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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27. To Everything, Change

 

Chapter 25: To Everything, Change

It was completely dark as we approached Niagara Falls a couple hours later.

As much as I’d wanted to be carefree, basking in my newfound freedom, tucked up next to Keel, doing an absolutely ordinary, wonderfully normal thing for the first time in nearly half a year, I couldn’t enjoy it. Not entirely. I couldn’t get my mind off of… well, everything.

Every couple of minutes my eyes would flicker onto the dashboard stereo’s digital clock. Time was slipping away on us, while the do-or-die moment was creeping ever closer.

A dread as deep and gutting as any I’d ever felt was lodged in my stomach. And all the junk food I’d eaten only made me feel a hundred times worse.

Yet I didn’t have time to focus on that. We’d been lucky so far, but we were out in the human world now, where people had a tendency to report suspicious occurrences, such as two bloody, beaten-up teenagers cruising down the highway in a big black van. The windows were tinted, but they weren’t that tinted.

We needed to wash up and get some new clothes. At least Keel was sporting a clean T-shirt. I looked every bit the prisoner I’d been for the past five months, my tank top and cargo pants long since torn and ragged. Those, along with my multitude of scars, would attract gobs of unwanted attention. I knew I had to heal myself – my face anyway – or I’d never be able to leave the van. But I loathed the thought of expending any power on anything that wasn’t saving Keel.

But you’re not doing him any good if you are trapping us in this tin can, I argued with myself. Still, what if at the end, when everything mattered and counted, I came up just a tiny bit short – all because I’d spent it on myself, on fixing my face?

It was pointless even trying to pretend I could avoid it, though. It would have to be done, because we did need to ditch the van. Keel had assured me that the Nosferatu would not pursue us immediately – and maybe not at all, since he was as good as dead – but he’d opted for an old-fashioned paper map instead of the traceable GPS just in case.

“Don’t they still want me?” I asked.

“After you decimated the troops like that? Only if they’re suicidal, and my father isn’t. He’s going to have enough damage control to do at the compound, never mind that he’s a walking target now that I’m gone.”

I’d done that. Been responsible for all of it. Keel’s downfall. All those deaths. How many had I killed? How many had I disintegrated en masse? I’d gone from innocent to mass murderer with one spell. I found myself flashing back on that scalp in the Nosferatu museum, the one that belonged to the sorcerer who’d killed fifty-some vampires before being taken down. I’d barely believed it at the time –now I was well on my way to matching his body count.

Maybe someday they’d hunt me and hang my hair on the wall next to his. “This one,” they’d tell their students, “not only slaughtered our strongest soldiers, but corrupted the heir to the throne.”

But tonight they’d too busy regrouping. Keel was certain of that. Me, not so much.

And that still didn’t take into account the human authorities. I doubted Keel had a license or the necessary papers for this vehicle, or any ID whatsoever. And neither did I. Getting pulled over would be a whole heap of bad. We’d likely be detained and Keel would end up dying alone in a holding cell or in a hospital bed surrounded by humans who’d be absolutely helpless to save him.

After that thought invaded my brain, I found myself gazing in the rear-view mirror as frequently as at the radio, terrified I’d see flashing lights behind us.

Then there was Keel’s life to worry about. I didn’t know if saving it was even possible, nor what form his deterioration would take. I didn’t want to ask, either, because he’d figure out what was I was planning in a second, and probably try to forbid it. It should’ve been flattering that he wanted to protect me as much as I wanted to protect him, but right now it was annoying. I wished we’d bothered to look up exactly how Nosferatu who didn’t transition died in the vampire texts, but of all the things we thought could happen, we’d never seriously considered that. Looking back, we’d been way too bold, especially towards the end. So confident, yet blind, in our little games, unwilling to admit that Keel’s princely powers of getting out of trouble undoubtedly had a limit, and if we weren't careful we'd go too far. Which, of course, is exactly what had happened.

I wondered how much more insight the altered bond gave him into my brain. Was he listening in to my runaway thought-train of worry? If so, he was allowing me my quiet contemplation. Keel's eyes rarely left the road. I’d have believed him totally focussed on the task of driving, were it not for his left foot tapping along with beat of the songs on the radio, every single one of them. For someone who’d never heard music before, it'd sure wormed its way into his soul quickly.

“We’re gonna need some money,” I told him, as we started to see signs for the Canada-US border crossing. We were getting close to the Falls.

“We have money,” he assured me.

I looked at him with genuine surprise.

“You think we don’t understand the human world, but like I explained before, we’re all taught enough about it to get by.”

“Did they teach you about stores, too?” I asked. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all.

“Only a little,” Keel admitted. “It’s recommended that we avoid them, just like every other place heavily inhabited by humans. You’ve seen what we look like, post-transition.”

What Keel was saying made perfect sense: human eyes would be drawn to the tall, gaunt, sunken-cheeked Nosferatu, though I doubted many would immediately leap straight to the “supernatural being” conclusion.  Most folks were far too skeptical and rational for that, which was how the vampires were able to spend years abducting people without much, if any, notice. But that wasn’t going to be a problem for us. Keel still looked mostly human, probably even more so than me, now that I had that weird red circle ringing my eyes.

As I scanned the passing buildings for a Walmart or a Target, I gave Keel the quick and dirty rundown on what he could expect to find inside a big box store and what he’d need to buy there – clothes, shoes and a hat for me; new pants and a hoodie for him; a mirror, a flashlight, a jug of water, washcloths, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, scissors, a hairbrush and a pack of razor blades. He listened intently as I rattled off descriptions and instructions, only stopping me once or twice to ask for clarification. By the time Keel pulled into the store’s oversized, one-quarter-full parking lot, he was confident he had it all down.

“Park a bit away from the rest of the cars,” I told him. "We don’t need spectators."

Keel navigated the van into an empty spot four rows away from the nearest car and cut the engine. He already had his hand on the door latch when I leaned over to stop him. “Wait,” I said. “We need to get some of that blood off your face first.”

I retrieved Keel’s discarded jacket from behind the seat, then quickly changed out of my stained and nearly shredded tank top into his coat. When I looked up, I saw that he had averted his eyes. Funny how sometimes he had more class than most human guys his age, and other times it was entirely lost to the monster he shared his body with.

I turned what remained of my shirt inside out and wrapped it around my hand like a rag, then I spat on it. In the absence of running water, I’d have to do this the mom way, even if it was a bit icky and overly time-consuming.

“Okay, look at me,” I said, and when he did, I carefully started mopping the dried blood off of his face and removing what I could from his hair. It was slow going, with only the parking lot lights to provide illumination, but a half hour later I was satisfied with what I’d accomplished. His face still looked dirty, but a lot less like he’d aided and abetted in a grisly homicide.

“So you know what we need?” I asked.

Keel reeled back the list perfectly, including clothing sizes, and once again I found myself impressed by his near-perfect memory.

“And if you run into trouble, get out of there,” I reminded him.

He rolled his eyes at me. “I’ve got this covered,” he insisted, then swung open the door and stepped out into the parking lot. I watched him as he made his way towards the store’s entrance. It was still weird seeing Keel surrounded by everyday things. But if he was nervous or wary, it didn’t show in his confident stride. Even entirely out of his element, in a world he didn’t belong in, he was completely and utterly at ease – or at least seriously good at faking it. When he disappeared through the store’s clear glass doors, my heart did an awkward double-thump. He was on his own now. If something went wrong, I wouldn’t know – not until it was too late.

Keel had left the keys dangling in the ignition, meaning I could listen to the radio and distract myself from the images of him being stopped and questioned by store security that had suddenly began bombarding my brain. Unfortunately, it also meant I was back to staring at the clock again.

Ten minutes passed. Then fifteen. Twenty. Forty.

Something had gone sideways. I was sure of it. All of my worst-case scenarios were replaced by a pea-soup-thick fog of panic. What could I do? I could scream out across the bond, but communication was still largely one-way – sure, Keel could affect me now, but so far it seemed limited to touch alone. And if I went him after him, the first person who got a good look at me would be dialling 911. We should have come up with a actual contingency plan before he left the car, I thought angrily; saying “just get out of there” was not good enough, not even close.

He’s half Nosferatu, my mind reminded me. Only he couldn’t exactly use those powers without risking exposure, and he wouldn’t do that, no matter what. That was the one Nosferatu rule I knew Keel didn’t dare break. Even now. It was why we had to keep his father alive.

And while I could theoretically run inside, sorcery blazing, that’d be equally stupid. If it didn’t end up getting me killed in a hail of police gunfire, I’d probably end up right back in captivity, only this time experimented on by humans instead of vampires. No, these secrets were secrets for a very good reason.

So I was stuck, my eyes doing endless, continuous laps between the clock and the deserted front doors of the store.

“Please, please, please,” I mumbled, a desperate mantra said to no one in particular. What the hell was taking so long?

A few minutes later, Keel emerged – alone – with a heaving shopping bag clutched in either hand. A breath I didn’t even know I was holding tumbled out of my lungs in a huge gush of air. How much more almost-losing-Keel could I take? We weren’t even to the worst of it yet.

“What happened?” he said, as soon as he arrived at the van. Even without directly freaking out at him through the bond, it had still conveyed what I was feeling, the dampening effect absolutely useless on intense emotions.

“I was worried about you,” I said, stiffly. Now that he was back, all in one piece, it was evident that I was completely overreacting.

“It took a while to find what you’d asked for. There’s an unbelievable amount of stuff in there, and I don’t know what most of it is.” He said that as if the experience had mesmerised him, which, given his obsession with human things, it probably had. When he continued speaking, his tone was sharper. “And I shouldn’t have to remind you – again – I’m not helpless. My people haven’t managed to keep our secret for thousands of years by being helpless.”

His rebuke hung in the air between us, making me feel guilty instead of merely foolish. Just because I had power of my own now didn’t mean his had been negated. The fact that I could destroy his kind wholesale didn’t make him weak. Still, I was beginning to understand why Keel saw humans the way he did: when you could do the things that we could do, when you had influence over life and death… well, there really was no comparison.

Disconcerted by the gaping disconnect between who I had been and who I was becoming, I shoved that black hole of a thought away to be explored at another time.

“We should move to the back of the van and get cleaned up,” I told Keel. “I won’t worry half as much once we look a little more like we belong here.”

Whether I was telling the truth remained to be seen.  After living in a state of near-permanent fear, it was hard to flip the switch. I still felt hunted.

The rear of the van was windowless, which made it the perfect place to work, away from the possibility of prying eyes. Once the parking lot was clear of pedestrians, I hopped out of the passenger seat and climbed into the back, where Keel was waiting. He already had the high-powered camping flashlight rigged up and spewing light.

I retrieved the mirror, soap, water and washcloth and began tending to my own face. The more blood and dirt I scrubbed away, the more it became clear that I’d have to do something about those horrible, disfiguring scars. “Hand me the razors,” I told Keel.

I broke one out of the package, and very carefully began slicing open each and every wound that’d been left behind by the King’s claws and teeth, until my faced was streaked with red and I looked like Carrie on prom night. You shouldn’t be able to compare your life to a scene from a horror movie, yet here I was. Bloodsoaked. At least the cutting didn’t hurt. That was something to be grateful for.

Once I was done, I tried to hand the mirror and razor back to Keel, but he’d retreated to rear corner of the van, where he was looking Nosferatu-hungry. Figures, I thought: the hilarity of a blood-wielding sorceress hooking up with a bloodsucking vampire was not lost on me. But this was no worse than the vent, and he’d survived that. Since I wasn’t going to force him to do anything he didn’t want to, I set the items down on the van floor beside me, and started smearing the blood all over my face in a macabre facial, Lady Bathory style.

I needed to focus on the healing, on rebuilding the features that had stared back at me in the mirror for the first fifteen years of my life, the ones from when the supernatural was the domain of TV, movies and books and not my everyday existence. Predictably, there was no shortage of painful emotions to speed the process. Maybe it was vain, but I really didn’t want to wear these scars, have people stare at them the rest of my life, asking me awkward questions I’d never be able to truthfully answer. I wanted to be whole again. Desperately. I wanted everything back that the King had stolen.

But mostly I wanted the possibility of an anonymous, average life at the end of all of this – with a half-vampire, while practicing magic.

Okay, maybe I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but the facial reconstruction I was positive about.   

The heat from my hands washed up over my skin, bringing with it a deep, tingling burn accompanied by what felt thousands of squirmy worms with tiny pinching mouths. That was new. But if this was how my magic worked, there was no sense in getting squeamish about it again now. I sat there with my face clutched in my unnaturally hot palms for a shockingly long time. I could feel my energy sapping itself away into the restoration, the process requiring so much more of me than I imagined it would. As my hands cooled and the flow of magic trickled to a stop, I slumped back heavily against the side of the van, exhausted once more.

And I still had to save Keel’s life. It was the loading dock all over again. Why can’t anything ever be easy? I thought wearily.

Keel approached once the spell had completely dissipated. His eyes remained dark and inhuman, the slightest hint of fangs visible between his lips. “Incredible,” he mouthed, as he ran his hand over my cheek, where his father had left those five, deep lacerations the night after I’d first met him. They were entirely gone now; magic yet again proving itself the miracle cure. He leaned in to sprinkle my face with soft, moist kisses, but it was more than an act of simple affection; while that new sense of well-being was there, it didn’t completely mask the fact that he was tasting me, consuming what he could of the remaining blood. Keel was on the sauce again. And he was back to not asking.

Maybe we should have been way beyond that by now, but it still irked me.

I sent a quick burst of anger through the bond, and he retreated. “Why does it bother you so much that I drink blood?” he asked. “You know what I am.”

“Because you don’t have to, and you do it without asking,” I replied, my words short and clipped.

“But your blood sings to me, now more than ever.” Keel’s black eyes were glassy. For all its other myriad effects, my blood still got him high.

“So, what: you’re going to Nosferatu out on me?”

“That’s not what I mean,” Keel said, struggling to find the proper words for what he was trying to explain. “It’s more like your blood is the blood I’m supposed to drink.”

I wondered how Keel thought that would make me feel. Did he think I’d be honoured? Happy? Because I wasn’t. Our friendship had grown and evolved so much in the weeks since he’d stopped feeding on me that this seemed like a setback of monumental proportions. I was on the menu again, and being his food meant that I couldn’t truly be his equal. But why was I willing to risk my own life – two times over– to save his, yet not willing to allow him take sustenance from me? Especially when this might well be his last night on Earth?

Where was the line between selfishness and personal autonomy? And did the link between Keel and I change it? It was impossible to get a handle on everything – and how I felt about all of it – when stuff kept changing, constantly. No matter how much I needed to slow down and think, I couldn't, not now, not when we were still on the run.

I picked up the razor blade, deciding to give Keel what he wanted, but he stopped me before I could get it anywhere close to my skin. “No, not now. Not like this,” he insisted, freeing the sharp piece of metal from my hand and chucking it to the other side of the van. “You’re hurt. I’m sorry about before.”

“It’s okay,” I said. He was clearly trying to do the right thing, even if it was a tad late.

You know you'll never entirely take the monster out of the boy, chirped the voice in my head, but it wasn't such a big deal anymore. I'd grown accustomed to Keel's rough edges these past few months, and had come to see them as part of what made him who he was, who I loved. It wasn't like I was all sunshine and lollipops anymore either.

“Can I try something?” he asked, before immediately qualifying it with, “It has nothing to do with drinking your blood, promise.”

Keel had a hunch. Those words had come up super-frequently when I’d been practicing magic, and they always meant he wanted to experiment.

“Sure.” I was too tired to put up much of a fight. Not that I would have. I was as curious about the changes to the bond as he was, if slightly more leery of them.

Keel let go of my wrist and gently placed his hands on either side of my face, tilting my head towards him. The feeling of absolute rightness brought on by his touch took away any instinctual impulse I might have had to resist; this was going to get me in trouble someday, I just knew it. But for now, I let it happen, eager to see what he was up to. He dropped his forehead forward so that it leaned against mine; his black eyes just a couple inches away from my red-ringed brown ones. What was he doing – meditating? Was I supposed to be feeling something? Because all I felt was a little silly, butted up head-to-head with him. Then it rolled over me like a wave, an unstoppable force, flowing through my every cell, re-inflating me. Energy, strength, pure exhilaration. I reached up and wound my fingers into Keel's hair, pulling him into a rough, searching kiss. It turned the wave into a flood. Then abruptly everything stopped. He had broken contact.

“More,” I gasped, trying to pull him back to me, unsure if I was talking about the transfusion of power or the kiss or both.

“So it worked then?” Keel said. He was beaming, but steadfastly holding his ground.

I felt absolutely energized. Wildly alive. Superhuman in a way that magic never made me feel. Keel’s lifeforce called out to me as if it were a homing beacon; the scent of his blood – mine – suddenly thick and tangible in the air all around us. I was hyperaware of everything. “What did you just do?” I stuttered.

“I think I gave you back some of what your blood gives me. I figured if I could calm you, maybe I could do this too.”

I opened my mind and broadcast out the full range of sensations stampeding through my body.

“Interesting,” he said, then fell into contemplative silence. It clearly wasn’t what he’d been expecting. And that was interesting in its own way; Keel wasn’t often wrong in his theories.

“What’s interesting?” I asked, unwilling to let him leave it at that.

“You’re feeling what I feel all the time as Nosferatu – the heightened senses, strength, perception – but channelled through your human emotions and your sorcerer biology, it seems more charged. More unstable.”

No kidding. I felt like I could tear clear through the side of the van with my bare hands, and part of me kind of wanted to.

“So what does this mean?” I said, forcing down the groundswell of energy that was roiling inside of me, trying to cajole me into setting it free. “That I’m part Nosferatu? That I’m going to start craving blood?”

Keel shook his head. “No. I think it’s more of the bond going both ways now. Looks like you can harness some of my power too.”

“So what does that make me?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure something like you – like this, like us – has ever existed before.”

Despite feeling so impossibly, wonderfully alive, I was drifting further and further away from the humanity that I once held so dear, that I once would have defended to my dying breath. I suddenly wanted to get out into that world – my world – more than anything else.

I went to work on my hair in a mad, frantic rush. After cutting out all of the knots, I was left with a short jagged fringe that ended about an inch above my shoulders. Digging around in the remaining bag for some new clothes, I discovered that Keel had gone above and beyond, bringing me not one, but four new outfits. I settled on a pair of black yoga pants and a long-sleeved purple blouse that was airy, but still thankfully opaque. The rest of Keel’s selections would show off far too many of my scars.

“I didn’t know what you’d like,” he said, when he noticed I was getting dressed. This time, unlike earlier, his eyes lingered on my half-naked torso, drinking me in. He was indulging himself – boldly. With the blood scent, and the raw way I was feeling refracting out at him, things had become a bit more primal.

But right now, Keel didn’t hold the same appeal as the outdoors. The whole of my being was screaming that I needed to get out of the van, breathe in the night air and truly embrace my freedom. I wanted to run as far as my feet could carry me, just sidewalks and open roads and stretches of grassy parkland, no walls, no shackles, no underground bunker – no longer. I felt playfully reckless, drunk on a physicality that was fundamentally different from my own and absolutely one-hundred-percent amazing.

“I know you feel its allure but be careful,” Keel warned, obviously sharing my anticipatory body buzz. “I suspect it’s as addictive as your blood is to me. It’s like this version of the bond is a closed circuit, designed to keep all others out.”

But if it was, what was its purpose? I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to keep talking. I wanted to get outside. Now. Right now.

“Are you going to change your pants?” I said impatiently, as I slid the black cap Keel had bought over my dirty hair.

Keel went and retrieved a black pair of jeans from the same shopping bag that’d held my clothes. Even with all that selection, he’d stuck to his uniform, making me wonder if he wore it out of choice, rather than just utility. I gathered up the toothbrush and the toothpaste while he changed, but I did take a couple of extended peeks, though nothing remotely close to the blatantly licentious way he’d stared at me a few minutes earlier. Still, it was hard to tear my eyes away from those muscular, impossibly toned legs, his warrior strength appealing to the same part of me that felt she could take on whatever the night threw her way, and several other parts of me as well.

“I know you’re watching,” Keel said, startling me.

I was embarrassed for all of a split second, before it was replaced with indignant self-righteousness. I whirled around to face him. “I wasn’t doing anything you didn’t do,” I stated.

“I know,” he said, dark-eyed, with a nervy, inviting wink. “I just mean you don’t have to be covert about it. I have nothing to hide from you.”

“Okay,” I said in easy agreement. His words should have had a deeper, more profound effect on me, should have moved me, unravelled my heartstrings and made me fall into his arms, but the night was calling, eager to claim whatever it was that Keel had given me, and I was all done with waiting.

needed to be under the moon.

I swung open the rear doors of the van and hopped down onto the pavement. I hastily brushed my teeth, in a useless attempt to scrub off five months’ worth of grime, before tossing the works back into the van.

After that, there was nothing but me and the world. My world. But I felt like I was seeing and experiencing it for the first time. It was alive all around me, and its life called to mine. A siren’s song that stripped away reason and left only pleasure, sensation and power. I tilted my head back, and spun around and around, faster and faster, taking in every extraordinarily enhanced perception Keel’s infusion had given me. The lights seemed twice as bright and the night painted with four times as many shades of midnight blue. How long will this last? I wondered, wishing it would last forever.

“Are you ready yet?” I hollered back at the van, just as Keel was locking it up.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” he replied.

“Then catch me if you can,” I challenged. I stopped spinning and tore off across the parking lot towards the deeper shadows and  darker cover of the bordering treeline, faster than any human or sorcerer should've been able to run.

 

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