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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34. The Family Way

 

 Chapter 32: The Family Way

Ephraim kept his silence the entire drive back to the safe house; he broke it only long enough to tell me to stay there until he returned. When I asked where he was going, he simply said, “To do what needs to be done.”

I sat on the steps of the porch for a long time after he drove off, staring up at the starry night sky and thinking. Things had gotten away from Keel and I again, sent us skittering in brand new uncharted directions.

Though I’d always known it was coming, I’d refused to imagine a future without him. Hope was a hard thing to kill, especially when he'd played such a huge role in its rebirth, so I’d clung to the desperate belief that things would work themselves out – since they had, more or less, thus far. But this latest turn of events felt both surreal and world-shattering. And final.

Yet, if Keel had to transition, this was the best possible way.

He’d get his life back, his destiny, his purpose. Everything he wanted.

But he’ll be Nosferatu, the voice in my head chimed in, uninvited.

Still, if this blood contract thing worked, maybe I’d get mine back too. Unless the sorcerers were next in line for a go at me.

At some point my life had become a wild water raft ride down a raging river, careening from moment to moment completely out of control. All I could do was hang on as hard as I could and pray I didn’t drown.

When the mosquitos became too persistent, buzzing tunelessly at my ears and leaving a half dozen tiny welts on my legs and arms, I fled indoors. The lobby floors were spotless once more, but the walls still bore evidence of Bruce’s brutally efficient takedown of the hunter-tracker. Soon they’d be whitewashed too, then all traces of what had happened here would be gone. Just like Keel.

Keel who’d stood here and protected me. Keel who’d been willing to lose everything to get me home.

It didn’t matter where I looked, all I saw were endings. And last times where there should have only been firsts.

If it were possible for a heart to break in slow motion that’s exactly what mine was doing – one memory at a time.

I’d been dumped before, but it was nothing like this.

I reached out and grabbed the banister; it was all I could do to stay upright. My body ached and quivered and felt as if it was going to implode, or shake itself into a hundred thousand gory little pieces. Anguish took hold around my heart like a clenched fist and twisted. Nothing felt like it would be right ever again.

I wasn’t ready for us to be over. Not at all.

“Are you okay?” said a voice from the hall.

I turned and caught sight of Bruce sticking his head out of the basement doorway.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling absolutely defeated.

Bruce studied me for a moment, then waved me over. “Come on. You look like you could use some company.”

“But Ephraim said –”

“Don’t worry about it. Mr. Sayre says a lot of things.”

I couldn’t help cracking a tiny smile at that, and when Bruce disappeared back into the basement, I followed him. The well-worn wood staircase opened up into an open-concept, one-bedroom apartment crammed with a ton of gear and an arsenal that rivalled the King’s – both of them.

Screens broadcasting black-and-white images from security cameras all over the house and property – including the front porch, and entryway – were mounted in a bank on the wall; beneath them, a long table held five desktop computers and three laptops. I tried to remember exactly what Ephraim had said Bruce did for him, as this was too much tech for just security.

The opposite wall housed the weapons; some were displayed openly, while others were secreted away in a series of custom-made wooden cabinets. I recognized many of the pieces from the weapon rack in Keel’s room. It suddenly made complete sense why he and Bruce had hit it off so well.

“You were watching me?” I asked.

“I was doing my job; you just happened to be in my line of sight. Want a pop?”

“Sure,” I said, and Bruce retreated to the tiny kitchen in the back corner of the basement.

While he was gone I took in the rest of the place. The apartment was T-shaped: to left was the kitchen and a couple of rooms with closed doors. Directly ahead, a spacious living room made up most of the lower level. It sported a cluster of worn, but comfy-looking couches with several small mountains of ratty wool blankets flung over their backs, and one of the biggest flatscreen TVs I had ever seen. Lastly, to the right was Bruce’s bedroom. The only part of the place that was Spartan and minimalist.

All in all, I got the impression that he didn’t have company very often. His lair had a distinctly geeky college dorm kind of feel.

I made my way over to the couches, and sat down on the scuffed-up leather one. The sticky-looking glass-top coffee table directly in front of me boasted a selection of Xbox games and weapons magazines, and several empty, gape-mouthed bags of potato chips.

“Sorry ’bout the mess,” Bruce said when he returned.

“Doesn’t bother me any,” I told him, as I cracked open the can of Coke he handed me. After months of living in squalor, my views on cleanliness were admittedly skewed.

“So you want to talk about what happened tonight?” he asked, settling into the navy-blue denim loveseat opposite me and twisting the cap off a bottle of beer.

That was all the cajoling I needed. The whole sordid thing poured out of me like a water balloon that had sprung a leak: the more I talked, the faster the words came. I didn’t just tell him about what happened at the motel – omitting the sex, of course – but everything: my kidnapping, my months at the compound, my escape, the Nosferatu I slaughtered, and how I fell in love with Keel.

I rambled on and on. It was freeing in a way I never imagined it could be. These things were no longer mine alone to carry. And Bruce was strong – and wise – enough to hear them, I was sure of it.

When I finished my Coke, he stopped me for a moment and retrieved another. Then he waved me on. I don’t know how long I talked for, but when I was done my throat was sore and raspy, as if I’d been screaming my face off at a rock concert all night.

“That’s some story,” Bruce said. There was respect in his voice, and sympathy. Then, as if he feared the moment was about to become a bit too maudlin, he quickly added, more than a little snidely, “Just proves nothing good ever comes from tangling with supes.”

“But I am one,” I reminded him.

“Can’t help what you were born.”

“Then neither can they.”

“But think about it,” Bruce said. “Were you or were you not doing just fine until all of them showed up?”

I pictured my life before. Days filled with studying for tests, doing homework, babysitting Mikey, and finding new ways to shirk out of going to the mall to window-shop for clothes. It was definitely simpler, but simple wasn’t everything.

“Maybe I was,” I admitted. “But I was also living a lie.”

“And who’s to say that’s not okay?”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I took another sip of pop and changed the subject. “Where do you think Ephraim went?”

“He’s probably meeting with the League of Sorcerers.”

“What!?” I said, shooting out of my seat, instantly panicked. I thought I was supposed to be safe.

“Calm down,” Bruce said, gently, and I lowered myself back down onto the couch. “It’s not what you think. If Keel made a deal for your freedom, you can bet he included some terms for the sorcerers too. I suspect Ephraim is off presenting them.”

“What if they don’t agree?” I said. Would that mean death was back on the table?

“Why don’t we worry about that if and when it happens?”

I wanted to tell him that was easier said than done, but I stopped myself. Bruce didn’t strike me as the type who sat around and fretted about stuff that hadn’t happened yet; he was a doer, and I wanted to be more like that. I wanted to get back to making my own fate.

“I need to go and do my rounds,” Bruce said. “Feel free to stay down here. If you’re tired, you can crash on one of the couches.”

“Hey, Bruce,” I said, as he paused in front of his arsenal, retrieved a handgun, checked its safety, then slid it into the back of his jeans. “Could you me leave your phone?”

He gave me questioning look.

“I left the one you sent us with Keel,” I explained. “I told him to call me at your number, if he could. I hope that was okay.”

Bruce shook his head at me. “Sometimes I forget you’re still a teenage girl. Tell you what: if he calls, I’ll circle right back.”

“Okay,” I agreed, and Bruce vanished up the stairs.

“The remote’s on the coffee table, if you want to watch TV,” he hollered down at me, then the basement door slammed shut, and I was alone again.

Too restless to veg out in front of the gargantuan wall-sized television, I returned to the bank of security monitors and followed Bruce’s progress on the screens as he patrolled the property. No wonder he’d gotten a jump on the hunter-tracker: he’d probably had a bead on him long before the vampire even made it to the house.

As Bruce rounded the corner to the rear of the building, he waved up at the closest camera. He knew I was watching! How? Was I that transparent?

I was about to step away from the screens and pretend I hadn’t been looking, when I noticed Ephraim’s minivan roll up the drive. Suddenly the idea of being caught in the basement, without Bruce around to vouch that I had permission to be down there, terrified me. I rushed across the room, snatched up the backpack and raced back upstairs. Once in the hall, I made a sharp left into the kitchen and pretended I was rooting around in the fridge, looking for something to eat. 

I heard Ephraim come in through the front door and march down the hall straight towards me. I turned my head just in time to see him appear in the kitchen doorway. I searched his face for any indication of how things had gone with the League, but his expression was as tight and controlled as ever. It made me wonder if he played poker. He’d probably own at it.

“Come with me,” he said, and like almost everything that came out of his mouth it sounded like a command.

I closed the fridge, without taking any food, and followed Ephraim back out into the foyer. There, I stopped and watched as he fiddled with the built-in coat rack near the front door, until there was a soft woosh and the whole thing shifted slightly. He gave it another heave, and it slid towards me as if on tracks, then Ephraim disappeared. I rounded the cabinet and saw that it was actually a cleverly disguised hidden door.

I stepped through it, and the wall unit promptly rolled back into place behind me with a dull rumbling thud, startling me.

It was just Ephraim and me now. Was this a trap? I frantically searched the room for any indication that it was, but it didn’t look like one.

It looked like a study: all four walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling black bookcases, their contents protected by thick stained-glass doors, each one boasting a tiny brass lock in the centre. A hulking ornate ebony desk was positioned in the middle of the room. Ephraim slid into an expensive-looking leather chair behind it and steepled his fingers at me.

When he didn’t invite me to take a seat, I invited myself, choosing one of the antique red velvet armchairs that faced his desk, as I assumed that at some point he’d want to talk. What I really wanted to do was get a closer look at the books, but I didn’t dare.

When Ephraim finally spoke, he sounded surprisingly introspective and considerably less abrasive than usual. It was a side of him I hadn’t seen before, nor had thought existed. “You very much remind me of Bruce,” he said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. “He was not a lot older than you are now when I saved his life. He fought hard against this world at first, too. Demanded that things be arranged on his own terms. But he had me to make him understand that it didn’t work that way. You had no one but a mad Nosferatu king and a foolish boy prince.”

“You just figured that out now?” I asked, sarcasm slipping into my voice unbidden.

Ephraim straightened and gave me a severe look. “I think you fail to see the gravity of this situation. Laws have been broken – serious ones – and by allowing the two of you to walk out of here the other night, I became complicit in those crimes.”

I blinked at him, not understanding. How was that possible? He hadn’t even been conscious when we’d made our escape. The sorcerers couldn’t possibly such hard-asses, could they?

“I’m sorry,” I said, but it came out sounding more like a question than an apology.

Ephraim sighed. “Nothing to be done about it now. Besides, that vampire of yours has already undone much of the damage.”

“Pardon?” That last bit caught me off guard.

“He made the League an offer it could not turn down.”

“Which was?” I asked, when he failed to elaborate.

“Nothing I’m permitted to divulge.”

“What do you mean you’re not permitted to divulge that? If I’m part of what’s being bargained here, I deserve to know the details.” I glared at him across the desk.

“No, you don’t,” Ephraim said firmly. “All you need to know is if you sign this pact with the Nosferatu, I’ve been authorized to offer you another on behalf of the sorcerers. You will be excommunicated, but given a conditional pardon.”

“What’s that mean exactly?”

“It means you will not be held accountable for your crimes, provided you meet the stipulations given. You will walk free.”

I wanted to argue that I hadn’t committed any crimes, but it would have been pointless since the sorcerers and I clearly had different views on what was criminal, what was necessary, and what was just the messy business of life. “Stipulations?” I asked.

“You will return to the life amongst humans, and spend the rest of your days as one of them. Should you get in trouble with magic or interfere with supernatural business again, the pardon will be forfeit and you will be brought to trial.”

“So you’re pretty much asking me to shut up, go home and forget that any of this exists – for rest of my life?”

Ephraim said nothing. But that was all the answer I needed.

“And if I say no?”

“Then you must answer for your crimes now.”

Checkmate. Free will was still an illusion.

“What if I want to learn more about sorcery?” I asked. How was I just supposed to forget who I was and turn off the fount that I’d tapped?

“You can’t,” Ephraim said. “Not officially and not in any sanctioned manner. The League will not recognize you.”

This whole thing felt more like a legal proceeding than a father-daughter chat. “So that’s it? That’s what you brought me in here to tell me? That no matter what I do, I’ll never have a place in your world?” I got up and paced the room. It always seemed to help Keel think, but it wasn’t doing squat for me.

How was I supposed to agree to this? I wasn’t just being asked to give up who I was, I was being told I had to extinguish any hope of ever learning anything more about my real family. My physical existence in return for my life. The lie I’d railed so fervently against was now mine to embrace. That, or death.

The stupid thing was, it had always been about getting home, but now that I was faced with the imminent reality of returning to that life, I found I was second-guessing myself. I feared the human world would never seem big enough, whole enough, now that I had seen what was beyond the pale.

“The rules exist for a reason,” Ephraim said. “Human technology is evolving faster than ever and it is growing increasingly difficult to keep the existence of our kind, as well as the other races, secret. Extinction day may well occur in our lifetime. The laws exist to prevent that from happening – or, at least, delay it.”

“Extinction day?”

“The likely result of humans discovering our existence.”

Keel had mentioned this too, though when he’d talked about it, it hadn’t had a name. It was more of a nebulous boogeyman in the dark.

Still, I was wise to Ephraim’s tactics. They were same ones that Boras and Arthos had employed on Keel: you have to do this for the good of the supernatural world. Though, in my case, I didn’t know why Ephraim was bothering. Did he really think I would choose death?

“Are we done here then?” I asked, turning to leave. I’d sign on the dotted line, because I had to do it, but I didn’t want to be in Ephraim’s secret office a second longer. It sucked at my soul, just like what I was agreeing to give up.

“No,” Ephraim said. The word was short, sharp, and pinned my feet in place.

“What’s left to say?” I said.

“We still need to discuss what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Oh yeah, the contract. The other one I had no choice about.

I slunk back to my chair and fixed Ephraim with my gaze. “So tell me.”

“While any sorcerer can enter a blood contract – provided he or she has the approval of the League – Nosferatu law dictates that only kings can take part in such agreements. Once ratified, the contract is binding until one of the parties dies.”

“And you think this is going to work?” I asked. “That it will negate the…” I motioned towards my eyes.

Ephraim leaned forward, placing both of his hands on his desk. “No. It won’t. He’ll still feel the pull and so will you, but breaking a blood contract is a very grave matter and he’s hoping that knowing that will be enough to rein in his desires.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then it will be in your right to stop him – by whatever means are necessary,” Ephraim explained. “Additionally, the Nosferatu will be forbidden from any form of retaliation.” I flashed back on Keel and I in the shower, and how he made me promise that I would not hesitate to kill him, if it came to that. I shivered, despite the warmth of the room. Keel hadn't told me that the blood contract was just another shot in the dark; he'd had me believing that this was a genuine solution.

“What else do I need to know?” I asked.

“Keel will be crowned before the contract ritual takes place, as he must be king in order for it to be binding. The Nosferatu are drawing up the papers, but it is important that you read and study them before casting the spell that will lock in the terms. The ritual is conducted in private; no one will be there to advise you. If you are not careful,” Ephraim paused, and weighed his next words judiciously. “Well, we’re here now because of that very thing.”

So this is how it all had happened. Ephraim hadn’t paid close enough attention to minutia of his own contract. Now he was warning me not to make the same mistake.

“And that’s why no one came for me?”

Ephraim nodded, and for a split second he looked bone weary and much older than his years. “You were forfeit.”

Those three words almost annihilated me. Even though I’d already heard as much from Keel’s father, it was a million times harder hearing them uttered by my own. But I refused to let Ephraim see how much that stung so I steered the conversation back to the situation at hand. “What’s this spell I have to do?”

“You and the King will both be required to bleed into a special inkwell, a relic specifically designed for such rituals. Once you’ve done that, you must join the fluid on a cellular level, so that when each of you dips quill to blood and then to parchment, you are signing with an amalgam of your life forces. This will bind the contract between you until death.”

“And how do I join the cells?” This sounded much more complicated than anything I’d done before, including incinerating half an army of Nosferatu.

Ephraim opened the topmost drawer on the left side of his desk and retrieved a small brass key ring. He took it to the hulking bookshelf directly behind him and slid it into the lock. A minute later, he returned with an old tome that appeared to be bound in some kind of mottled animal hide. He flipped through its pages for ten or fifteen seconds before he found what he was looking for, then he passed it across the desk to me. “This will explain everything,” he said. “There’s also a passage you’ll need to memorize. I trust that won’t be a problem?”

I glanced down at the open page in front of me. At the top was the title "Pactum Sanguinis" in some kind of fancy calligraphy. While I wasn’t entirely certain what that meant, the rest appeared to be written in English, albeit a slightly antiquated and arcane version of it. The words had been added to the pages in ink, freehand. Luckily the penmanship was neat, legible and well-preserved. It would probably be a bit of a slog, but nothing I couldn’t handle. When I told Ephraim that, he seemed pleased, or maybe just slightly less surly than usual.

“Take the book upstairs with you,” he said, making his way back to the hidden door. “But don’t stay up all night reading. Tomorrow is an important day and you’re going to need your rest.”

I closed the book, careful to stick a finger between the pages Ephraim had pointed out to me so I wouldn’t lose my spot, and rose.

“What happens after tomorrow?” I asked, as the coat rack slid open.

“We get you installed back in New York.” The way he said it made it sound like I was a thing – an appliance or a piece of furniture – rather than a person. I bit my lip hard, wanting nothing more than to give him a piece of my mind, but I knew it would only make things worse. And I couldn’t handle worse right now.

I got as far as the stairs, when I stopped and turned around. Ephraim was sliding the wooden cabinet back into place. “I have one more question,” I said, but I didn’t unleash it until he’d turned and placed his full attention on me. “Who’s my mother?”

A pained expression flashed across Ephraim’s face, as if I’d just picked off a festering, long-unhealed scab.

“That’s a story for another time,” he said, shortly, as his mask of indifference rebuilt itself in front of my eyes.

“Do you mean that?” I asked.

Ephraim sighed, removed a black trench coat from one of the coat rack’s hooks and slid it on. I was still waiting for an answer when he disappeared out the front door.

I kicked the bottom rung of the banister angrily, then went back into the kitchen to retrieve the backpack. As I walked past the basement door, I thought about knocking and taking up Bruce on his offer of a crash space, but at the last second I decided against it. I had homework anyway.

Instead, I returned to the room that Keel and I had shared a couple nights earlier, and slid under the bed sheets with my clothes on, fighting the fresh wave of sadness that came with being here again. I placed the book on the mattress beside me, face down, pages open, and buried my face in Keel’s pillow and inhaled deeply, trying to catch some remaining trace of him, but the few hours we’d laid here hadn’t been enough to capture his scent.

It was yet another part of my life that was just gone.

The rest would come tomorrow.

How would I ever survive tomorrow?

I snatched up the book and started to read the pages that Ephraim had pointed out, in hopes of finding some small solace in the words that were written there.

As it turned out, I found much more than that.

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