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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13. With Friends Like This

 

Chapter 11: With Friends Like This

Keel was careful, but apparently not careful enough; the first thing Boras said when he came through the door a few hours later was, “What happened to all the blood?”

Crap! You didn’t even consider this possibility. I was definitely slipping, but not so much that I couldn’t still think fast under pressure.

“I cleaned myself up,” I said quickly, garnishing the lie with an extra spoonful of cranky. Terrified, pissed off – maybe he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Same galloping heartbeat.

“How?” said Boras. His face was creased with deep lines that belied just how seriously he took his assignment of jailer and warden.

I shifted my gaze to the white porcelain toilet bowl. “How do you think?”

“Why are you dry, then?” he asked.

“Because I came to hours ago – and I wouldn’t have had to do it if you had done your job.” He might not buy it, but luckily Boras had a secondary weakness: sass. And I was fairly confident I could annoy him into distraction.

But, of course, he had weaponry of his own. “Shame about your face,” he said. “You weren’t half-bad looking once, for one of them.”

Ouch. That was low. What I’d said to him hadn’t been anywhere near that mean.

I’d somehow, erroneously, convinced myself the damage couldn’t be too bad, since Keel hadn’t said anything and he’d spent the majority of his time here looking right at me. But that’d been dumb. I should have known that when it came to me, he only saw the blood.

He hadn’t even asked my name. Still. Even after I threw that in his face.

“Shall we see what can be done, then?” Boras said. He hadn’t taken his eyes off my wounds, but he finally let the blood thing drop.

I shifted myself on the mattress so that the lacerated side of my face was fully exposed and tilted my head. I’d didn’t want him anywhere near me, but if he didn’t doctor the wounds, no one else would, and it wasn’t like Keel’s tongue had any healing properties.

Boras said nothing as he disinfected the rawest areas and then carefully stitched up my cheek. The sharp, piercing jabs that accompanied the white string he pulled through my skin soon coalesced into a single pulsing agony and I drifted away again – just like when I was with the King. I didn’t want to think of the extent of the damage, and every stitch was a further reminder of it. I didn’t want to think about anything.

When Boras was done with my face, he cleaned and wrapped my neck wound, but this time he had proper bandages instead of that useless neck brace. Had they had to order more supplies now that the King had a new plaything?

“He’s not coming today,” Boras said as he packed up his makeshift medical kit – a black gym bag with assorted bandages and disinfectants in it.

My head shot up. Did he just read my mind?

“Rest up, and eat,” he continued. “I know you weren’t fed last night – couldn’t let anyone in here with you ripped up like that – but it’ll be brought right down.” With that, he left my cell.

As soon as he was gone, I ran my fingers over the mountain range of stitches that trailed up the left side of my face. The next time I looked in the mirror, I’d be greeted by Frankenstein’s monster made flesh. Will I even recognize myself? I wondered. The human-world me seemed further and further away with each passing day, each new scar.

Live with monsters, become one?

I’d only begun to ponder that unsettling idea when the overabundant spread arrived. I gobbled it down, not even waiting for the guard to leave before I dug in with both hands. I was ravenous, but eating also distracted me from all the things I had no control over – including Keel. He was the other  reason I was shovelling down dinner. I knew he’d show up later to drink from me, even if the King wasn’t going to. And I didn’t want to be too weak when he did.

Or he might try to spoon with me again.

What the hell had that been about anyway? He didn’t make any sense at all. Even less than human guys did, if that was possible.

When I’d finished eating, I kicked the tray to the side and settled in to wait. No one would come to collect it until tomorrow, and sometime before then, Keel would show up.

I dozed off once or twice while I leaned against the wall and speculated about what our next encounter might bring. I definitely intended to ask him more questions, since he seemed to divulge details about the Nosferatu as if just they were just another casual topic of conversation. Which – duh –  they would be for him. This was his world after all.

I would take advantage of that. Oh yes, I would.

And I would not take it for granted. Not like I had with Boras. I’d play this smarter.

I knew Keel had arrived before the key clinked in the lock, because I could hear him mumbling something to the guard outside. A minute later he was standing in the middle of my cell, holding court. “You’re up,” he said, as if that surprised him. “Were you waiting for me?”

Heat blossomed in my cheeks; I really hadn’t thought of how this would look. Keel grinned broadly.

“Boras thinks something’s up,” I told him, and he visibly deflated. “He could tell there wasn’t enough blood today.”

Keel shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he considered this. When he realized he was doing it, he stopped, but a second later he ran his hand through his hair, which immediately fell right back into his face. God, was it fun to see him uncomfortable for a change.

“What’d you do?” he asked.

I didn’t answer right away. I wanted to revel in his uneasiness a while longer. If only I could bottle this shift in power and wield it more frequently.

“I lied,” I said, when he began to look as if he would shake it out of me if I didn’t start talking. Then I told him the stupid-smart story I’d come up with. “I don’t think Boras really believed me, though,” I admitted. “I just pissed him off enough that he stopped caring. As intended.”

“You should watch that,” Keel said, as he bent over to grab a leftover hunk of roast beef from my discarded food platter. “I heard how you got that scar on your neck.”

My hand immediately shot up to the knotted mass at the top of my spine, but it was stopped by the bandage. Keel hadn’t commented on my disfigured skin before and now that he had, it made me feel incredibly self-conscious. I shouldn’t care but I did. It wasn’t really even about him; it went so much deeper than that to a core, irrefutable truth: if even the monsters thought I was hideous, what chance did I have? No matter where I was, I’d be alone. Always. Even freedom would be a prison.

“I’ve been trying to figure out if you’re brave or stupid ever since my father told me that story,” Keel said, interrupting my spiral down into self-pity land.

“A little of both, I think.”

“I knew there was something I liked about you,” Keel said, stuffing the last piece of meat into his mouth before walking over and offering me a hand up. “Now, what d’ya say? You wanna get out of here?”

“Pardon?” I said, as he pulled me to my feet. There was no way I could have heard that right.

“Do you want to leave this cell?” Keel said it slower, as if he was talking to a child. Totally patronizing.

“I heard what you said,” I snapped. “I just can’t believe it, is all. Aren’t you worried I might escape?”

“I like risk.” That mischievous glint I saw in his eyes the night we met was back – with a vengeance. “And I’m betting you won’t.”

“Why?” I said, genuinely curious as to why he thought I wouldn’t bolt if given the chance.

“Same reason you lied for me. You’re bored. And I’m not boring.”

“Says you.”

“But you were waiting for me. Even if you won’t admit it.” I should’ve known he was just biding his time until the perfect moment materialized to rub that in.

“Shut up.”

He didn’t. “So you wanna get out of here or what?”

“Okay!” The word came out sounding like a challenge, and he wasn’t the only one who smirked. ”Wait, what if we get caught?”

“They’re all sleeping, and Artho and I have a deal. There’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about.”

That was a pretty funny line coming from a bloodsucking vampire.

“I wish I could take you to the fights,” Keel said. “They're the best entertainment we have down here. Everyone goes. It’s a total bloodbath.” As he grew more excited, his words began to run together. “When I was young, I wanted to be one of them: a legendary fighter. Train, annihilate my opponents by inflicting maximum possible damage, and then sit back and drink in the adoration. My father may be respected and feared, but fighters are worshipped. But, of course, crown princes don’t get to choose their professions.”

“Poor baby,” I said. “Must be so hard having a throne waiting for you.” Seriously, Keel was whining about being royalty, while I was living the life of a glorified feedbag strapped to a wall?

“You don’t understand,” he said. “How could you? You don’t have any idea of what it’s like to be ruled by duty and expectation.”

I took a moment to survey my small, Spartan cell, allowing my woeful accommodations to fuel my outrage. “Is that what you think? Exactly how much say do I have in my life, right now?”

“But you don’t even know magic; your life would have been wasted anyway.”

My whole body tensed up in red-hot fury. Is that what he believed? That my blood and my magic were the only things that mattered, that were worth anything?

“How exactly do you know that?” I spat the words into his face.

“Because you’re not human,” he said. His tone suggested that he expected that statement to blow the steam out of my argument, but it pulled the pin from the grenade.

“Wrong!” I screamed and the word bounced back at us off the bare concrete walls. “I was only ever human. And I fit in to that world just fine, thank you very much. It was a pretty awesome place. You were the ones who turned me into this.” I made a dramatic sweeping motion over my body, then shifted my head so my fresh stitches were front and centre in the tableau. “If anything, magic ruined my life, and I still don’t have any.”

“Hey, hey, calm down,” Keel said, slow and soothing. “I didn’t come down here looking for a fight. You should be happy you’re not human. Do you think I’d bother talking to you if you were?”

“But aren’t you half human?”

“Not for long.” Keel made his humanity sound like a disease he needed to be cured of, which only made me want to hold on to mine – real or imagined – that much harder.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being human!” I roared at him. Everything about me felt fierce, as if I was the last defender of humankind.

“You know how many of their little minds snap when they first see us? When they first realize what we are?” Keel asked. “More than half of them. The rest? It’s rare that their sanity holds out a month. Humans are a weak species. Perfect, malleable prey. Way too easy to break. Like I said, you’d never catch me down here for one of them.”

“But I’m special,” I sneered. “The powerless sorceress.”

“Who hasn’t gone crazy yet,” he noted. “So yeah.”

I thought about all those poor imprisoned people out there, minds mushed by the cruelty of the should-be-fictional monsters. If they were freed, could they ever be healed? If what Keel said was true, than they had to have been treated worse than me or something. Surely I was no different, no stronger, no better suited for this sort of detainment.

“But I thought I might, many, many times.” The confession spilled out of me, unbeckoned. It was the one fear that ate away at me more than any of the others. And now it was out there, spoken, made real.

“But you didn’t,” Keel said. “Even without magic, your sorcerer’s blood makes you strong.”

“Remind me of that the next time you’re holding me down, having a snack.”

“Is that an invitation?” he said, leaning in so he could whisper it into my ear.

“You know what I meant,” I said, stepping backwards away from him, directly into my cell wall.

“Do I?” he asked, using my retreat to corner me. “Now, turn around.” The last two words were a command; he sounded a lot like his father. Usually I felt very safe around Keel, even when he was drinking my blood, but when he let his Nosferatu side run the show – the side he was so eager to embrace – I understood that I should be terrified of him. Was the vampire speaking now, or was this still Keel?

Stupid question, Mills, I told myself. They’re one and the same. You can’t separate the man from the monster that lies in wait within him.

I obediently shuffled myself around to face the wall, internally berating myself the whole time. But I didn’t want Keel to hurt me. I didn’t want to trick, coax or goad him into hurting me. That was what his father did, not him. I leaned my forehead against the cool concrete, and braced myself for the blade of his knife. It never came. He yanked my wrists together behind my back and slapped a pair of handcuffs on them. He hadn’t even taken the shackles off first. For all his big talk and “bet you won’t escapes,” he didn’t trust me any more than the rest of them did.

He unclasped the shackles, put one hand on the chain that separated the cuffs’ two loops and the other under my arm to guide and support me. He steered me around to face the door, and then his hand bumped into the small of my back as he shoved me forward. “Move,” he ordered.

He had taken on the demeanour of one of the King’s militiamen. What the hell have I just agreed to? I wondered.

As he guided me roughly past the rows and rows of occupied cells, I stared into the empty eyes of the captives. I’d thought they were looking at me with pity that first night I was led in, issuing a warning to the naïve new arrival, but none of that was there now; it seems I was the one who’d telegraphed it onto them, giving them feelings they were no longer capable of, just like I did with Keel. They kept us in their sights as we walked by, but the motion of their heads and eyes was Pavlovian and mechanical, completely mindless and conditioned – just like how I too stared at my cell door whenever I heard sounds in the main part of the prison. But I was nowhere near as far gone as they were. Could Keel be right? Was there something about me that prevented me from becoming that? I wanted to believe it, desperately, but aside from Keel saying it over and over again, there was absolutely no evidence I was a sorcerer, as he claimed.

That train of thought was quickly derailed by another. If the prisoners were practically catatonic, that meant that Boras had definitely lied when he told the King that they had been upset by my tortured wails – why he’d done it, I had no idea, though I doubted it was out of compassion. Maybe he thought the King would go too far, and he was just towing the party line of “keep the girl alive at all costs.” Of course, his Majesty hadn’t caught on to the deception because until my arrival, he had never set foot down here.

I fell several times as we made our way through the prison; a long time had passed since I’d last been expected to walk anywhere and my legs were unsteady. It was absolutely humiliating and each time it happened, Keel didn’t catch me, he just let me crash to the floor and then hauled me back up and ordered me to keep moving. By the fifth time, tears were cresting in my eyes and I regretted ever agreeing to go anywhere with him.

We eventually passed through a door on the far side of the hulking cellblock and entered a nondescript grey concrete hallway, where Keel stopped me and undid the handcuffs. When I didn’t move, he gave me a gentle nudge. Exactly the opposite of how he’d treated me a minute earlier.

Instead of stepping forward, I spun around to face him, livid.

“If you’re just going to let me walk around all unrestrained, then what was all that back there with the handcuffs and the shoving?”

“Can’t be too careful,” he said. “Never know who’s watching.”

“You told me they’d all lost their minds,” I raged. His explanation was no salve to my fury.

“There’s always one or two,” he admitted. “Besides I wanted to see what you would do. And you didn’t do anything.” He made it sound like I was an abject failure.

I wound back my arm and slugged him. My fist crashed directly into his nose and he didn’t even flinch, not even when a trickle of dark red blood – far darker than mine – dribbled from his right nostril. In fact, he laughed. “That all you got?”

His question opened the flood gates. I pounded my fists against his torso as if it were a punching bag, and he just stood there and took it, absorbed every ounce of my anger with his body. If anything, my frenetic attack only made him laugh louder.

When I was sweaty and panting and no longer able to continue my assault, Keel grabbed my hands. The warmth of his skin still caught me off guard, as always.

“Are you done?” he asked. He hadn’t yet wiped the blood from his face, and it was dripping from his chin down the front of his hoodie.

“Yeah, I think so.” I felt like I should add, “Sorry for freaking out,” but there was no way I was going to, not after that stunt he’d pulled with guard routine. No, he deserved it. I just wished it had hurt him more.

“What was that all about anyway?” he asked.

Holy hell, is he dense.

I huffed in exasperation, yanked my hands out of his, pushed a greasy black lock of hair off my forehead and squared my shoulders. “What’s my name?” I demanded.

“What?” Keel said, using the lower part of his right sleeve to mop up his face. The sudden shift in conversation confused him.

“You heard me. What’s my name?” I asked, the same way that he had when he’d repeated his question to me earlier. “I’m a person, Keel – human, sorcerer, whatever – and if we’re gonna keep doing this, whatever this is, you should know it.”

“It’s Mildred,” Keel said.

I blinked at him bemused. He did know it. Not using it had probably been just another one of his annoying little mind games.

“It is Mildred, right?” he said, when I didn’t reply.

“Yeah, but call me Mills,” I told him. “Everyone else does.”

“So what do you want to see, Mills?”

He gave me a minute to think it over, but I hadn’t gotten that far yet. I was still stuck on my name and how good it sounded to hear it again. Boras and the King almost never uttered it and it wasn’t quite the same saying it to myself. If it wouldn’t have sounded so horribly clichéd – not to mention given him exactly the wrong impression (and one more thing to hold over me) – I would have asked Keel to say it again and again and again, until I tired of its sound.

Instead, I considered his question. There were a dozen potential answers to it, but really only one.

“The showers.” Boras had mentioned them once a long time ago, when he and the King had first decided that the hose was a better option for my upkeep, but I hadn’t forgotten.

Keel looked at me as if I’d just asked him to take me to the moon.

“Dude,” I said, when it became clear that he was just going to continue to stand there confused. “I haven’t had a proper shower in months. If I can see anything – I want to see the showers.”

Keel shrugged. “Sure, I guess. If that’s how you want to spend your evening.” He turned and proceeded down the hallway, leading us further away from the cellblock. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked, when I didn’t follow quickly enough.

Problem was, I was still shaky on my feet. After weeks of walking no further than the three small steps between my mattress and my toilet, my muscles had forgotten how to behave. I teetered towards him like the world’s biggest toddler.

“Need help?” he asked, after he’d turned around and taken in my lopsided gait.

“No,” I told him firmly and pressed onwards. My physical condition horrified me; with the limp, my transformation was complete. I was the perfect monstrous pet for the spoiled little vampire prince.

But I would walk this hallway myself, even if it killed me.

It took a while, but I finally shuffled my way to the showers – or rather, shower. It was another stark grey room, but it had pipes lining the ceiling and wooden benches circling its four walls. It instantly reminded me of the gas chambers the Nazis used to execute people at concentration camps during WWII; our teacher had shown us pictures of them in history class - images so terrifying that they'd permanently etched themselves in my mind. And this looked like that. I stopped dead in my tracks causing Keel to careen into me, knocking me forwards onto my hands and knees. The tile was cold and hard and dry. “Are you okay?” Keel said, extending a hand towards me. This time I didn’t refuse his help. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” I lied, as he helped me to my feet. I wasn’t about to tell him that the room scared me because it looked like another room thousands of miles away and over half a century ago. No freakin’ way.

“I don’t believe you,” he said. “What spooked you?”

“Nothing spooked me,” I insisted. “Now are you gonna stand in here and watch me shower or what?”

For a second, I thought he might. Was I desperate enough for a shower to have one in front of him? Luckily, he relented before I was forced to answer that.

“Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m going to lock this door and turn on the showers,” he said, motioning to the one we’d just passed through. “Then I’ll give you some time to yourself, okay?”

“What if someone hears and comes to investigate?”

“I told you, they’re all sleeping. Nosferatu are nocturnal. Once we’ve completed the transition, we can stay up during the day if necessary, but it’s not particularly pleasant. I don’t know how Arthos has done it for this long.”

“So you’re sure it’s safe?”

“Positive,” he promised. “Now, I thought you were dying for a shower?”

“I am. But you’re still here.”

Keel retreated and locked the door behind him. I’d traded one cell for another, bigger one – but this one had running water. And almost as if thinking about it willed it into being, the nozzle heads scattered around the ceiling sprang to life.

I quickly stripped off the neck bandage and my filthy, ragged clothes and left them in a heap near the door. No matter how long or hard Boras sprayed me with the hose, they never got even remotely clean. Then I waded under the nearest stream of water. Keel wasn’t the oasis in the desert any more: these showers were. I dragged my fingers through my hair over and over. I knew I couldn’t use soap or shampoo – Boras and the King would notice immediately – but that didn’t stop me from trying to scrub the grime off, though I avoided my neck and my face – fresh wounds stung enough without my splitting them open again. Maybe I was already overdoing it with the cleaning, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop.

There had been moments when I’d believed I’d never see a proper shower again.

I stood there for a long time letting the warm, soothing water cascade down over my ravaged flesh. Just like hearing my name, the sensation recharged and invigorated me. Made me a tiny bit more whole again. Then I remembered Keel. He would be back any time now. And I didn’t want him to see me like this.

I threw my head back and dragged my fingers through the long, hopelessly tangled strands one last time, and then stepped out from under the jets.

Crap. No towel.

I squeezed the water out of my hair and then tried to shake what I could off my limbs and torso, like a poorly piloted marionette.

I’d just slid myself back into my stiff, stained cargo pants and frayed bra, both of which clung uncomfortably to my still-damp skin, when I heard a rap at the door. A second later the key turned and Keel cracked it open an inch. “Done yet?” he asked.

“Just getting dressed.”

“Not so fast,” he said, and the door started to swing open. I stubbed my bare foot against it and stopped its progress. He could still get in, but not without giving it a hefty shove.

“That’s not what I meant. I just wanted to give you these, but I can’t unless you let me open the door a little more. Come on, Mills,” he pleaded. “I’m not trying to pull anything here.”

“Just like last night, when you let me crawl away and then dragged me back?”

“That was about blood,” he said, trying to keep his voice even, but his irritation was starting to creep through. “This isn’t.”

“What’s this about?” I was now standing there half naked, my tank top dangling from my hand while I used my right shoulder against the increasing pressure he was applying on the door.

“Why not step back a little and find out?”

I gave in and withdrew my blockade a couple of inches. Keel’s white hand reached through as soon as the opening was wide enough and shoved a handful of black fabric in my direction. I snatched it away from him and threw my weight against the door, slamming it shut. Keel barely had time to get his hand clear.

Then I glanced down at what I was holding. It was his signature outfit: black jeans, black belt, black hoodie. He must have gone to get it while I was soaking in the shower.

I peeled my cargo pants back off and slid on the crisp, cool, clean denim. The jeans were way too long, forcing me to roll up the hem a few times before my feet reappeared and I definitely needed the belt to hold them up, but it had been so long since I’d had anything to wear but the outfit I’d put on the morning of my kidnapping that they felt positively luxurious all the same. And the hoodie was like a soft, comforting hug. I never wanted to take it off, even if it did smell like Keel: boyish, musky, with coppery undertones, not quite human – but also wholly without the reek of decay I’d come to associate with my captors.

When I finished dressing, I pulled open the door. Keel was leaning against the wall opposite the entrance of showers, waiting – just like I had. We looked like twins, only he had shoes and socks completing his ensemble and I didn’t.

“Why?” I asked him. I didn’t need to tell him what I meant: he knew.

“Why not?” he said casually, as if it was only a big deal to me. “Anyway, it’s just for tonight, you’ll obviously have to put those back on later.” He walked over and nudged the garments I’d discarded on the floor tentatively with his black sneaker, as if they were venomous snakes poised to strike. I knew how he felt, and he wasn’t even the one who had to wear them. It was going to be absolutely torturous. Now that I was clean, I could tell just how much they stank. I wrinkled my nose at them.

“My thoughts exactly,” Keel said.

“So, wait, you did this for you?” Of course, he did. He did it for his own comfort. Again, I’d attributed human emotions to someone who equated humanity with weakness. Selflessness probably didn’t even figure into his world. When would I cease falling into that trap?

“Will you stop trying to dissect everything?” Keel said. “You’re driving me crazy. I did it because my father and the rest of them have an extremely keen of smell, and I can’t very well show you the place if your stench is giving us away.”

“You really know how to talk to a girl.” His words may have been the truest ever spoken but he didn’t have to say it quite like that. It was quickly becoming clear that if I was going to hang with Keel, I was also going to have to learn to overlook his rough edges.

He gave me a strange unreadable look, and then bent over to scoop my nasty clothes off of the floor. “Give me a sec to stash these and we’ll go,” he said, not acknowledging my snipe at all.

Oh right, he doesn’t want to pick fights tonight.

And why exactly did I? Hadn’t he said he was going to give me the tour? Isn’t that what I wanted?

There was just something about him that brought out… well, my angst, mostly. He was like Kryptonite to my self-control.

I considered asking him how he’d intended to inhibit my stench if I hadn’t said “showers,” but his answer would likely have just set me off again. I seriously needed to adjust my approach.

“Where are we going?” I asked, when he returned.

“For starters, the museum,” he said. “If I can’t take you to the fights, that’s the next best thing – and it’s almost as grisly.”

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