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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16. The Sorcerer’s Daughter

 

Chapter 14: The Sorcerer’s Daughter

The longer Keel and I stood there, the more the room seemed to shrink until all that existed was me, him and the knife.

The latest dare. The latest impossible decision.

My gut told me that doing this would change everything. But I didn’t know how – or why.

Keel was asking for even more complicity in our only semi-voluntary bloodsucking arrangement, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that or ever would be. Though wasn’t allowing the vampires to take it without putting up a fight pretty well the same thing? Maybe this was something else that Keel considered a nicety but got all wrong.

The thing that didn’t fit was he wasn’t at all concerned with hiding the evidence; he’d said I could cut anywhere. Unless he was setting me up or planning on ratting us out to his father himself, this made no sense at all. But I didn’t think he’d do either of those things – not for one second.

The knife nipped at my skin, drawing my focus back to it. If I was going to do this, it had to be about me, not about feeding Keel, and not about giving in now, because he’d find a way to make me to do it eventually anyhow. I was just as brave and tough as he was. If he was testing me with this bit of recklessness, than I’d meet him head on.

“Stop touching me,” I snapped.

Keel dropped his hand from my cheek, and stepped back, saying nothing.

I rotated my arm beneath the knife – I wasn’t trying to kill myself here – and ground my bare feet into the floor, attempting to anchor them to the hardwood. I took a slow, deep, wavering breath that filled both of my lungs, then I stared Keel right in the eye and sliced into my arm.

Or did I?

I’d been bracing for a riot of agony, but felt nothing, except for a warm wetness.

Keel gaped at me. Hunger and horror and awe all competed for face time.

I looked down. I was bleeding badly. But it didn’t hurt – at all. I tossed the knife away. It slid across the floor until it hit the edge of the workout mat, where it came to a rest. I tentatively covered the gushing wound with my hand. Still no pain.

“What the hell?”

I didn’t realize I’d said it out loud until Keel answered. “Now do you believe me? You’re supernatural. This proves it.”

I watched as the blood welled up between my fingers and dribbled to the floor in a cascade of red. This didn’t make any sense. I’d hurt myself tons as a kid. Fallen off my bike and scraped open both of my knees, tripped while dancing around the coffee table, splitting my head open on the side of it, not to mention countless other bloody childhood injuries and every single one of them hurt like hell, just like it did when the vampires fed on me. So what made this different?

I was still trying to wrap my head around it when my arm suddenly became hot and itchy beneath my hand. I uncovered it and goggled at my skin knitting itself back together, just like something out of a superhero movie.

“Guess so,” I mumbled, unable to take my eyes off the pristine new flesh where minutes earlier there’d been a gaping, hemorrhaging wound.

“Wow,” said Keel, easily as impressed as I was. “That’s really cool.”

“Did you know that would happen?”

“The book said it would.”

“Book?”

“The book on sorcerers," he explained, patiently. "My father’s been keeping all the sorcery manuscripts hidden away in his study for years now, out of reach of everyone, even me. But yesterday I snuck one out. It’s mostly basic, introductory stuff, which is why I doubt he’ll notice it missing.”

I don’t know why it shocked me that the Nosferatu had books about sorcerers – why wouldn’t they? – but it definitely gnawed at me that Keel knew more about who I was than I did. Yet another way for him to one-up me – as if his strength, speed and relative freedom weren’t doing that well enough already.

“I skipped class and read the whole thing,” he said.

Of course he did.

“So what else can I do?” Despite everything the vampires had implied about my supposed abilities, none of it had prepared me for discovering I had superpowers. Though, admittedly, only being able to heal quickly after deliberately injuring myself was kind of a crappy talent.

“Magic,” Keel said bluntly, as if I’d just asked the stupidest question ever. “But the book didn’t get too deep into that, except to say talent and execution are 'individual to each sorcerer.' And that your blood is the catalyst – the active ingredient – but that’s common knowledge.”

“To everyone but me,” I muttered miserably. It was unfathomable that I had been denied this understanding of myself my entire life. The weight of my family’s – both my families’ – betrayal had a strange physicality to it. “I think I need to sit down.”

Keel retrieved the knife from where I had flung it and then guided me back to the bed. I was too shell-shocked to resist. I had a million questions, but no words for any of them. When one finally took solid form, I spewed it out.

“Why did you show me this?” Confirming my lineage and my proclivity for magic wasn’t a particularly good way of protecting his people. Weren’t the vampires only able to hold me here because I was completely ignorant of those things?

“Don’t you think this is better than the other option?” he said, reaching out and grabbing my wrist. That strange current hit me with a mind-numbing jolt the moment his skin connected with mine. It flared further as he gently ran his fingers over the non-existent cut. My muscles contacted involuntarily. Before, when I'd woken to Keel spooning me it'd been warm and vaguely comforting, but now each touch was amped up and totally discombobulating.

“What is that?” I asked.

“What?” Keel said, confused. “The other option? Me cutting you.”

“No, not that,” I told him. “Why do I feel like I 'm being zapped by electricity every time you touch me?”

“No idea.” Keel shrugged. “Maybe you like me.”

“Fat chance,” I grumbled. “You really don’t feel it at all?”

He shook his head.

Whatever was happening was happening to me alone. Freakin’ wonderful.

“Did that book say anything about this?”

Keel stared down at where he was grasping my arm, as if he were trying to see what I claimed to be feeling.

“No, nothing,” he said finally, unwinding his fingers from my wrist. “You really feel a charge when I touch you?”

“You think I’d make that up?”

“Weird,” Keel said, reaching out to poke me in the shoulder, the collarbone, the knee, before I slapped his hand away.

“That’s enough,” I growled. The repeated stimulus was tantamount to electroshock therapy. I shimmied away from Keel until my back was resting against the bed’s headboard, then drew my knees up close to my chest. I shouldn’t have said anything – he was just going to use this to drive me mental.

But for now, Keel stayed where he was. “This doesn’t happen with my father?”

“No,” I said, even though I didn’t want to admit that, because it meant there was something special about Keel, and I wasn’t sure his ego would survive being any more special.

“Interesting,” he said. Then he dashed across to his desk and dug around in the top drawer, returning with a pen and a black coil notebook.

“Okay, explain the sensation,” he said, pen poised, as if he were a doctor taking notes on my symptoms.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Getting all the facts down,” he stated, clinically. The more time I spent with him, the more his bookish side leaked through. This I kind of liked – except when he was directing it my way.

“Stop studying me,” I said. Being treated like a specimen wasn’t any better than being food. “Besides if you and I are supposed to be enemies, isn’t doing this sort of like spilling state secrets?”

“And what exactly do you think me showing you sorcery is?”

He had good point there. “Then why are you doing it?” I said. He’d managed to avoid answering this question the first time I’d asked it, so I brought it back for an encore.

“I’m not stupid, Mills,” Keel said. He slid closer, so now he was sitting at my feet. I couldn’t stretch my legs back out without changing positions or sprawling them over his thighs, which wasn't going to happen, electric current or not. “I understand how our world works. I’ve watched my father rule it since I was a little kid. They don’t tell us everything – even me, and I’m going to be King someday. That box of things I showed you, they don’t teach us about those. I don’t think they want us to know. Maybe they’re worried that if we did, we wouldn’t be content down here anymore, that we’d rebel. But how am I supposed to rule if I don’t have the whole picture?” Keel’s voice got louder as he gave in to his frustration. “I learned about sorcerers in school, but when my father removed those books from the library – the same day he learned of you, by the way – he denied the rest of us any further knowledge. Probably thinks someone would use it to overthrow him. If it’s a secret, he can work on it in secret, but even he doesn’t want to learn. He just wants to conquer.”

“And you want to learn?” This was a lot to take in. I don’t think Keel had said this much to me at once since we’d first met, and certainly nothing so confessional.

“More than that.” Keel lifted his hands, and for a moment I thought he was going to set them down on my knees, but he hesitated and dropped them back into his lap. “I want to understand. Whenever I ask why things are the way they are, I’m told it’s because of tradition and ‘that’s just the way the Nosferatu do things.’ But those aren’t answers.”

“So you’ve decided to learn about me.”

“No. I’ve decided to learn with you.”

With me? So the price of discovering my heritage was sharing all of that knowledge with the enemy. Maybe it’d be better to remain in the dark and keep the sorcerers’ secrets. But did I really owe them that? What had they done for me? Squat. Nada. Nothing. They’d left me here to rot, actually.

“Keel, I – ”

He cut me off. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore right now. It’s getting late anyhow. Just think about it, okay?”

I nodded. I should be grateful for the reprieve. The decision to flout the laws of both our kinds – more than we already had – should not be made in anger, in haste. But where did you even start? I’d never had to weigh my life against my people’s before. He might as well have asked me to climb Mount Everest in my underwear.

A rhythmic clicking noise yanked me out of my reveries. I traced it back to Keel’s hand: he was snapping his Swiss Army knife open and closed.

“Let me guess,” I said, with no shortage of sarcasm. “You still need to eat.” I put the emphasis on “need” because we both knew that was a lie. If there was any need, it was addiction not genuine hunger.

Keel shot me an apologetic look, but it went no further than his eyes. This, after all, was what his kind did and his barely mustered remorse came off as fake and awkward, an emotion he had no business trying on.

Still, in one night he’d given me more than any of the Nosferatu had given me in months. He’d given me an identity, and that was huge. Never mind that he’d found a painless way to offer him my blood. If I couldn’t stop it from happening, this really was the next best thing.

“Give me the knife,” I said.

He grinned and handed it over. I prodded the flesh of my palm with its tip. It pinched just as I expected it to. What was it about breaking skin that changed things?

When I sank the blade into my flesh this time, I did it slowly, watching intently as it split open my skin, blood blooming up on either side of the shiny metal. Keel had wiped it down – or licked it clean – after my last slice and dice. Once again, there was absolutely no pain. It was just as mind-blowing as the last time. This shouldn’t be possible.

I removed the knife and looked back up at Keel. His green eyes had darkened with tell-tale hunger. Maybe he’d staved it off earlier because we were both so stunned by my “talents,” but now it was alive and well and waiting. I extended my hand over the top of my knees and he immediately clamped his mouth down on the wound. My casual submission saddened me – our friendship would never be entirely real; it would always have this price – but my blood was all I had to bargain with. It was the only valuable currency I held with the Nosferatu.

Keel downed a couple of gulps and then thrust himself away from me so hard that I lost my balance and almost toppled off the bed. Luckily, one of my flailing arms latched onto the bed post just in time and I was able to drag myself back up before I cracked my head open on the floor.

Keel  was on his hands and knees at the other end of the mattress, sucking in deep, rattling breaths, as if he’d just finishing running a marathon and was completely winded. “Holy hell,” he choked out.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. Usually feeding lulled him into a blissful, lethargic stupor.

“That was– ”

“Amazing? Incredible?” I suggested. “I already know all the adjectives, Keel. Spare me.” It was bad enough that he drank my blood, he didn't need to keep rubbing in how awesome it was.

“Absolutely terrifying,” he said. When he finally caught his breath and looked up, his face was etched with fear.

I blinked at him, dumbfounded. That expression couldn’t be faked.

“I think I felt you,” he said slowly, cautiously, trying to gauge my reaction before continuing. “It was like I was drinking more than just your blood, Mills. I could feel everything: your sadness, your confusion, your suspicion, and beneath all of it your power. But I couldn’t access it, it was drowned out by all those emotions – every single horrible one of them, ten times stronger than any of my own. Is that how you feel all the time? How do you stand it?”

I shrugged at him. How had I done that? “I don’t know. I feel what I feel.”

“Crazy,” Keel said, pushing himself back into an upright position. “That didn’t feel any different for you?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said. “Except that it didn’t hurt.”

Keel thought about this. His brow wrinkled and he stared off into space, once in a while his lips moved a little as if he was trying to reason it out verbally, but didn’t want me to hear him. Maybe we were more alike than I’d imagined; he seemed as driven to tie up loose ends and solve mysteries as I did. “Can we try something?” he said finally.

“What?” I asked.

“I want to drink from you again, but this time I want you to think of something specific while I’m doing it. One thing. Any one thing.”

“What’s that supposed to prove?” I asked, suspiciously.

“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.”

I looked down at the slit I’d made on my hand, but it’d already healed. Keel was right: that was pretty damned cool.

“Okay,” I agreed. “But you won’t be able to do it from way over there.”

Keel glanced at me warily. Something between us had changed – fundamentally. The way he regarded me now wasn’t so different from how Boras did: like there was no denying I was a potential threat. It wasn’t fair. He’d made me this. He’d opened my mind to the possibility, and then forced the evidence upon me. And right now, magic changed nothing, I was still his prisoner.

Keel stood up, walked around to the side of the bed I was perched on, and took his place at my feet again. “Don’t tell me what you’re going to think about either,” he instructed me. Sweat glistened on his forehead and his usual confidence was missing in action.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not going to sabotage your little experiment.”

But what would I think about? If Keel could read me through my blood, I certainly wasn’t going to offer up anything too personal, too precious. Not Mikey or Estella or Jenny or Anna – no, the vampires could not know how much I cared about any of them. I would not put them in danger, allow them to be used as pawns in the game of controlling and manipulating me. I needed a safer memory.

I decided on the most potent one I had.

“I’m ready,” I said, splitting open the newly healed flesh and once again extending my bloody hand towards him.

As Keel’s lips enveloped the cut, I forced myself back to the cabin’s root cellar. The bone-chilling terror bubbled up immediately as I replayed the cacophony of destruction that was the Nosferatus’ vehicular assault on the building. My heart clenched into a tight little fist as I imagined Fredrick’s broken corpse buried beneath the debris. I fought the urge scream out as I recalled the Nosferatu tromping heavily down the stairs, surrounding me and making short work of my pathetic attempts to fight back. I wanted to stop before Harck sank his fangs into my neck, but I gave him that too. Every agonizing moment of it.

I didn’t notice Keel had stopped drinking until he said, “I can’t believe you didn’t kill me when you had the chance.” His voice was sombre – and sober.

“And what would that have accomplished?” I asked him frankly.

“Revenge,” he said. “Revenge against my father.”

“Revenge isn’t enough, Keel. In fact, it’s nothing without freedom.”

He seemed to accept that. Or else he was just eager to change the subject. “At least now we know why his little plan isn’t working,” he said smugly. He was looking all proud of himself again, but his words were a fist to my gut. He’d figured it out and I hadn’t. All this time, he’d been gathering intel for the King. And I’d just given them the key to what they were after. Would I ever stop screwing things up?

“Hey, hey, calm down,” Keel said. “What’s the matter?

“You can feel that?” I said. The panic had been all in my head.

“Yes,” Keel admitted. “I can feel you, even now. What just spooked you?”

“You used me,” I said bitterly. “You gained my trust just to discover the secret to my power for your dad.”

“Is that what you think?” Keel said, trying not to laugh.

I couldn’t believe the jerk found this funny. My life wasn’t just some stupid game. I thought we were past that. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because if I’m right, even if I told him – which, for the record, I’m not planning to – he wouldn’t be able to use it. Your blood was tasty when I took it by force, and I could tell you were different, but until you gave it to me willingly it was devoid of any supernatural essence. And somehow I don’t think you’d ever give it to him willingly.”

“He’d find a way to make me if he knew,” I said solemnly. I thought of all those people topside that I loved desperately. I’d be lucky if I didn’t get them all killed by the end of this. Yes, I had more than my share of weaknesses – and every single one of them was a fragile human being.

“Come on, Mills, think it over. I can’t tell him, not without also admitting to all of this,” he said, reaching out and taking both my hands in his. His touch brought with it a lightning bolt of current. I wobbled. He moved his hands to my shoulders and another surge roared through me. My head lolled forwards and my vision greyed at the edges. I was going to black out.

“Wow,” Keel said.

“You felt that?” I asked, groggily, clinging to the tiny, precious bit of consciousness that remained. The buzz swallowed me whole, depriving me of all other sensations; I could barely string the words together into a coherent sentence. Just like four of my five senses, language was almost lost to me.

“Not directly, but through you, definitely. That’s one hell of a thing.” Keel didn’t let go of my shoulders, he just kept leaning over me and holding on while the thrum cycled between us. I closed my eyes, and attempted to wait it out. It eventually stopped being so overwhelming, but that wasn’t because it was becoming any less intense – I was just getting more used to it.

“What is it?” I whispered, pushing through the electrical haze in my brain. “It’s stronger now than before.”

“If I were to guess, I’d say it’s what you get from the blood donation. I get a rush of you and you get this… this... connection.”

“But what’s it good for?” It seemed like yet another pointless blessing.

“I honestly have no idea.”

“And why doesn’t it happen with your dad?”

“You tell me,” Keel said. “What do you do when he bites you?”

That was one heck of an intimate question, but it was hard to maintain any sense of shame when being used and abused on a daily basis.

“I try to block it out,” I confessed. “It’s all kinds of horrible.”

“That’s probably it then,” Keel surmised after a moment of contemplation. “You didn’t start feeling this until you’d at least partially agreed to let me drink from you. So consent must play some role in it.” He paused and grabbed the discarded notebook, scribbling something down inside. “It’s quite clever actually: it protects your kind from exactly the sort of thing my father is trying to do.”

“But it doesn’t protect me from his rage when he eventually decides that all of this is useless and not working.”

Keel didn’t reply right away. I wondered if there was something he wasn’t telling me. He never wanted to talk about what happened next, what happened if my blood didn’t work – or even what happened to me if it did. There was something hidden behind that veil of vagueness, something he didn’t want to show me.

“You know, we’re not going to figure this all out in one day, Mills,” he said eventually, releasing his grip on my shoulders. The relief was palpable and instantaneous.

“And what happens when we do? Then what?”

“I don’t know.”

“What happens to me?”

“I don’t know that either.” He turned away as he spoke, confirming what my instincts had been telling me all along. He was lying.

“What do you know then?”

“I know that it’s getting late and we’d better get you back downstairs. I still need to clean up that,” he nodded towards the pool of my blood that was drying into a flaky brown stain on the floor. “Because if I don’t, they’ll be onto us the second they smell it.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t want to go back to my stark, grey cell, nor the putrid clothes that awaited me down there. I wanted to stay here with Keel and figure this out. I also wanted to get to the bottom of his deception. He’d given me a peek at a world that I hadn’t dared believe existed, a world where I had power, where I was something special too, and now he was closing the blinds on it. Shuttering me back in the doldrums of captivity.

Sure, we’d have tomorrow. And the day after that and the day after that. But I didn’t want to wait anymore. I’d already had to wait my whole life to find out the truth.  And knowing we’d barely scratched the surface made tomorrow seem an eternity away.

I dragged my heels all the way back down to the prison, thinking that hope might just be the cruelest trick yet. Right after trust.

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