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


22. The Safe Word


Chapter 20: The Safe Word

The second we were through the elevator doors that led to Keel’s room, I beelined for the training area.

He was still standing in the entryway staring after me when I spun around to face him from the middle of the exercise mats with an enormous grin plastered on my face.

“You wanted to come here for that?” he said, shoulders sagging in disappointment.

What had he been expecting?

“Not exactly,” I said. “I want to do magic, but we might need these, too.”

“I think you can harm me enough without weapons,” he opined half-seriously, perking up.

I laughed. It was an almost alien sound to me now, but it felt good and liberating, and a little like freedom. “Who said anything about harming you?” I teased. “I just want to see what else I can do.”

Keel closed the distance between us in a blink. He gave me an ebullient smile as he pried his sneakers off with his feet and kicked them to the edge of the mat. Guess shoes weren’t good for the vinyl. Not something I had to worry about. I hadn’t had footwear in months.

“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say that? What do you want to try?” He was so excited I half-expected him to start bouncing up and down.

I mentally thumbed through the list I’d made in my head. I couldn’t choose anything too confrontational, not right off the top anyway, or he’d figure out my plans in a nanosecond.

“Do you still have that book on sorcerers?” I asked, glancing towards the heaving bookshelf beside his desk. He’d said it was rudimentary, but we knew a lot more now, so maybe we could decipher some additional hints from its vagueness.

Keel shook his head. “I had to put it back. Couldn’t risk my father noticing it missing, or getting caught with it. Doesn’t matter: it was useless. Look how much we’ve figured out without it.”

I couldn’t deny that, but I didn’t want to waste the next thirty-two days on trial and error and floundering around in the dark.

I turned and walked towards the weapons rack, surveying the myriad sharp and pointy instruments of destruction housed there. Keel an expert in every one. It didn’t matter how fast a learner I was, my control over my magic was infantile in comparison. I paused and ran my fingers over the cool, polished surface of a sword’s blade. I needed to figure how to weaponize myself, and not just against the King and Keel, but any vampire – even the ones that weren’t regularly guzzling my blood. When I caught a glimpse of my face in the reflective steel surface, I froze, barely recognizing myself. My dark hair, mostly dry now, fell in dread-like tangles over my shoulders. If my escape plan succeeded I’d have to cut it all off: there was no way a brush was ever getting through that mess again. The fissures left on my cheek by the King’s claws had healed into four mountainous fleshy ridges, but most foreign of all were my eyes. There was a calculating hardness in them that’d I’d never seen there before; irrefutable evidence that whatever remaining childhood innocence I’d had was long gone now.

This Mills would do what she had to, but still…

I sneaked a peek at Keel; he was standing right where I'd left him, watching me study myself.

“You can pick it up if you want,” he said.

I slid my hand up to its ornate, dragon-embossed hilt and hoisted it off the rack, nearly dropping it and impaling my foot in the process. It was heavy. Really heavy. Keel chuckled as he came over and snatched it out of my hand. He danced around the mats with it, diving and ducking and jabbing as if he were fighting an actual opponent. Then he allowed his burgeoning Nosferatu reflexes to kick in and his movements blurred. I could expect this and more from the guards during my escape, and seeing it in action was crazy daunting. When Keel was done his little demonstration – show off! – he offered me the sword again. This time I grabbed it with both hands and raised it so that the blade was level with Keel’s nose. It wobbled precariously in my grip. I gave it a tentative swing and lost my balance.

“I think you better leave the weapons to me,” Keel said, helping me up.

“I just want to learn how to defend myself,” I told him, stubbornly, handing him the sword.

“You did just fine when I attacked you.”

“That’s because you drink my blood,” I reminded him. “What about all those Nosferatu that don’t?”

“Mills, you can’t go around attacking my people. You can’t let anyone know that you discovered your magic.”

“Don’t you think I know that? I’m not an idiot,” I protested. “But what if one of them tried to kill me?”

“Well, as soon as he drank your blood –”

“What if he didn’t drink my blood?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. You’re a real delicacy around here,” Keel said, as he replaced the sword in its slot on the rack, but not before giving it a quick rub-down with his sleeve to remove the smudges I’d left when I’d touched it.

“Umm, gross.”

You may think so, but it’s true. And I say that as someone who’s sampled it,” Keel said, smirking. That old mischievousness was back.

“I thought I was supposed to be learning magic here, not getting a culinary lesson.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, throwing up his hands.

I was relieved that he’d given in so easily. Hearing the vampires talk about how I tasted never failed to repulse me and that sentiment was not particularly useful at the moment.

I plunked myself down on the mat. It was far cushier than the ancient, stained mattress in my cell.

“How much do you know about the night I was kidnapped?” I asked.

“A bit,” Keel said, sitting down next to me, and stretching his legs out parallel to mine.

“My father had protected the cabin with some sort of force-field. I want to learn how to do that.”

“But it didn’t work,” Keel noted. “We got you anyways.”

“Yeah, but the one who touched it got burnt to a crisp.”

“And I’m supposed to be your guinea pig for that?” Keel said.

I shot him a withering look. “For a guy who was so into this a few minutes ago, you sure have a lot of doubts. If you’re worried, just stay at a safe distance,” I instructed, crawling a couple of metres away from him. Crossing my legs and deepening my breathing, I focussed in on the root essence of what I wanted to achieve – and its importance – and tried to will a protective barrier into place around me. This was step one on the road to freedom.

Nothing happened.

Just like when I’d tried to raise fire in my palms back in my cell, without the hard emotional want of it, my spell fizzled and died. I longed to escape, and even though each passing second brought me closer to my inevitable attempt, the urgency and danger it seemed were not immediate enough.

I cursed under my breath.

“What’s wrong?” Keel asked.

“Everything,” I said dismally. “I can only do magic when I’m on emotional overload, yet at the same time I’m supposed to be trying to keep my emotions from running rampant, from running into you.”

Keel stood up and started pacing the room. He was definitely one of those thinks-better-when-in-motion types. “Do you trust me?” he said, finally, returning to the centre of the training area.

“Why?” I said, getting to my feet.

“Because I think I know how to make this work.” The words were earnest, but his wary expression told me that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with whatever he was about to propose.

“Are you going to tell me?” I asked.

“Not until you answer my question.”

“Yes, I trust you,” I said, sighing. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Not wanted, needed,” Keel corrected.

“Why?” I demanded.

“I think we should fight,” he said. “I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. Once I start to overpower you, you’ll be able to access your magic and give that shield of yours a try. Just remember, direct the magic at the shield – not at me.”

“It’s not going to work,” I said, sulking. “I’d need to believe you were actually going to hurt me. And we’re kind of past that.”

“Who’s to say I won’t?” Keel challenged in a threatening rumble. When my eyes met his, his irises were already half lost to darkness and I suddenly understood what he meant: he was going to let loose his Nosferatu side. With my permission, he was going to let this get all kinds of ugly. In the annals of bad ideas, this had to be one of the worst. I didn’t ever want to see this part of him, let alone be hunted by it. But for the same reasons – ridiculously perilous as it was – I knew it would work.

“And if things get out of hand?” I queried. Out-of-hand was standard-operating procedure for us, so it bore asking.

“Then yell ‘desist’ and I’ll stop.”

“And if you can’t?” This was also a possibility, especially with my magic in the mix.

“Then you’ll do it for me, just like last time,” Keel assured me. “But don’t start with that, okay? Please. Start with the shield.”

I was a bundle of nerves and raging trepidation. Not only was I positive that I wouldn’t make it out of this unscathed – sure, I could heal but that didn’t mean getting injured didn’t still hurt like hell – but we’d finally turned a corner in our friendship, and this could very well take us right back to square one. “Keel, I don’t –”

“Do you want to learn to defend yourself or not?” he snapped. That raw vampiric viciousness had snuck into his voice now, and I shuddered. This was my last chance to hit the eject button, to potentially stop this crazy train from hurtling us to a mutually assured demise.

“I do,” I whispered, with bravery I did not feel. I wished I could take it back almost immediately, but Keel was already in motion.

He’d gone back over to the weapons rack and removed a long, leather horsewhip that had been coiled around one of its wooden beams. I wanted nothing more than to bolt for the elevator as he started unwinding it slowly and methodically in his hands, as if this were titillating foreplay for the violence to follow, but I forced myself to stand my ground.

Trust him. Be brave!

But all that humanity that Keel had displayed in the ductwork was gone. 

“You didn’t say anything about weapons,” I stammered, but it made sense. My shield, should it work, would incinerate him if he got too close. This way he wouldn’t have to.

I peered at the whip, my stomach churning like a stormy sea. He was going to hit me with it. Because he has to, Mills, not because he wants to, I told myself, but that wasn’t entirely true. The Nosferatu side of Keel liked being the cat to my mouse. It wanted to kill me, eat me; it was pretty much an instinctual imperative.

I didn’t move until he flung himself at me, snarling, fangs bared. Bolting off the mat away from him, I heard the whip crack behind me and felt the breeze as it snapped past my bare foot. He wasn’t holding back. Not in the least. Fear exploded inside me, permeating every cell of my being and becoming my sole reality. I was the rabbit being chased through the forest by the hungry fox, the gazelle about to be felled by the lion. I rolled across his oversized bed, putting the hulking piece of furniture between us, but it was like it wasn’t there at all, he just used his supernatural reflexes to vault over the mattress, ramming himself into my shoulder hard enough to spin me around and send me crashing into his four-foot tall wooden dresser.

Slightly dazed, I tried to scuttle away from where I’d crumpled to the floor when the whip collided with my back full force, driving me down onto my stomach on the hardwood. I howled as it sliced through my loaner hoodie and licked skin. The pain was blinding, but I knew Keel was already winding up for another calamitous blow. I rolled left, just in time to avoid it. His eyes were dark as soot, his face radiant with a sneering, hungry, maniacal glee. He looked absolutely rabid standing over me. I frantically crawled towards his bed hoping to find some respite beneath it, but as soon as I lifted the edge of the duvet I knew that it would provide no shelter. Apparently, Keel kept a lot more than just that box of human trinkets under there. I didn’t have time to identify anything though, because the whip found its mark again, unleashing a keening, anguished, feral wail from deep inside of me. This time, it drew blood – and that vital red liquid would be calling to Keel as if I were a one-woman buffet.

Magic, I screamed at myself desperately. Use your magic.  

The whip struck home a third time, and my vision greyed at the edges. 

How was I going to fight off Keel if I was fighting for consciousness? And why was I allowing him to torture me anyway? I could stop it. Any time. I had the power. I just had to harness it. Use it. I had no one to blame but myself for each successive impact, for my failure.

Finally, I felt fury.

And I used all of it to build my shield.

The next time the whip cracked, it wasn’t across my back. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening because I was still on my hands and knees, but I knew. I felt it inside and saw the cascade of sparks rain down around me. I’d thrown up my protection and it’d held.

The blows came harder, faster after that, which gave the air a sparkling, glitter bomb effect, but they could not penetrate my force field. I slowly got to my feet, careful to ensure that I was expanding the shield around me, since Keel was not letting up his thunderous assault.

“Keel, stop,” I commanded, but I doubted he even heard my words. There was no Keel left, just the rage of the Nosferatu within that was denied its prize: my pain and my blood.

“You are mine!” the Keel creature roared, abandoning the whip and snatching an oversized mace from the room’s arsenal.

Shit! I thought. If the shield doesn’t repel that, I’m dead. Probably in a single blow.

“Keel,” I screamed, trying to get through to him. “Desist, desist, DESIST!

He whirled the mace at me, it collided with the protective barrier and sent what had to be some seriously painful reverberations rattling up his arm. It also bought me a few seconds to think.

I wouldn’t be able to sustain the force field forever, and if he wanted, he could just wait me out. No, I’d have to try to get through to him some other way, which meant I’d have to balance two spells at once. Was that even possible? Nothing like do-or-die time to find out.

I shut my eyes, though it terrified me to do so. I’d never be able to divide my concentration equally between the two things if I had to process a lethal weapon swinging at my head as well. I began by focussing on the shield, reinforcing its protective embrace and picturing it as solid, impenetrable and entirely stable. As I became comfortable with the energy and resolve required to maintain its shape and integrity, I reached out to Keel – mentally. But instead of sending a message – another flood of words the blood-crazed Nosferatu would likely ignore – I transmitted an emotion: calm. I imagined it as the soothing jets of a shower washing down over him, draining away his inner monster and leaving behind the Keel I’d come to know and… care about. That seemed safe enough. I don’t know how long I stood there, eyelids squeezed shut, pouring myself into those things, but eventually Keel said, “You can stop now.”

I cracked my lids open and found myself staring at a very embarrassed-looking half-vampire.

“Guess, I shouldn’t have given you such a hard time for your lack of self-control,” he said, apologetically. “That was… not good.”

I let the shield dissipate around me and instantly felt lightheaded; the cost of wielding too much magic was high and immediate. I’d recharge relatively quickly with rest, but it meant my flayed back would have to wait. I tried not to scowl at the burning discomfort too much, it’d been a necessary evil. Like scary Nosferatu Keel.

“You lost control,” I stated, without accusation. After all, I’d done it first – and worse. Then I started to hobble towards his bed. To hell with what it looked like, if I didn’t lie down, I was going to fall down.

“I know,” Keel said, trailing behind me. Normally, he’d be on my heels ready to catch me if I stumbled, or maybe even holding my arm and helping me get there, but he was keeping his distance. “That’s never happened before. I really thought I’d be able to rein it back in, maybe your blood is affecting that too. We’re not supposed to drink before the transition. Maybe this is why.”

“How were you even able to attack me?” I asked. “I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to do that when I was scared?”

“Me, like this, yes,” Keel explained. “But the Nosferatu part of me is able shove that aside because your blood is paramount; it’s sustenance, strength and pleasure, all in one. I don’t usually give myself over to it like that, but I wouldn’t have been able to do what you needed me to do otherwise.”

“So how was I able to stop you?”

“You blasted me with enough calmness to flip the switch, and from there I was able to pull myself the rest of the way back out.”

I’d reached the bed and was about to flop down onto it, when Keel lunged forward and grabbed my arm, stopping me. “Wait,” he said sharply. “Your back’s covered in blood. If you get that on the sheets, I won’t be able to hide it.”

That was important. I knew it was. But exhaustion was clouding my brain with a pea-soup fog. “Keel, I’m really dizzy. I need to lie down.”

“Just wait here a second,” he implored, refusing to let go of my arm until I acquiesced. I didn’t have the energy to argue. If I fell down and split my head open on the floor because of him, he could feel guilty about that too. But true to his word, he was back a split second later with the chair from his desk. He sat me down on it backwards, so that my chin rested on top of its high back and then insisted that I wait some more.

“Whatever,” I mumbled, making myself as comfortable as I could.

I must have dozed off, because when I resurfaced, I was greeted by a sensory flood. My chin felt bruised from the hard chair back, and something warm and wet was patting my stinging flesh. I glanced down. The back of the hoodie had been torn apart and now hung in two ragged strips at my sides. At least I’m not naked, I thought.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Cleaning you up, so you can lie down.”

“Why aren’t you, you know…” I forced my lips to form the words, but still cringed when I said them, “…licking it off?”

“All things considered, I think I’d better stop that for a while.”

“Really?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Not only do I not want to kill you – or get myself killed by you – but I really don’t want to mess up my transition, especially not publicly.”

I curled my arms up under my chin, and rested my head on them. Keel was being kind and gentle again, and while it was dumb to savour such a bittersweet moment, I did it anyway. The only kindnesses in the compound were his, and I couldn’t help revelling in them, even if he’d been a perfect monster fifteen minutes earlier.

As Keel dipped the cloth into a bucket of now-rust-coloured water at my feet, and delicately tended to my wounds, I realized that I’d been wrong: I wasn’t Jekyll and Hyde, he was. And in order to learn magic, I'd have to spend an equal amount of time with each of them, even as they acted as harbingers of what was to come if I didn’t succeed in my plan. One I would lose forever, and one I would gain.

Occasionally the washcloth lingered on my skin a bit too long or drifted away from my injuries. Keel wasn’t just cleaning me up, he was trying to soothe me. I’d used magic to calm him, but his tool was good old-fashioned action.

His ministrations, and their tender reverence, set my nerve-endings tingling. They made me feel things I shouldn’t be feeling and didn’t want to think about, and definitely didn’t want Keel thinking about.

It was too complicated, too screwed up, too impossible.

When he was done, he retrieved a clean black hoodie from the second lowest drawer in his dresser and helped me slide into it, standing behind me and holding it away from my wounds as I pulled it down over my torso. Then he took my elbow and guided me to the bed. If the exercise mats had been an oasis compared to my mattress, this was heaven. With pillows!

Keel rounded the bed, and laid down on the far side, facing the wall, as if to give me not only the bulk of the space, but a tiny bit of privacy as well. Weird, because when it was my mattress in my cell, he was usually right next to me, personal space be damned.

“Hey Mills,” he said, quietly.


“I’m sorry.”

Maybe I should have asked him what he was apologizing for, but strangely, those two words were enough – for everything.

“Me too,” I whispered. 

I’d expected to knock off right away, unable to resist the sizable comforts of Keel’s four-poster bed, but I ended up staring at his back instead, watching the gentle rise and fall of his body as he breathed and missing his closeness.

The meaning of this tableau was, of course, unmistakable.

This was evidence of his trust.

He was unprotected. His door unlocked.

I could walk.

And someday I would. But not today.

Today, and for the next thirty-two days, we were still friends.

I pulled myself across the mattress towards him and wrapped my arm around his chest, making sure to crush the electricity the second it surged between us. Keel’s breath hitched all the same as I rested my open palm on his ribcage, just above his heart. I could feel its slow, strong beat soldiering on beneath my fingertips – his life, in perpetual countdown. Neither of us moved for a long time, as if afraid to break the sanctity of the moment, and I wondered if he might push me away, but then his hand rose briefly to cup mine.

was changing him. But he was changing me too.  And in my depleted state, I decided that I might be okay with that.

I buried my face between his shoulder blades and went to sleep.

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