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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23. The Beginning of the End

 

PART 3: JUNE

Chapter 21: The Beginning of the End

Fate was fate, and acceptance proved liberating for both of us.

The next four weeks were magic, and filled with it too.

Amazingly, we’d stopped fighting – except of course when I was practicing, and Keel had to go all scary-vamp-guy on me. The rest of our time together was spent hanging out in his room (if I was too tired after spellcasting to do anything else) or sneaking around the compound indulging in Keel’s newfound, if slightly reckless, verve for life. Our exploration gave me a chance to test out my powers in more practical and stickier situations, though it didn’t take long to discover that I was a lot more effective at wielding them for bloodshed and pyrotechnics than subterfuge – a reality that almost got us caught more than once. Thankfully, being royalty seemed to mean that Keel had a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card, and whenever things got a little too close for comfort, I’d end up hiding around a corner or in some darkened room while he made up excuses for why he was where ever we were at. His lies always voiced with perfect, unwavering authority, as if the guards should feel guilty for wasting his time with their stupid questions. Once he was done berating and belittling them, they skulked off, far too embarrassed to go and report their encounter with the prince to their superiors – which was exactly how he planned it.

I'd believed Keel’s words about having to watch what he did, when and around whom, but after two or three of these encounters, I suspected he may have been exaggerating. Maybe it was true for his father, Boras and the council, but dealing with the rest of the Nosferatu, he proved himself a master manipulator and perfectly capable little liar.

I didn't know whether to be disappointed or impressed by that. Like everything else with him, it complicated things. 

Keel slept two days and spent every third with me. Mostly his visits didn’t coincide with his father’s feedings, though when they did, I was usually too drained and listless to do any magic, and once too bruised and torn up to even consider standing under the pounding spray of the shower.

That particular night, I’d adamantly refused to leave the cell, even after Keel unshackled me and offered to carry me through the prison in his arms. The King had finally taken his rage, over the “uselessness” of my blood, out on me. And this time Boras didn’t step in to stop him. By the third meaty, glistening chunk the King ripped out of my torso with his fangs, I was barely able to contain my boiling temper. All I'd wanted to do was blast back from my safe place, embrace the agony of my freshly rent flesh and command my blood to eat its way out of him, dissolving everything in its path – bone, muscle, flesh, sinew, tissue, skin – until all that was left of my captor and tormentor was a quivering heap of unidentifiable gristle on the cold concrete floor. But I couldn’t or, rather, wouldn’t do that. Not even if he tore me apart limb from limb. 

I would not be the one who put Keel on the throne at seventeen.

I’d messed up his life enough already. Even if a lot of it had been his own damned fault.

Keel had been so angry when he’d shown up in my cell the next day and surveyed the new scars his father had added to my personal topography that it’d made me laugh. This only made him rant and scowl and pace more until I reminded him that not too long ago, he’d thought about me exactly the same way – as a thing to be taken, consumed, owned and used. And not too long from now, he might feel that way again.

Keel had shoved his hands deep into his pockets and stared at his sneakers when I called him on that, but he didn’t try to convince me otherwise. Neither of us knew who he would be post-transition, but if our training exercises were any indication, he’d follow in his father’s footsteps: callous, cruel and controlling.

Hell, even now he was possessive, but our weeks together had moulded it into something mostly protective. I was starting to suspect that Keel’s humanity – not unlike my magic – worked like a muscle, and the more he used it, the stronger and more pervasive it became, even without the direct influence of my blood. I didn’t feel like property around him anymore. I felt like Mills, or at least the sorcerer version of myself that I was becoming. I had an identity again, one he constantly encouraged me to explore and develop. But I didn’t have any illusions about the future.

And that’s why I was sticking to my plan of busting out and going home. Finally! With no one’s help but my own. Screw my father and the rest of the sorcerers, they were useless and I didn’t need them anymore anyway, not after they’d left me in here to be vampire chow, and worse. They could go to hell for all I cared. I had magic without them. 

In what turned out to be a rare stroke of luck, the King kept himself in check for his latest – and last! – feeding, meaning I didn’t have to waste my energy on healing when I was on the brink of a jailbreak that would probably take all the reserves I had and then maybe still a miracle to pull off. But I was much more confident now. Each time I faced the coal-eyed, vampiric fury of Nosferatu Keel, my power and my hold over it grew, and by the time we’d moved into offensive spells – his idea, not mine, surprisingly – I wasn’t the only one getting hurt.

Though that had another unforeseen drawback.

If I had to heal Keel as well, which required a far greater amount of exertion from me, now that our blood bond was fading, I’d be toast for the rest of the day. Completely sacked out and riding the Snoozeville Express. So, this past week I’d given up on practicing altogether, except for the spells I could pull off in my cell alone. I told myself that this was to make sure I was amply rested for the the break out, but that wasn’t entirely true. Nosferatu Keel was simply not the Keel I wanted to spend my final days here with.

Even so, there never seemed to be enough time for us. The weeks blew by like a hurricane, filled with stories of the world above and wistful speculation about how our lives might have been different if we were different, and not supernatural. It was almost as if Keel had channelled his hunger for blood into a ravenous need for details about the human world; it didn’t matter how minor, he sponged them up and kept demanding more. Occasionally, he’d stop me to lament about something he would never experience: sunrise, roller coasters, a trip on an airplane, movies. I couldn’t believe that the Nosferatu had no fiction – written or staged. So it'd taken me a really long time to explain Interview with the Vampire, the concept of stories proving harder to grasp for him than anything else in his box of precious human trinkets.

“If they don’t know about our existence, why do they write about supernatural creatures?” he’d asked, leading us to the topic of human folklore, a  form of storytelling Keel did understand. When I described the various myths and legends to him, he immediately began making connections and speculating that perhaps they had been born out of contact – either intended or accidental – with actual supernatural beings.

“Could be,” I’d allowed. It certainly wasn’t impossible that the first monster stories might have been rooted in something real, before they were warped and re-invented by the overactive imagination of mankind for millennia.

Those brainy, philosophical afternoons spend lounging on his bed were some of my favourites. There was something about sharing, learning and just being in each other’s company that felt completely normal, as if, apart from the fantastical subject matter, they were conversations that could have taken place anywhere. Sometimes Keel would rest his head on my thighs while we talked, and I’d find myself tempted to trace the line of his cheekbones with my forefinger and stroke his soft brown hair. Conspiring firmed up the bonds of our friendship and made the boundaries I’d slammed down between us ever more difficult to maintain.

And now we were here. The eye of the storm. The calm before the end. The time for goodbyes. And fate didn’t give a crap that we don’t know how to say them – or that maybe we didn’t want to yet.

Keel had already warned me that he wouldn’t be able to come down during the last half-week before his transition, explaining that it would be filled with pomp and circumstance and spectacle – the kind that wouldn’t be rivalled until he eventually ascended to the throne. For those last four days, he’d be kept on a strictly regimented, never-alone itinerary. So this was it. Game over.

I choked up every time I allowed myself to linger on the finality of it for too long. For all the accepting, part of me had desperately hoped that I'd come up with an alternate solution before time ran out. But I was still drawing a blank. I’d even grilled Keel about the Nosferatu histories and insisted that we scour the museum library, looking for a loophole to our predicament – a way he could still be Keel and not die. But the books stymied us too. What I wanted just wasn’t possible. Maybe this is why he humoured my efforts, or perhaps he wanted it too, only duty and obligation prevented him from putting it into words. 

And now we’d have to say goodbye. Nothing and no one was going to spare us from those seven letters.

I’d already rushed through my shower, unwilling to waste a single second longer than I had to on trivial things today. But now, sitting cross-legged on Keel’s bed with him sprawled out awkwardly beside me, neither of us was talking. The gravitas of what lay ahead rendered us mute and immobile. It was like we were breaking up, times a hundred. And we’d never even kissed. In fact, in all these weeks, neither of us had brought up that night when I’d first wrapped my arms around him – or how, after that, it just became something we did. It was one of the few human things that Keel didn’t demand a detailed explanation for.

Even now, my knee was pressing gently into his side. Contact was an anchor. Our anchor. And tonight we’d have to raise it and allow ourselves to drift apart, away into the rest of our lives. Two ships on opposite trajectories, with an ocean between us evermore.

“I feel like I’m dying,” Keel groaned. Those were the first words either of us had spoken in more than half an hour.

Though I could only see his face in profile, it was enough to tell his expression was artificially stoic, too tight. He still had difficulty accepting his feelings as anything more than weakness, human fragility, but I thought I was finally starting to get through to him. Too bad it was pointless – just like all the hard work I’d put into tenth grade. It’d be summer soon, and even if I made it home, there’d be no way to salvage the school year. I'd be stuck repeating it in the fall. 

I’d started to think about all those things again now that I was busting out. Life back in New York undoubtedly would be different after everything that had happened, and without Fredrick, but what else had changed? Had Anna finally landed Henry? Had Jenny become a total recluse in the aftermath of my disappearance? What did they think had happened to me? What had they been told? Had Estella said that I’d died, or that I’d merely gone missing, been kidnapped? Was my sudden reappearance going to totally blow their minds?

“I should be excited about the rebirth, yet it’s like all the air is being stomped out of my lungs,” Keel confessed, idly picking at a loose thread on his comforter. I knew what he meant. I felt the exact same way. I should be jubilant at the prospect of getting back to my real life, but it wasn’t that cut and dried. It also wasn’t that “real” anymore, now that I knew I wasn’t entirely human.

“It feels like that day in the utility room when we went to see my mother, but that was you projecting this feeling on me,” he continued. “This time it’s me. I feel this. How can I feel this?”

I frowned. I hated watching him wrestling with the side effects of being half human. Not only because it was those human things that had endeared me to him and cemented our connection this past month, but because I didn’t agree that humanity was a fatal flaw. Having spent my entire life living amongst regular people, I knew how tough and resilient they could be. And that was something Keel would never understand, not like I did, not without seeing it for himself. And I doubted the crown prince – or the King – for that matter spent much time outside of the compound. Their presence was too vital here.

So Keel’s curiosity about the outside world would remain just that, a curiosity, and after his transition and my departure, it’d be one he’d be cut off from entirely. Though maybe he wouldn’t care anymore then. Maybe Nosferatu Keel would take that chest of trinkets and pitch it in the trash, needing nothing in his new vampiric life but blood and the promise of the throne.

“It’s okay,” I told him, reaching out and gently placing my hand on his back. “You’re supposed to feel like this. I feel it too. This whole thing sucks.”

We fell silent again. It was companionable, but heavy. There was so much that had gone unsaid between us.

“I think I understand why we’re kept so sheltered from the human world now,” Keel said, rolling over and propping his wrists behind his head. “It’s so intoxicating, it makes you want more. Just like you make me want more.”

If Keel had been a normal guy, he would have tried to suck face with me or get in my pants ages ago, but with no concept of flirting, dating or even kissing all he had were words to try to untangle all his confusing, new, decidedly un-Nosferatu emotions. This was a good thing, I’d concluded, because I was no longer sure I would have stopped him if he’d made a move. He wasn’t the only one having complicated feelings. But acting on them would have only made this harder, if not impossible. There was, after all, no point in starting what could never be finished. Or was there?

“In five days, everything you want is going to change,” I reminded him. He wasn’t the only one who could seem stoic and unemotional. Living with the Nosferatu had made me a damn fine actress.

Keel slid his right hand across the bed into mine, entwining our fingers, the electricity so diminished now that I no longer needed to dampen its charge. “I know, but I don’t want it to.”

“If you don’t go through with this, you’ll die,” I whispered, even though I considered his transition just as much a death as the physical kind. I hadn’t kept that a secret, but there was no point in rubbing it in now either. He was miserable enough already.

“I know that too,” he grumbled. Keel had done a terrific job of avoiding the future for the entirety of the last month, only acknowledging this day and the inevitable ones that would follow it when I demanded that he did. The rest of the time, he was happily in denial.

 Is this all my fault? I wondered. How long would I hate myself if I decided it was? How long would I feel guilt?

The Keel who’d snuck into my cell that first night had known exactly who he was and what he’d wanted, and I’d deep-sixed that, and replaced it with doubt.

But hadn’t Arthos said that doubt was wisdom? I had trouble swallowing that, especially today. What use was doubt when we were helpless to choose any other trajectory?

“Is this really how you want to spend our last day?” I asked him. If he was dead set on moping, there was nothing I could do to stop him, but I didn’t want to remember him like this: lost and defeated. Even if it was so incredibly human.

Keel shrugged. “I don’t care how I spend it, as long as I’m with you.”

His fingers were still all tangled up in mine so I gave them a tentative squeeze of reassurance. “Me too,” I admitted. “At least, by next week it won’t feel like this anymore – for you anyways.”

“And how are you going to look back at our time together?” Keel said quietly, as if he dreaded my answer.

It was a weighty question, and one I spontaneously and impetuously answered without words. Screw the consequences, I thought brusquely, afraid if I hesitated even for a second that I'd chicken out. I pushed myself forward, up onto my hands and knees, then leaned down and pressed my lips to his – finally admitting that I wasn’t willing to leave without knowing what it was like to kiss him, at least once. I’d wanted to do it ever since that day in the ductwork where he’d talked me down from my panic attack and taught me to tame the electricity, maybe even before that. As foolish as it was, at some point, I’d come down with one hell of a crush. On a monster. What an absolute train wreck.

Keel's mouth was warm and supple, and a small sigh escaped from it into mine.

“What–“ he started when I broke contact. His eyes wide with shock and wonder and a yearning so raw it might just be powerful enough to temporarily drown out the ever-present blood lust. In my fantasies, he never looked quite so blindsided; instead, he’d reach out, pull me tight against him, and then urge my lips apart, until I lost myself in the moment and gave in to everything I shouldn’t.

It didn’t happen like that, though.

“Shhh…” I whispered, curling up beside him, wrapping his arm around me and resting my head on his shoulder. I didn’t want to discuss what I’d just done, or what it meant, but I did kind of want to do it again.

“You’ve told me so much about life topside these last couple of weeks, but I suspect there’s a lot more you’re not telling me,” Keel said, opting for a less direct approach.

“Maybe,” I conceded, feeling a little guilty about the sly grin that was spreading across my face. We should be mourning, after all, but flirting was a lot more fun, even if it was inherently dangerous. 

Keel’s arm tightened around me, forcing me to turn towards him. As soon as I tilted my head upwards to see what he was doing, he reciprocated the kiss. This time, I was rendered breathless. Instantly hyperaware of him, me, our closeness, the way my heart was pounding in my chest, and how my whole body felt as if it were vibrating like a tuning fork that had just been struck – answering his call.

I’d had boyfriends before, and even made out with a few guys who weren’t, but it was nothing like this. This was yet another form of electricity. Keel’s embrace ignited my whole body, made my heart blossom in my chest. And he didn’t even know what he was doing.

He was clumsy and completely inexperienced, but his proximity clouded my mind in a fog of desire just the same.

You should stop this, that nagging voice in my head told me, before it gets out of hand. I tuned it out. Maybe that’s exactly what I wanted. Keel had his escapism; could this be mine?

Forget duty and responsibility and common sense: this was about us, just us. About how we felt in this moment, and about no longer denying those feelings, regardless of the futility of them. One night was better than none, wasn’t it?

Nothing could hurt more than it already did, could it?

And oh, how easy it was to talk myself out of the right thing to do when his lips were crushed up against mine and his hands were buried deep in my hair. If we could have been frozen in amber just like this, it might’ve been heaven.

I parted my lips, unable to resist kissing him more deeply. Keel’s body tensed beside mine, awakening and reacting instinctively to my invitation. He may not have been versed in seduction, but the human part of him did on some primal level understand what was happening between us.

My tongue darted across the sharp tips of his fangs, and I paused for a moment, wondering what exactly we were getting ourselves into here, before deciding that I didn’t care. For one night – this, our last night – my better judgement could stay home.

“Mills,” Keel gasped, pulling away from me, flushed and breathing heavy.

I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, especially not if he was planning on trotting out the voice of reason.

“Shut up, Keel,” I said. “Just kiss me.”

I wasn’t sure if he knew the word, but if he didn’t he was smart enough to put two and two together, and locked lips with me once more. Things quickly became more heated after that, as we rolled around on top of his comforter, seeking ways to close whatever negligible distance still existed between us. Exploring. Always exploring. My hands roamed up over his back and shoulders, as if they were trying to memorize the contour of every bone and muscle beneath his hoodie, a sense memory I could take topside with me when I left. And one I already knew I’d inevitably compare every other guy to, forevermore. Human guys. Guys who were nothing like Keel.

Suddenly, my mouth was filled with the vaguely metallic taste of blood – my blood.

Crap, I thought, forcefully yanking myself out of our make-out session. Keel’s gonna screw up his transition; what was I thinking? All this being careful, for what? So I could just throw myself at him and ruin everything?

He’d nicked my tongue with one of his fangs, maybe not intentionally, but that didn’t matter to his Nosferatu side, who’d clearly tasted it as well. That part of him tried to reinitiate the kiss immediately, almost overpowering me in the process. Keel may have ceased drinking my blood, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to, maybe more than ever now that I’d brought a secondary form of lust into the equation. I spit a glob of bloody saliva into my hand and thrust it out towards him in warning.

“Keel, no,” I barked, hoping the sharpness of his name and my adamant denial would snap him out of it. “You can’t. You’re about to transition.”

“Don’t care,” he growled, grabbing my waist and pulling me towards him, before trying again to recapture my bruised and swollen lips with his.

I slapped him. The spittle from my palm smeared across his cheek. “Yes, you do. You know you do. Now stop this, before I’m forced to make you stop.”

Keel’s dark Nosferatu eyes sized me up. I glared back at his hunger refusing to show it fear. I wasn’t afraid of him so much anymore as I was afraid of hurting him, so it was easy to hold my ground. Our practice sessions had proved that when it came down to it, I’d always beat him in a fight. Magic trumped heightened reflexes and strength every time. I supposed this was why my people were hunters.

Keel reached up and wiped his cheek with his hand, then shoved his bloody fingers into his mouth, sucking on them as if they were covered in batter or something equally delicious. Then he blinked away the vampire, just like that.

“Sorry,” he said, retreating to the far side of the bed, out of my reach. The sudden distance made me ache. Not that we’d be able to pick up where we left off now. Not with blood in play. “I tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“Maybe I was sick of being so damned careful all the time,” I bemoaned. Passion made a lot of people stupid, so why not me too? “I like you, Keel, probably too much, and –”

“But you won’t like me in four days,” he said, cutting me off.

 He was right. And it hurt. A complementary ache to go along with the one already rattling around in my chest. 

 “I like you like this,” I said.

“And that, what we just did?”

“A human thing. What humans do when they like each other.”

“Amazing,” he said, and I tried not giggle. His expression quickly turned serious again. “It’s getting close to sunset. We need to get you back.” It still kind of blew my mind that Keel always knew what time of day it was, despite being underground perpetually. Weird Nosferatu trait, that. 

“Already?” I asked, my voice thick with disappointment and hastily subdued lust. I should have guessed that for the Nosferatu blood and passion were hopelessly intertwined pleasures, and that Keel’s desire would always be tainted by the monster within. A monster that would soon be out, full-time.

“Yeah, already,” he confirmed.

I sighed. Why was it only the horrible times that dragged and dragged? Just like the next four days would, when I'd be counting down the hours to Keel’s transition and my breakout. “Okay,” I said, getting up and straightening my rumpled clothes. I could do this. I could be strong and say goodbye.

“Before we go, though, I want to give you something,” Keel said, pausing to open his night-table drawer and quickly palming something from inside.

I stared at his tightly clenched fist with open curiosity, wondering what on earth he was about to hand me. He rounded the bed and pressed what felt like a folded square of paper into my palm. When he let go, I looked down and saw that that was exactly what it was.

“What’s this?” I asked, even as I began unfolding it. Seconds later I was staring down at a ten-digit number.

“Your father’s phone number.”

I looked up at Keel blankly, barely processing what I’d just heard.

“I know what you are going to do,” he said, his dazzling green eyes fixed unwaveringly on mine.

“You do?” I asked. “How?” I probably should have denied it, but I couldn’t lie, not after what he’d just given me. It was strange how earlier I'd wanted nothing to do with my father, but now that I held his number in my hand, I couldn't imagine not dialing it. 

“Because if our places were reversed, I’d do the exact same thing,” Keel said.

"So you’re not going to stop me?” 

He shook his head, regret and sadness intrinsic in its slow swivel. “Your world sounds incredible, Mills. And at least one of us should get to live in it.”

The combination of strength and anguish etched on his face broke what was left of my already fractured heart. I flung myself into his arms and sobbed. If I deserved freedom, so did he.

But life was unfair. As were goodbyes.

So I just ended up saying thank you over and over again, while trying futilely to put on a brave face.

Keel did only marginally better. 

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