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


35. Writ in Blood

Chapter 33: Writ in Blood

By 6 a.m. the next morning, I was already sitting in the kitchen. I ate, quietly, while pouring over Ephraim’s book and straining my ears, listening for any sign that Bruce was awake. I needed to talk to him. I needed answers.

After I’d gone upstairs the previous night, I read “Pactum Sanguinis” a half dozen times. It was magic unlike any I had ever attempted, and parts of the ritual skeazed me right out, even on repeat readings. I couldn’t believe that my father had done this with the King. I could barely imagine doing it with Keel. After I’d digested the steps of the spell, I spent another thirty minutes memorizing the incantation, carefully sounding out each syllable and training my mouth to say the unfamiliar, arcane words in sequence, fluidly. Once I was sure that I could do it off-book perfectly and without hesitation, I began to leaf through the rest of the thick volume.

At first, what I was seeing didn’t make sense. There were more spells and rituals, but there were also recipes and complex formulae – half mathematics, half… nothing I recognized. Several pages simply contained row upon row of strange symbols. It wasn’t until I stopped flipping and actually started reading that the true scope of the world of sorcery revealed itself. It was clear from the parts that were in English that magic was so much more than the base things I’d been using it for. Compared to the sorcery discussed in the book – including the ritual Keel and I would be enacting – my spellcraft was primitive. No wonder Ephraim had kept the kid gloves on during our confrontation. He’d had absolutely no need to take them off.

After sitting up all night reading the book, I felt more conflicted than ever. How could I give this up when I’d been given a peak into my own personal Pandora’s Box?

This was why I needed Bruce. But I didn’t want to wake him. He didn’t have to help me – hell, it’d probably be easier for him if he didn’t – which is why I hoped to stay on his good side. This left me mired in the kitchen, munching on crackers and cheese and lying in wait. The only reason I wasn’t climbing the walls was that there was still so much to read, so much I hadn’t gotten to yet.

So I read and I listened and I learned.

Maybe I could find a way to practice magic on the down-low, if I was careful. I’d have to lie. But what was another lie on top of the enormous one I'd already be living?

The longer I sat there, the more determined I became.

The sorcerers could make me sign away my place in this world, but I would never stop being who and what I was. Magic was in my blood. I could feel it resonating there, just as it had since the moment I’d uncorked it.

By nine o’clock, I ran out of patience.

“What?” came a muffled holler from within as I banged on the basement door.

I opened it a few inches. “It’s Mills,” I shouted down the stairs. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, sure,” rumbled Bruce. He sounded weird.

When I got to the living room, I discovered why. He had been in bed. In fact, he still was, though he was sitting up and looking at me, naked torso and all. I don’t know why his physique surprised me after seeing him take down that vamp; it wasn’t like old guys couldn’t be cut.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I’ve been reading this,” I said, holding the tome Ephraim gave me up in the air so he could see it.

“He didn’t,” Bruce said, incredulously, sliding out of bed. I was more than a little relieved to see that he was wearing pajama bottoms. He picked up an army-green T-shirt from the floor and pulled it on, before joining me in the living room.  “I told him not to give you that book.”


“Because it isn’t fair to tease you with knowledge like that,” Bruce said, sounding genuinely annoyed at my father.

“Why did he do it then?”

Bruce sat down on the denim loveseat and thought about this. “I’m not sure,” he said, after a long while. “But I think what it comes down to is that not even Mr. Sayre knows what Mr. Sayre wants.”

“Or he’s just being mean,” I posited. I’d taken a seat on the couch across from him; it was kind of funny that I’d only been here twice and we already had usual spots.

“No. He’s never cruel for the sake of being cruel,” Bruce said, suddenly defensive. “When Mr. Sayre acts, he acts with purpose and conviction. He gave you that book because he wanted to. Given your status, he should have taught you the ritual himself, and never shown it to you at all.”

“Maybe he just didn’t want to spend any more time with me.”

“I’m sure he could have weathered the discomfort. Instead, he’s once again committed what some might consider treason.”

“Like letting us go?”

Bruce nodded. “This is hard for him. But I think he’s trying. You just need to give him more time.”

“I’m being disowned,” I said, not bothering to hide my anger. “I’m going back to the human world. I’m all out of time.”

“Are you?” Bruce looked me right in the eyes as he asked that, making me wonder what he expected to find there. “Did you or did you not come down here to grill me about how you could keep doing magic?”

“I… I… wanted…” How on earth had he known my intent?

“Calm down. You don’t have to justify it to me. You should be drawn to this stuff. It’s who you are. That’s why you having that – ” Bruce motioned towards the book, “– is so wrong.”

“Can I really do all of this?” I asked, running my hand over its cover.

“Not most of it,” Bruce said, dampening my spirits, but only slightly. “Sorcery is learned over a lifetime of study and practice, and most sorcerers specialize in no more than two or three branches of the magical arts.”

“And how am I supposed to learn anything about it now? The League is excommunicating me.”

“Don’t get me started on that,” Bruce said. “But know that there are always ways. And I told you, don’t count Mr. Sayre out just yet. He may surprise you.”

“But –”

“No,” Bruce said sharply, stopping me. “It’s still early and we both need our sleep.” He reached out and slid the book off my lap, replacing it with one of the slightly prickly wool blankets. “Trust me: get some rest. Magic can wait; what you have to do this afternoon can’t.”

“You know?”

“I make it my job to know. Now sleep.” Bruce shut off the lights and padded back across the floor to his bed. I heard the soft squeak the bedframe as he climbed under the covers, then nothing for about ten minutes until he started snoring. As I lay in the dark listening to the Bruce’s ragged breaths, I hoped sleep swallowed me before worry or sadness did.

* * *

“Get up,” said a firm voice, likely connected to the equally firm hand that was shaking my shoulder. “It’s time.”

I blinked my eyelids open and found myself staring up at my father. I braced for an earful about how I wasn’t supposed to be in Bruce’s apartment. When it didn’t come, I went upstairs to get ready. I showered, but it felt like I was doing nothing more than cleansing myself for my next prison sentence. I was sure freedom had never felt this terrible to anyone, anywhere. I should have been grateful for the second chance, but I was absolutely miserable.

I slipped into the last of the new clothes: a dark blue sundress that did absolutely nothing to hide my scars. But that was okay. I would do this as the person I was: perhaps that would grant me the strength I needed.

The drive back to the guest house seemed to take half as long as it had the night before, and all too soon we were pulling into the circular laneway of Mike’s Motel. I closed my eyes and took a deep, calming breath. You can do this. You have to.

“You need to go,” Ephraim said, yanking me out of my head. “Remember, be smart and pay attention.”

“I will,” I told him. “But I trust Keel.”

“You shouldn’t,” he warned.

Since I had nothing nice to say to that, I swung open the car door and started walking towards what I knew was going to be one of the worst nights of my life. The persistent, low-hanging dread only grew heavier when I entered the guest house. In my absence, Keel had been crowned – literally. He held court in the centre of the living room, decked out in his father’s finger-bone crown and blood-red robe. Boras and Arthos stood with him, but they weren’t alone. A vacant-eyed girl was tied up in the corner. One of the prisoners from the compound; I could tell from the robotic way she’d lifted her head when I’d opened the door. This was the girl he would…

I wanted to turn around and run; I wanted to fall down and curl up into a tiny little ball and will myself to vanish; I wanted to scream and scream until I ran out of voice; but I couldn’t do any of that. I just stood there glued in place as if someone was pointing a gun at my head, while this horrifying scene seared itself into my mind.

And Keel felt every last bit of that right along with me, because I was simply too shattered to block it.

“Boras, Arthos – some privacy,” Keel ordered, “and take the... girl.” The way he hesitated bothered me; it was as if he was about to call her something else, but tempered his words. Had Keel really slipped back into his Nosferatu life so quickly?

Boras and Arthos obeyed without complaint. Whatever doubts they had about Keel’s leadership had apparently been assuaged.

“Mills,” Keel said, addressing me directly only once we were alone. My name sounded strangely formal and foreign.

I remained frozen by the front door, furious at myself for not being able to snap out of it. But that robe. On Keel.

He took a couple of strides towards me, and I closed my eyes. Still the image held.

“Take it off,” I whispered. “Please, Keel, take it off.” If he didn’t, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go through with this. Seeing him like that wiped my mind of everything but the terror and traumatizing events I’d rather have forgotten.

A moment later, I heard the sound of something soft hitting the sofa.

“Okay,” Keel said, and I cracked open my eyes a smidge, then the rest of the way. He had doffed the creepy royal garb and was back in his usual black ensemble, though his hair was still dented in a ring where the crown had rested. I exhaled and control returned to my limbs. “They’re just clothes,” Keel said, flicking the edge of the robe with his forefinger. “You shouldn’t let them have a hold over you like that.”

“It’s not what they are. It’s what they remind me of,” I explained, crossing the room to the window. I stared out at the faded fence and the fallow field beyond it, feeling equally old and empty. “It’s also what they mean. And what wearing them means you’ll become.”

I felt Keel close the distance between us, our dual bond acting as a sixth sense. Then something heavy draped across my back. I didn’t have to look down to know what it was. If I had, I probably would have shrieked and sloughed it off, but Keel’s hands were on my shoulders and though he wasn’t sending anything through the bond, the contact was calming.

“And tell me, what will you become, hunter of Nosferatu?” he asked quietly. “Don’t forget, your transition started a long time before mine.”

“But she’s innocent,” I pointed out. “I killed your people in battle.”

“She’s already broken. It’s too late for her. But her life could save hundreds, maybe more.”

“By turning you into a monster,” I said sullenly.

I felt Keel shrug behind me. “It’s what I was born to be.”

“I can’t believe how casually you can say that.”

“Like how casually you can heal a wound?” Keel swept his hand over the pristine skin where he’d bitten me, and I shivered, responding to his touch even though I didn’t want to. “Or sprout fire from your palms?” he continued, taking my hand. “We are what we are. It’s wrong to make apologies for it.”

“Is it? Because of us, the sorcerers won’t have anything to do with me.”

“So what? Look how far you’ve gotten without them already. Just because they won’t teach you, doesn’t mean you’ll lose your powers.”

“It’s never going to be easy, is it?” I said, and for once I wasn’t talking about us.

“No. I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s who we were born to be.”

As I turned to face him, I could feel the heavy fabric of the robe bunch at my feet as the bones clacked dully against each other; it was at least a foot and a half too long on me. “How did you get so brave?” I asked.

“I don’t think I had any choice.”

“I guess I don’t either.”

“No,” Keel said, and I saw my own sadness reflected in his face. “But remember, I didn’t want it to be like this either.”

I bit my lip to stop it from trembling. “I know.”

Keel leaned in and kissed my forehead, then stepped back. “Let me talk to Boras and Arthos for a minute. Then we should bind the contract.”

He was out the door before I could stall any further. As soon as he was gone, I lifted the King’s heavy cloak off my back and dragged it back over to the couch. Keel may have made his point, but that didn’t mean I wanted to wear the thing.

I was reclining in the armchair, going over the steps of “Pactum Sanguinis” in my head, when Keel returned. “We have two hours,” he beamed.

“But the ritual only takes twenty minutes. They know that, right?”

Keel’s grin didn’t waver as he strolled towards me. “Of course, but they also know not to disobey the orders of their King.”

“Wow,” I said, teasing him. “You’ve let it all go to your head already.”

“Maybe,” he said and offered me his hand. “But only when I can use it to get more time alone with you.”

“Is that so?” I let him pull me to my feet. “And what exactly do you propose we do with that time?”

“Well, first we need to get the contract done, and then… I have a few ideas.”

The way he said that last bit made me blush. When – and how – had Keel learned to flirt?

“I figure we can do it right here,” Keel said, after the briefest of pauses. Then he started dragging the chairs and couches away from the centre of the room, while I stood by stupidly, trying to figure out which “it” he was talking about. After he dropped a few cushions on either side of the coffee table, I knew it was the ritual.

“Just let me get the stuff,” Keel said, disappearing into the bedroom. When he returned, he was holding the ceremonial goblet, athame (ritual knife), quill, and contract, all as outlined in “Pactum Sanguinis.” He set them down on the coffee table, and I took my place opposite him.

“Are you sure there’s no other way?” I asked, while I took a closer look at the cup. It was ringed with strange letters and symbols, much like the one in the Nosferatu throne room. I recognized a few of the characters from the lists in Ephraim’s book.

“Mills, we’re doing this to keep you safe.”

“But Ephraim said you’re not even sure it will work.”

“If we don’t try, then it definitely won’t work. Give me the chance to do what I promised.”

I didn’t know why I was being so stubborn. It wasn’t as if I had any other choices. Death or what? Surrendering myself to the vampires to become Nosferatu Keel’s own personal bleeder; yeah, right – even if I wanted to, this Keel would never allow that, and neither would my father. “Okay,” I relented, and scooped up the paperwork.

I did what I'd promised. I reread every sentence twice, some three times, making sure that in no way could any of it be misinterpreted. The contract contained everything that had already been discussed, and nothing more. No trickery. No wishy-washy language. It was totally on the up and up.

“Everything checks out?” Keel asked, when I returned to the pages to the table.

I nodded. The contract wasn’t what I was worried about. As prepared for the ritual as I was, it was still the most complicated magic I’d ever attempted, and the book said nothing about what would happen if I screwed it up.

Keel picked up the athame and offered it to me. When I took it, he didn’t retract his arm, just moved to centre it over the goblet. “When you’re ready.”

I reached out and brought the knife to rest on Keel’s forearm. He didn’t flinch, but I took his hand with my free hand anyway. Could I really do this? Could I cut him deeply enough to spill the amount of blood the ritual called for? Every time I hurt Keel, things tended to go very, very wrong.

He squeezed my fingers reassuringly. “Mills, you’ve got to stop thinking of us as human. This can’t kill us.” When that tactic didn’t work, he tried another. “I know you don’t want to do this, but this is our chance to do magic together. Don’t you want to know what that’s like, even just once?”

“I thought Nosferatu couldn’t do magic.”

“We can’t. Not without a sorcerer, but in collusion…”

Suddenly, more of the legend of the Nosferatu king Garstatt slipped into place: how he and the sorcerer had risen to power and held it for so long.

“And just when were you planning on telling me that?” I asked. I couldn’t believe he’d been holding out on me this whole time, especially after all that “no more secrets” crap.

“Probably never," he admitted. It came out taut and apprehensive. "You have to understand, it’s the blackest of the black arts. Something not even my father would touch. It goes beyond fraternization, and it's forbidden except in proceedings like this, and even then, there is a reason only kings can make such pacts. Collusive magic is difficult and taxing and it has tolls.”

“And you couldn’t just have told me that?” I asked, exasperation leaking into my words.

Keel shook his head. “I was afraid you’d want to try it.”

“And?” He was fidgeting. I could tell he was still holding something back.

“I’m not sure I would have been able to say no to you.”

“But you’re okay with it now – excited, even – because it’s legal?”

Keel nodded. “So what do you say? Will you do magic with me?”

“Well, when you put it that way...” I tightened my grip on his hand, then drove the athame into his flesh before I could start second-guessing myself again. Blood splashed down into the goblet in the blade’s wake. Keel gritted his teeth, but kept his arm extended, stock still. Once the flow of blood slowed to a trickle, he wrapped a torn strip of dishtowel around the wound. Not elegant, but it would do the job until I could heal it later.

Then it was my turn. I wish I could say that I held my arm out across the table with the same unshakeable courage, but Keel had to help keep it steady and when he made his cut, I shrieked out in agony. It felt as if he’d sliced right down to the bone. I loathed the involuntary tears that were pouring down my face. They tasted like weakness.

As soon as I’d lost the prescribed amount of blood, I healed the wound. I doubted I'd be able to remember the words of the ritual with the constant, blaring pain flaring from my forearm.

Keel passed me the knife, its blade still thick with our intermingled blood and I began to stir the contents of the goblet. As I did that, I closed my eyes and intoned the words I’d memorized, softly at first, but growing louder with each repetition. During the third round of chanting, Keel joined in. Two more times, and the room grew noticeably colder, as if the heat itself was being used to fuel our conjurations. As we continued to chant, I turned my attention to the next part of the ritual: the joining of our blood. Unlike when I’d practiced earlier, I discovered I could visualize everything clearly in my head, like I was staring at the contents of the goblet through a microscope. As I directed my thoughts at it, and the words spilled out of our mouths over and over again, ever louder and ever faster, I began to see the change we were effecting. As it took hold, the knowledge that this part of the spell had worked was more than purely visual, it was all-encompassing.

Keel and I stopped chanting at the same moment, as if we were linked, just fleshy extensions of one another. I placed the knife on the table between us and opened my eyes. The room was frigid; the power in the air raw, palpable and immense.

Keel reached out, took the quill and dipped it into the goblet. He gently tapped the excess liquid off on the rim, then signed the contract.

As he handed me the pen, his fingers grazed mine.

He is for you.

The words ricocheted into my mind, and I fumbled the quill. Only Keel’s quick reflexes kept it from tumbling to the floor.

“What the hell?” he whispered, his worried voice sounding much louder than it actually was in the magic-infused space. “What was that?”

Keel had pulled his hands protectively into his lap. Clearly his curiosity didn’t extend to attempting to replicate the results.

“No idea. Maybe it’s the spell. Maybe that’s how it keeps me safe.” Even as I said it, I knew I was way off base. Similar words had appeared in my head before – like yesterday, in the shower – but this seemed to be the first time that Keel had heard something too. Maybe that’s why it was freaking him out so bad.

“Don’t think so,” he said. “Can you imagine how that would have gone over with our fathers?”

I stifled a giggle. “Good point. Maybe the contract binds differently for each pair that signs it. Every sorcerer’s magic is unique, after all.”

“Maybe,” Keel said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

When he didn’t say anything else, I dipped the quill in our blood and added my signature to the page. Whatever it did or didn’t mean, the ritual still needed to be completed, and I wasn’t sure how long the concoction would keep. The book had been adamant that magic, once begun, always had to be seen through, though again it failed to discuss the ramifications if it wasn’t. I thought back to the hundreds of volumes on the shelves of Ephraim’s secret office. Perhaps the consequences just had their own book, or twenty.

I picked up the goblet and rocked it back and forth in my hand, swirling around the blood inside. I dreaded this final part of the ritual the most. In order to bind the contract, Keel and I had to drink the cup dry and keep the contents down afterwards. The book described the taste of the mixture as “rancid, full-bodied rot,” and I didn’t get the impression that the author had a sense of humour. This test of will was necessary, it said, to ensure the signatories’ intent was strong and such deals were not entered into lightly or frequently.

“Let me go first,” Keel said, as he reached out and took the goblet from my hand, taking extra care not to touch me this time. He brought it to his mouth and tilted it back.

I watched him intently, trying to gauge the awfulness of what was to come. He took half a dozen quick sips then lowered the goblet. “You’ve gotta try this.”

“What do you mean? It’s not horrible?” I tried to suppress the rising panic as I wracked my head for anything I’d read in the book that might explain this, but I came up empty.

“Not at all. It’s like ambrosia.”

“Then I must have messed up the ritual,” I said, angrily, even though I knew I hadn't.

“No. It did work," Keel said. "You know that. Now drink this. Trust me.” He reached out, took my hand and slid the goblet into it, surprising me. Not a minute earlier he'd been avoiding my touch like I had leprosy.

I gazed into the deep red liquid one last time, unable to completely shove aside my trepidation about drinking Nosferatu blood, then took two big swigs and the cup was empty. Keel was right, it tasted like heaven, like an impossibly decadent dessert in liquid form. Yet, it was something that should not be.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” Keel said, then his expression turned thoughtful. A moment later, he frowned, and the worry returned. “Do you ever think that maybe we have it all wrong? That this thing is not bigger than us, but that we – and whatever is going on here – are bigger than it?”

“If so, then what?” I asked.  With the ritual complete, the residual power around us had begun to fade, and the guest house was warming back up.

“I don’t know, but to be completely honest, it scares the hell out of me.”

"We're like them, aren't we?" I asked. The question scared me; so did its answer. It's just one potential explanation, I told myself, but that didn't stop it from feeling like the right one. "We're like Garstatt and that sorcerer from the old Nosferatu legend. That’s how they were able to seize power, wasn’t it? They could do magic together without cost, just like us. Their affinity for it, for each other, made it pleasure. And when they gave themselves over to it, it became darkness.”

Keel didn’t say anything.

“I felt it, Keel,” I said. “The magic wanted to be done. And it wanted to be done with you.”

“I know,” he said. “I felt it too.”

“And when you transition, your Nosferatu self will know that as well. This ritual was supposed to protect me, but now instead of just the bond lure and the blood lure, we’ve got a magical lure too.”

“The ritual should still protect you,” he corrected, “and if it doesn’t, you will protect you.”

“I’m happy you sound so confident about that.”

“Come on, Mills,” Keel said, getting up, rounding the table, then sitting down on the floor next to me. “We don’t even know who I’m going to be when I finish transitioning, so can we drop it? We did the ritual; we did everything we could. I don’t want to spend my last hour with you like this.”

I felt myself cave. “Me neither,” I told him.

“Then let me make it up to you for yesterday.” He leaned forward and punctuated each couple words with a kiss to my neck line, while his hands slipped around behind me to the zipper of my dress.

“Moving a little fast, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” Keel muttered, capturing my lips in his. “But I only have one hour left to experience a whole lifetime of you.”

“Hey Keel,” I said breathily, between his rapidly deepening kisses. “That was exactly the right thing to say.”

“I know.” He grinned.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

For the next forty-five minutes language became obsolete. We didn't need it, we had so many other ways to communicate. As far as goodbyes went, it was definitely one for the record books. It was as if the ritual had only made us that much more in tune.

As we lay on the bed afterwards, sweaty, spent, tangled in the sheets and each other, reality began to hammer itself home again. This was the last time we’d ever be together like this, as these people. Even if this was just the beginning of us, as the ritual appeared to suggest, this wasn’t the us it was talking about.

Keel shifted and I felt the tips of his fangs tease the flesh of my neck. “What’ya say? One more taste for old time’s sake?”

He’d shown so much restraint during our lovemaking, been so careful not turn it into a repeat of yesterday, that there was no way I could deny him this final request. I tilted my head obligingly, exposing more of my neck to him. I didn’t even feel it when his fangs broke skin; he was already lulling me into a state of bliss through the bond. I let myself float on its current, imagining Keel and I bobbing through the clouds on a mattress, far away from everyone that sought to keep us apart. Free.

It was all I wanted, and everything I would never have.

I held onto that image for a long time before it started to grey and become indistinct, growing more and more foggy until it was almost entirely obscured. It was like an anchor had been lifted and all of it was just drifting away, out of reach. But it wasn’t that I was losing anything through the bond; I was losing too much of something else.

“Keel, stop! What are you doing?” I pushed the slurred, desperate words through my numb, uncooperative lips.

He was still drinking. Worse, he was using the bond to dampen my mounting terror, leaving me no means to fuel my magic. Or unleash any defense.

This is what my father had meant when he said –

“Why?” I sputtered weakly. Keel’s betrayal hurt more than the thought that I might be about to die.

I thought I was imagining it when Keel paused to answer me. “It’ll be easier for both of us this way,” he said. “I’m –”

Whatever came next was garbled and unintelligible. My senses were shutting down as my body used its every remaining resource to retain consciousness.

It just didn’t make sense, though. And that's the thought I clung to.

That hadn’t been Nosferatu Keel talking; that had been my Keel. And why would my Keel do this, now, after the ritual had supposedly been a success?

When his fangs returned to my neck and the bond flooded with another burst of crippling joy, I knew there was no fighting back from this. He’d exploited my weakness and won.

If this was to be my fate, at least it meant that the other girl would probably get to live. That was something. Or that’s what I told myself.

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