more than a child’s rag doll. “And why should I show you any mercy, Nosferatu?”

A tiny anguished yelp escaped my lips. My head was churning with a chaotic, stomach-turning slideshow of memories of every single time the King had done this to me. And now my father…  bile rose in my throat.

I’d worried that the massacre at the compound had traumatized me, but that was not even remotely comparable to this. This I could not live with.

Screw the politics. Screw the laws. Screw keeping my cool. Screw this.

I didn’t ask for any of it. Not from the vampires and not from my father. The only reason we were here was because no one ever let me make the decisions. If they had, Keel and I would be out on the open road and no one would be at each other’s throats.

I stepped forward with fury-fuelled purpose, but Bruce’s arm shot out to block me. “Wait,” he said. “Don’t make this worse.”

I glared at him – how could this possibly be worse? – but Bruce just shook his head apologetically and kept blocking my path. Did he really expect me to stand here and watch Ephraim strangle Keel to death, because that’s exactly what he was doing – and Keel was letting him.

Ephraim had Keel pinned to the wall: his bare feet dangled uselessly beneath him, unable to reach the floor, and his face was starting to turn blue. Still, he wasn’t fighting back. His eyes weren’t even on Ephraim; they were staring over his shoulder at me – full of love and remorse and other things that left festering welts of regret on my heart – until his waning life began to dull them.

This wasn’t how this was supposed to end.

Bruce may have been in my way, but he wasn’t covering my mouth or restraining my hands.

“Stop! You’re going to kill him,” I screamed at Ephraim’s back, as I drove my fingernails deep into my palms.

The room went perfectly silent for a moment, even Keel’s legs stopped knocking against the wall as he perked up at the scent of my blood pouring into the air, then Ephraim let go of him and turned on me. If he’d ever had any love for me, it had must’ve shrivelled up and died, because there was no trace of kindness in him now.

“And why shouldn’t I?” he demanded. “Or perhaps you would like to go first?”

I recoiled at Ephraim’s bluntness. Family was supposed to have your back.

How could I be so hated for surviving?

I looked past him at Keel, who was sitting crumpled on the floor, massaging his neck with his hands and staring up at me with an expression that couldn't be mistaken for anything but “What the hell are you doing?”

But I knew what I was doing. Sort of.

I was going to get us out of here.

Before Ephraim got within arm’s reach, I threw up my shield. He stopped abruptly, sensing the sudden shift in air pressure and the faint crackle of magic surging out of me.

“You’d dare use your powers against your own kind?” he roared, his brow furrowing on his head.

“I’m not using them against you,” I said, angrily. “I’m using them in self-defence. If I was using them on you there’d be a whole lot more stop, drop and roll going on.”

Ephraim’s face hardened. Keel gaped at me. And Bruce retreated several paces down the hallway.

“You might as well be feral,” Ephraim said, spitting his words at me.

I scowled, refusing to lose my temper completely. That would do nothing but prove him right. I needed to think like Keel, be a tactician, not a hot-head.  “So what? You’re going to be our judge, jury and executioner. What the hell does that make you?”

“The one who needs to correct this…” he paused; the disgust was practically wafting off him. “Travesty.”

“This travesty?” I shouted. “You don’t know anything about us.”

“I know everything I need to know,” he said curtly. His dismissive attitude implying that this was black and white, and if something or someone didn’t fit neatly into one of those two categories, then it needed to be eliminated. I got that, but it was a really messed-up way to look at the world. Though not an entirely unfamiliar one.

“You think you’re better than the Nosferatu, but you’re not,” I told him, as I began to inch my way towards the front door. “You have the same idiotic rules and mythologies.” If I could manoeuvre past Ephraim and get closer to Keel, I could extend my shield around him too. When it came to sorcery, I suspected I was direly outmatched by my father, but still, it might buy us some time.

“You’ve been poisoned by him,” Ephraim charged, making sure he was staring right into my red-ringed eyes as he said it. “Soiled.”

“And if I am?” I fired back, still moving, using our argument as a distraction. “Whose damn fault is it that I was kidnapped by freakin’ vampires anyway? The way I see it, I’m alive, I’m not chained to a wall anymore and I finally have a guy in my life who’s willing to stand up for me and not lie to me.”

“A guy who is going to tear your throat out – or worse.” His gaze shifted pointedly to my scarred arms. “But you should already know this.”

I did. It was my worst fear. “But he can become human.”

“You think he’s going to do that, as successor to the throne? In that case, you are as naïve as you are stupid.”

I wanted to argue, to say that Keel had been exiled and that changed things. But the way Keel’s whole body seemed to deflate every time I brought up the possibility of him becoming human haunted me.

“And what’s my other option? A father who’ll execute me on the spot without a trial, without first hearing my story? You know what, Dad? I think I’ll take my chances with the vampire.”

Ephraim looked at me as if I’d just told him I was planning to blow up my high school or that I’d gang-banged the entire football team. “Of course; why wouldn’t  you? You’ve already bound yourself to this creature, ignorant to the fact that this means he will always be able to track you, always be able to feel you on some level, even if he becomes Nosferatu. It also means he will always hunt you. Not just because it is in his nature to do so, but because the bond demands proximity.”

Could this be true? I thought back to Nosferatu Keel stalking me on the rooftop – is that why he didn’t turn his attention to the world at large? Had the bond permanently tuned him in to my frequency?

But Ephraim wasn’t done yet. “You foolish, myopic girl. You couldn’t even deduce that the Nosferatu were playing you. They don’t need me anymore now. Not when you’ve given them everything they want.”

No. I refused to believe it. After all that Keel and I had been through together. After everything he’d lost. This wasn’t a ploy. This wasn’t a power play. This was real. It had to be.

He saved me. He loved me.

By this point, I’d reached Keel and cast my shield out over him. Now, I leaned down and tugged on his shirt, urging him to stand.

“You really think that barrier can withstand half a century of training and practice?” Ephraim asked.

I didn’t. But we still had the same thing we had when the hunter-tracker broke in. We just needed to leverage it.

And I didn’t hesitate.

I turned all of Ephraim’s ugly. scalding, hurtful words into energy and thrust my shield outwards in an immense shockwave that shook the entire house, knocking things off shelves and sending several cracks racing up the walls; Ephraim, as intended, bore the brunt of the impact, and was knocked out by the blast. I should have felt guilty, but I was still mad. I shouldn’t have had to do that.

Bruce rushed to Ephraim’s side immediately and began hurriedly checking his pulse and pupils and other vital signs. “You’re going to be in deep trouble when he comes to,” he said.

“Not like I wasn’t in deep trouble already,” I snapped, and instantly wanted to take it back. Bruce didn’t deserve my lip, not after we’d come in here and wreaked havoc on his house. “I’m sorry,” I said, softer. “Really. I mean it. For all of this.”

Bruce sighed. “It’s cool. Though it would have been nice having some help cleaning up for a change.” After completing his cursory examination of Ephraim, satisfied that no lasting damage had been done, Bruce retreated to the kitchen. A moment later he returned with a business card. “My brother owns a motel a couple towns over,” he said, pushing the stiff piece of cardstock into my hand. “I’ll call him and tell him you’re coming.”

I looked at the card: Mike’s Motel, it said in big, blocky letters, followed by the cursive slogan: When you need a place to lay your head. Not very creative.

“I don’t want you getting in trouble for us.”

“Don’t worry,” Bruce said, his voice low but confident. “Mr. Sayre won’t suspect it. I’ve never helped any of his guests in all these years, so why would I start now, right? Especially after what you just did. Wouldn’t make sense.”

“So why are you doing it?”

Bruce looked from me to Keel, who’d just returned from upstairs with our backpack and joined us in the foyer. “Maybe it makes me stupid and naive too, but I like you kids. As I see it, you can’t help who you’re born to. Hell, sometimes you can’t even help what happens to you after you’re born.” I knew he was talking about his own near-death experience and his bond with Ephraim, which didn’t appear to have much in common with mine and Keel’s at all. “So I think you gotta judge people by their deeds, not their circumstances.”

“That very wise, Bruce. And we thank you – for everything,” Keel said, before turning to me. “Mills, he’s right: if we’re gonna go, we gotta go now.”

As if to drive home the urgency of that statement, Ephraim stirred and moaned.

Keel took a final look at my father’s prone body on the floor, then grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the front door. I found my footing as we rushed down the steps into the overgrown jungle of a yard, but it was short-lived. We’d barely been running for five minutes when I had to stop. Since crossing the forest’s threshold, I’d tweaked my ankle repeatedly and fallen flat on my face twice; the second time, a branch had torn a ragged gash across my forehead. Unlike Keel, my physiology was wholly unsuited to hasty nocturnal flights through treacherous, obstacle-ridden terrain. At this rate, I was going to break something and be forced to waste more time and energy using magic to fix it.

“This isn’t working,” Keel said, as we came to a stop in a small moonlit clearing. The pale white light made the plants and trees look emerald and burgundy and wholly unreal, like the set of some fantastical stage play.

“Tell me about it,” I said, miserably, wondering if I was talking about our hasty escape or everything that had happened since meeting my father. “I keep expecting Ephraim to catch up and start hurling death curses at me.”

“I don’t think he wanted to kill you,” Keel said. His eyes kept drifting up to bloody scrape on my face, no matter how many times he forced himself to look away.

“That’s because I didn’t give him the chance,” I said, as I plunked myself down on a fallen tree trunk, and bent over to mop up my forehead with my T-shirt, curtailing Keel’s temptation.

“Don’t lie to yourself: he had plenty of chances. He could have used his magic at any time.”

But he didn’t. Why not? I wondered. The Mills I used to be would have hoped that it was evidence that some fragment of the family bond still remained. But now?

“I still don’t know what you were thinking, going up against him like that,” Keel said.

“I was thinking about saving you,” I confessed. “For all the good that did.”

“Hey,” Keel said, crouching down in front of me and planting both of his hands firmly on my knees. “This isn’t over yet. Aren’t you the one who keeps telling me that we can’t give up?”

“I’m tired, Keel, and I’m hungry. And I’m sick of being hunted and being owned and living in this world but completely apart from it. I know you want to give me my life back, but this – ” I thrust my hand out in the general direction of the safe house – “is not it. Never was.”

“So let’s get you to your real home then,” Keel offered.

“So, what? So you can turn Nosferatu and come hunting me there, just like your father did? So you can torture and kill the people I love to get to me?” I hadn’t wanted what Ephraim had said to get lodged in my brain, but it did; there was a certain rightness about it that prevented me from dismissing it.

Keel flinched; my words had stung. But he didn’t look away. As the silence swelled and deepened, I knew he felt the truth of them too. The blood bond would fade, but the connection that had formed when I saved his life would remain. It would not break until one of us died – or became truly, totally human.

“You’re right: we need to talk about this,” he said finally, “but not here and not now. Right now we need to put some distance between us and Ephraim, before he comes to and changes his mind.”

I squinted at the woods, but still couldn’t see more than half a metre past the line of the trees. “Yeah, about that,” I said, but Keel had already sprung to his feet.

“I have an idea,” he announced, hamming up those four words with surprising theatrical flair. I smiled weakly, humouring him, I knew he was trying to brighten my dour mood without immediately resorting to the emotional manipulation of the bond, even though he could have. “Your magic isn’t doing you much good out here. What you need is sight and speed. I know we said that experimenting with this was a terrible idea, but what if – just once more, just to get us out of here – I gave you those things?”

I thought back to our late-night jaunt through Buffalo, how with Keel’s Nosferatu infusion I felt like I owned the night. My magic might be useless against a more powerful sorcerer, but that wouldn’t be. And this time we knew the dangers, so we could avoid them.

I certainly didn’t have any better ideas.

“Do it,” I said hastily.  “And don’t worry, I remember – no sharing.”

I expected Keel to grab my face and gently bring his forehead to mine, as he had in the van, but he swept me up in his arms and crushed his lips against mine instead. As I welcomed his kiss, passion rolled forth on a current of pure, unbridled, vampiric energy. My knees buckled as my cells twisted and temporarily mutated to take on the same preternatural attributes that Keel’s had, but amplified through my sorcerer genes. My perception expanded to experience the world as it really was, not muted by my myriad human shortcomings. But none of that mattered, because all that existed in that moment was Keel and I. The warm urgency of his lips, the hard, mesmerizing expanse of his body and the raw, rushing power seeping out of him into…

“Someone’s in the woods,” Keel said sharply, his mouth leaving mine.

“I know,” I whispered, smiling. I wasn’t scared anymore. We had this. “I hear him too.”

“So what do you say?” Keel asked. “Are you ready to get the hell out of here?”

“Beyond ready,” I said, but he was already sprinting off into the trees – with me right behind him.

The sensation of streaking sure-footed through the dense vegetation of the forest was nothing short of exhilarating. I leapt streams and logs, getting much more air than I ever would have on Mills-power alone. And no matter how fast I moved, I could see and hear everything, including the fading footsteps of our pursuer behind us. The smell of his blood was there too, but my senses weren’t refined enough to tell if it was Ephraim or Bruce. What I did know was, despite Bruce’s concerns, there was no one else lurking about in the woods.

By the time we came to a gravel road, we could hear nothing but the ambient sounds of the night and the creatures that embraced it. Whoever was behind us had given up or was well beyond even supernatural earshot now. Keel looked up and down the deserted lane. “Should we follow it?” he asked.

I sniffed the air. It was strange how the bond passed along not only Keel’s talents, but the innate knowledge of how to use them. Off to the right – west, maybe, I was absolute crap with directions – I could smell an influx of humans: a town. “That way.” I pointed. “I can smell the blood.”

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to hearing you say that,” Keel said, as we started walking along the side of the road. “But it’s kind of hot.”

“Oh, I bet it is,” I said sarcastically. “This would all be so simple if I could just become Nosferatu, right?”

“That’s not possible.”

“I know that,” I said, “I was just making a – never mind.”

Keel said nothing for a long while after that, and I left him to his thoughts. It was easy to do, as the sights and smells and sounds of the night beckoned me to get lost in their endless layers. Nearby, I heard a mouse scurrying away from the deadly swoop of an owl. Beyond that, a raccoon was foraging in the underbrush. I couldn’t see them, but my remaining senses brought each tableau to life. Nature documentary: the ride. Wild.

I was so absorbed in the flood of sensory input that I didn’t even notice that Keel had stopped walking. When I turned to look for him, I found him standing in the centre of the road, watching me.

“What’s wrong?” I said as I started back towards him. The expression on his face was strange and indecipherable.

“Would you do it?” he asked, as I came to a halt in front of him. “I want to know – if it was possible for you to become Nosferatu, would you do it?”

Normally I would have made some smart-ass quip, but his expression was so serious that I didn’t dare. He was asking me this. Actually asking me this. And he expected the truth.

And what was that?

I couldn’t even think the word ‘Nosferatu’ without having flashbacks of the King’s cruelty, Boras’ harsh indifference, the sunken, wretched horror of their grim, pale faces and their ungodly nostril-singing stink. Would I become Nosferatu to be with Keel? Feed off humans? Shun the day? Become a vicious – possibly soulless – blood-sucking monster to be with one?

As I stood on the road, pinned in place by the incalculable weight of Keel’s question – caught precariously between the worlds of sorcerers, Nosferatu and humans, and feeling each and every pebble bite into the soles of my sneakers – I finally truly grasped Keel’s reluctance to become human.

He couldn’t change the way he saw them, any more than I could change the way I felt about the Nosferatu. We were born to be who we were; it was coded into our genetics.

I couldn’t imagine not being a sorcerer – not now that I’d discovered magic. So why, how, should he –

“Well?” Keel said, his voice even, unreadable.

I inhaled shakily. “No,” I said. “I wouldn’t.”

“Thought so.” Keel’s expression didn’t change, but he did start walking again. I stood there stunned, staring at his back. What just happened? Should I run after him or give him some space? Should I have lied?

Maybe there was only so much cold, hard truth this thing between us could stand.

I bit my lip and blinked back a tear. The invisible tether between us yanked at me, urging me forwards, toward him, as it always would, as long as we remained some iteration of monster and monster.

Until I killed him.

Or he killed me.

If my father was to be believed, that was inevitable.

His life. Or mine. 

“Are you coming?” Keel shouted at me. I hesitated, searching for any way off this roller-coaster of crazy. Any way to stop us from hurtling toward our mutually assured destruction, but there wasn’t any. Our trajectory had been locked long before we’d even realized we’d set anything into motion.

Maybe it was time to stop fighting it. If it was inevitable, what was the point?

“Always,” I yelled back. I hoped the word threw him as much as it had once thrown me.

When I caught up, I was relieved to see that a bit of the brightness had returned to Keel’s eyes. He gave me a playful, slightly suggestive, wink when he caught me looking. The tension had passed. Or perhaps he’d just decided to live in the moment too. Either way, I was done with the over-analyzing, and done with trying to change all the crap that couldn’t be changed.

“Let’s cut through the woods,” I said, suddenly. “I want to run.”

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