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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26. Surfacing

 

 Chapter 24: Surfacing

I was nowhere. I was nothing.

No, wait: I couldn’t be nothing. I was thinking.

Was I a thought? A lost thought?

I had language, obviously. Intelligence, too. But I couldn’t remember anything before a moment ago when I winked into existence.

What was I? Was I always this? Or was I something else once?

How did I get here?

I wasn’t hurt, nor panicked or scared. Neither hot nor cold.

I just was.

Drifting.

And curious.

* * *

I just lost some time there.

I didn’t know how I knew that, but there was a blank, and then I was back.

Back where?

I was still formless. Still drifting.

Should I be doing something? I wondered.

What could a bodiless brain do? I tried to remember if there was something I should be remembering but nothing came to me. There was this, and only this, and nothing before this.

Language and these fleeting moments of awareness were all there was.

It was exquisitely boring.

* * *

After a dozen or so blink outs, something finally changed.

At first I thought I was imagining it – maybe going crazy – because nothing here ever changed, but I wasn’t.

There was a little something extra to my awareness now, something out on the very furthest reaches of perception: a hint of movement.

I concentrated on it, and slowly it became clearer. Where ever I was, whatever I was, I was moving.

Should I be concerned? I wondered idly.

Why? Something happening is better than nothing at all.

And even if I was moving, what difference did it make?

* * *

Two blips later, I was granted form.

Or at least the sensory realization that there was more to me than raw thought, suspended in pitch.

And wherever – and whatever – my form was, movement was still a constant.

I’m awakening, I thought randomly, and something clicked. That was right, felt right. I am surfacing.

While I focussed on my form, and tried to make sense of the shape and size of it and how to control it, other things began to seep in and invade my senses. Rock music. The sweet, earthy, vibrant scent of summer. A feeling of warmth on my skin.

Things I remembered distinctly, but not until I heard, smelled and felt them.

Then, finally, bang! I had an identity: Mills Millhatten, age 16. And it brought with it everything else I’d forgotten: my family, my friends, my kidnapping, my captivity, magic, Keel, our attempted escape, that dark red, ever-growing puddle of his blood contrasting against the stark, white concrete floor as I helplessly embraced his dead weight, my sense of loss and failure so profound in that moment that I'd been content to die there with him, beside him.

The back of my throat burned as raw, unabated grief razor-wired my heart. And somehow, deep down inside, I knew if I gave in to the misery now, I’d sink back under and drown. But it was so hard not to…

I felt a hand lightly brush across my forehead and the grief was suddenly gone. In its place, an innate sense of rightness, belonging. Wherever I was, it was exactly where I was supposed to be. At least until a second later, when the guilt kicked in – all that death, I am responsible for all that death – but the hand returned and stole that too. I should have been scared, but I felt the exact opposite: safe and protected. When combined with the soothing thrum of motion, the dulcet strains of FM radio and the fresh air, the vibe was completely unthreatening.

I wished I could open my eyes, but they still felt as if they had sandbags on top of them, just like the rest of my body. I was curled up, paralyzed. But even that didn’t freak me out; again, on some instinctual level, I understood this was part of the process of awakening from whatever weird state I’d been in. Another sorcerer thing, evidently.

What happened to me? I wondered.

I’d been on the floor of the loading dock with Keel, then I was a thought, and now I was here.

I was pretty sure I was in a vehicle, but en route to where? There were so many missing pieces. So much hurt waiting in the wings for me, if whoever I was with ever allowed me to feel it.

I wanted to ask who they were, what they were, and why they were protecting me. But my mouth was just as useless as the rest of my body.

I could do nothing but lie here, trapped inside my own husk, and trust blindly.

And look how things had turned out with the last person I’d trusted, and the one before that.

My sadness came back with a wallop, but another caress quickly wiped it away.

There was undeniable kindness in that action, but I wanted to hurt, needed to mourn.

Maybe you’re dead, my inner voice piped up. Maybe this is the afterlife, or heaven, or whatever comes next.

Wait, the afterlife is a car ride on a sunny day? I wasn’t sure I believed that, but the theory had no more or less credibility than anything else so far, so it couldn’t be completely cast aside either.

Since my body wasn’t cooperating, I did the only thing I could do: I listened to the radio. It’d been so long since I’d heard music, it was almost like hearing it for the first time all over again. I swore to myself that if I wasn’t dead, when I eventually made it home I was going to spend a whole day just lying on my bed re-listening to all my favourite albums. Home. Is that where I was being taken? The aimless chatter of the DJs provided absolutely no clues.

At some point, I dozed off: sun, music and paralyzing boredom made for a very potent sleep aid. Of course, I dreamed of Keel, but every time my subconscious veered the action towards what had happened at the end of the battle, something else steered it in another direction, back to safety. Why? Who? Those questions resonated even in my sleep. But my mysterious benefactor’s manipulations still couldn’t stop me from waking up in tears, and to my surprise, my arm actually responded when my brain sent my hand the command to wipe them away.

I opened my eyes and was greeted by a blinding, stinging explosion of light. “Owww…” I moaned, squeezing them shut and jamming the heels of my palms into the sockets. Sounded like my vocal cords were functional again too.

“You’re awake,” said a surprised voice; the speaker’s relief was palpable. Keel? It was impossible – or was it? Either way, I couldn’t help hope. “You’ll need to let them adjust to the brightness. It takes a while.”

I cracked my lids a tiny bit – not enough to actually see anything other than a wash of brightness – and waited for them to adjust. Five minutes later, I was gaping up from where I was lying on the van’s bench-like front seat at my driver: Keel, who still very much looked like he had been dragged through all nine circles of Hell. But that wasn’t the only thing that astounded me: sunlight was pouring in through the windshield onto his face, as well as onto his bare arm, which was lazily draped out the rolled-down window – his military jacket swapped for a plain black T-shirt. Nosferatu didn’t do daylight. How could he bear it?

“Are we dead?” I asked him, as I shoved myself up into a sitting position, and snapped on the seatbelt. That would explain everything, including his startling lack of sun sensitivity. “Is this heaven?”

Keel laughed. “No, it’s someplace called Pennsylvania.” He sounded the word out slowly, and got it mostly right.

“How?” I said. The last time I had seen him he'd been seconds away from his dying breath; now he was driving down the I-90 soaking up the sunlight, while trees whizzed past the open windows and an old-fashioned paper roadmap fluttered on the dash.

“Your spell healed me  – enough anyway,” he said, keeping his attention fixed on the road. “When I came around, the loading dock was empty – at least, of anyone living – so I hoisted you into the van and got the hell out of there.”

I did remember trying to heal him, but I’d been so drained, emptier than I’d ever been before, and I hadn’t thought there was any way it would work, certainly not enough to reset internal wounds as severe as Keel’s. Obviously, I had been wrong. But why did my memory stop at the trying? It didn’t make any sense. Just like Keel sitting here beside me in the sun.

I’d barely taken my eyes off of him since I’d fully awakened. I honestly believed I’d never see him again, and even though he’d said that I’d done this, it still felt like a miracle to me. I could hardly resist reaching out and touching him, just to prove he was actually there, in the flesh. Daylight looked magnificent on Keel, despite his wounds and bloodstained face – some of it his, some of it mine. And the way the breeze tossed his hair around was simply mesmerizing, a picture-perfect snapshot of freedom. His lower lip was less swollen and some of his more minor cuts and abrasions seemed to have healed completely.

“How long have I been out?”

“About fourteen hours,” Keel said, taking his eyes off the road briefly to look at me. I was stunned by the amount of time that’d passed. I’d wasted more than half of our last day in that stupid, semi-catatonic state, and I probably would have continued beating myself up about it right then and there, but for the panicked expression that took over Keel’s face the instant we made eye contact.

He slammed his foot down on the brakes and swerved the van over onto the shoulder, muttering “No, no, no,” the whole time. As soon as we’d lurched to a stop, he was out his door and around the other side to mine.  “Show me your face,” he demanded, as he yanked my door open. There was such a frantic desperation to that command that I immediately turned towards him. His frown deepened; he didn’t like what he saw.

“Shit,” he cursed, banging his fist off the side of the van, then dragging both hands roughly through his hair. I still wasn’t used to hearing him swear; that was obviously something he’d picked up from me, and embraced.

“What is it?” I asked. I was only worried because he seemed worried. I felt fine: rejuvenated, if not yet completely re-energized.

Keel reached into the van and flipped down the sun visor, revealing a small rectangular mirror. “Look,” he said.

I did. My face was completely destroyed. Criss-crossed with long-healed, gnarly scars that looked every bit as monstrous as I imagined they would. But even as I stared at myself in horror, I knew that was not what Keel had wanted me to see. He’d been fixated on my eyes, which now boasted a thin red circle around my brown irises rather than the regular, old human black one.


“What is it?” I said, pulling open my right eye with my fingers and leaning in for a better look.

“No idea,” Keel admitted, “but I’m sure it’s got something to do with you saving me back there.”

“What makes you so sure of that?” I asked. If this had something to with my sorcerer powers, it wasn’t anything we’d ever come across in any of the Nosferatu texts.

“Because there’s more,” he said, reaching out and placing his hand on my shoulder. I stared up at him in wordless awe. There was no electricity, just another wave of soothing rightness.

“What happened to the blood bond?” I said, once the shock passed and I could speak again.

“Don’t know that either,” Keel said, “but it’s changed. I can affect you too now, and who knows what else.”

I loved Keel. I should have been happy – or at least accepting – of this new development, but I wasn't. After five months in captivity, I couldn’t bear the thought of being controlled or manipulated or influenced by anyone, even him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, picking up on my shift in mood right away.

“It’s just a lot to take in,” I lied, hopefully convincingly. I wanted some time to think things through before confronting them head on.

“Well, that’s not everything,” Keel said nervously. “This is going to complicate things – a lot.”

I didn’t like the tone of his voice. Keel, anxious, never meant good things for us. “What do you mean?”

“We’re on our way to meet your father,” he said with no small amount of trepidation. Even the thought of this clearly intimidated the hell out of him. “Or at least you are. By this time, tomorrow…”

…you’ll be dead. Neither of us needed to say it out loud to know how that sentence ended.

“But this changes everything,” Keel continued, after the tiniest of pauses, “You won’t be able to hide our connection. It’s stamped on you now, probably permanently.”

Like a scarlet letter. Race traitor. Vampire lover.

“So what?” I challenged, speaking to the voice in my head as much as him. “I’m not ashamed of you, and I’m certainly not ashamed of us.”

“It’s forbidden,” Keel hissed. “You’ll be lucky if they don’t put you to death for it.”

Was that possible? Could my people really be as cruel and judgemental as Keel’s? If we were hunters, I could understand how fraternizing with the enemy would be frowned upon, but I hadn’t known better, hadn’t had any other choice and wouldn’t be free if he hadn’t helped me.

“Why did you call him anyway?” I snapped. The decision to make contact with my birth father should have been mine, not his.

“You were unconscious and unresponsive. I thought he might know what to do. You’d used so much magic, I was scared it was going to kill you.” Amazingly, I could tell he wasn’t lying. It was more than just intuition, too. I knew with absolute, unerring certainty.

“And now we’re going to his house?” I asked.

“No, he doesn’t trust us – me, rather. Especially when I couldn’t put you on the phone earlier,” Keel explained. “He thinks this is a trap set by my father, so he’s meeting us – well, you – in Niagara Falls, by the Falls lookout, at noon tomorrow. He knows that not even my father would risk the consequences of an incident in a well-trafficked, public, human space.”

From the way Keel said “well, you,” it was clear that he expected to be dead and gone by then. That was the depressing cherry on top of the depressing cake, but I still didn’t regret saving his life, not even if it was for only twenty-four hours and destroyed any possibility of reconciliation with my father. As far as I was concerned, I still owed Keel everything.

“We could go somewhere else,” he suggested, when I didn’t respond. “We don’t have to meet him.” I watched the hazy, translucent reflection of cars speeding by us in the window, and weighed my options, though there seemed to only ever be two: fight or flight; obey or rebel.

“No,” I said, firm and determined. “I want to meet the man who abandoned me, and if he has a problem with me or this” – I gestured angrily towards my eyes – “then whatever, because I have a whole bunch of problems with him too.”

“Don’t forget your father is a powerful sorcerer,” Keel said warningly. He was leaning against the door frame, half shielding me from the hot afternoon sun.

“He’s also a deadbeat who left me to the vampires, even after I was kidnapped. You’ve been a better protector to me than he’s ever been. You deserve my loyalty far more than he does.”

Keel smiled, and stroked my dirty, knotted hair. “You’re amazing,” he said, with genuine affection, and more than a little pride, “and brave. I don’t think you have any idea how brave you are.” That feeling of absolute at-home-ness returned in a flood.

“Wait a sec, that was you calming me down when I was out cold?” I asked.

Keel nodded.

“Why?” I demanded.

“Because I wasn’t dead, so why should I let you mourn for something that hasn’t happened?”

“Yet,” I added.

He sighed with exasperation. “Yes, yet,” he conceded.

Then it hit me. I had somehow saved Keel from what I’d believed was certain death back in the loading dock: why couldn’t I do the same thing when the failure to transition started to kill him, especially if it wasn’t an instantaneous thing? Maybe this new connection between us would even prove helpful. And, just like that, I had a plan. All I had to do was save him one more time. I could this. I didn’t tell him what I’d decided, as he’d undoubtedly try to counter it with some argument about how it was too dangerous or I wouldn’t be strong enough yet, and since no amount of fighting and disagreeing was going to change my mind, there was no point.

We were topside, we were alive, the sun was shining down on us, and I would save Keel. The end.

“We should get going,” I noted. “If we stay stopped on the side of the road too long, we’ll attract attention – and cops.”

Keel leaned down and brushed his lips gently over mine, and my every nerve ending sprung to attention, even the ones in my toes. I was receiving frequency Keel and it made me feel stupid happy. He returned to the driver’s seat, and a minute later, we were accelerating back up to highway speed.

“If you’re hungry, there’s some food in the bag by your feet,” Keel told me.

I bent over, retrieving the white plastic shopping bag, which was full of convenience-store snacks, and plucked a stick of beef jerky out of it.

“I can’t believe I ruined your last day,” I said, gnawing on the leathery strip of meat. I wondered how Keel had explained away his injuries and bloodstained face to the clerk. And where exactly he’d gotten the money to pay for this.

“Ruined how? You saved my life.”

“It just should have been better than this, more special.”

“Mills,” Keel said, adamant yet surprisingly gentle, “most of the day I was convinced you weren’t going to make it. Absolutely nothing could be better than seeing you pull through.”

I blushed. I’d felt exactly the same way about him.

“So what’s deal with the sunlight?” I said, unable to resist asking any longer.

“No idea,” Keel said, “When dawn came, I pulled over into a wooded area, figuring the trees would provide enough shade, and if not, I could probably find a vacant shed or cabin to lay low in for the day. But then nothing happened – no burn or discomfort or anything. In fact, the sun felt absolutely incredible on my skin. Maybe it only affects us after the transition.”

“Could be,” I allowed, popping the last bite of beef jerky into my mouth and shoving the empty wrapper into the hard plastic pocket on the van’s door, before immediately returning to the bag to dig out a Kit Kat bar. Keel’s UV tolerance could just as likely be the result of our new connection, but we were so hopelessly entangled now on so many different levels that we’d probably never find out for sure.  And maybe that was okay; maybe not everything about us needed explaining and defining. Though I was certain my father was going to feel differently. Could he really hate me for loving who I loved? Especially when that person had saved my life?

I shoved that unsettling thought into the back of my head, then reached out to turn up the radio. I would worry about saving Keel first, and about my father later, but for now, I just wanted to enjoy my newfound freedom. I unfastened my seat belt and scooted across the front seat of the van towards Keel, who immediately wrapped his arm protectively around me.

It would have been an absolutely perfect moment if we hadn’t been so wounded and filthy, but it was still pretty damn good.

No matter what anyone said, this was where I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to be there with.

“No regrets,” I whispered, tilting my head up slightly so that my lips grazed Keel’s ear as I spoke those words.

“No regrets,” Keel concurred, pulling me even closer.

Together we watched the sun set over the vast, green treeline. 

Night was coming.

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