Chapter 7: Into the Mouth of Madness
The sun was cresting the horizon as we pulled into the parking lot of the self-storage facility that served as the front for the Nosferatu’s subterranean compound. Dawn’s first rays of light glowed yellow, orange and red across the landscape, in a dazzling, vibrant light show. They licked the long swaths of fields and twinkled through the bare branches of the trees, making everything look surreal and enchanted. The suburbs hadn’t yet crept out this far and likely never would; I suspected that the Nosferatu had bought up large patches of land here, just to prevent that from happening. I leaned back in my seat and savoured the colours. In just a few minutes, I’d be descending into the domain of faux gaslights and harsh, clinical halogens. Who knew when I’d be topside next?
Arthos was decidedly less impressed by the early morning sun-show: for the last twenty minutes he’d had his hood pulled so far forward that I wasn’t sure how he could see the road or the other vehicles on it. He only spoke once – to brusquely insist that we tilt all of the van’s sun visors down, for what little good that did. He didn’t relax until we pulled into the compound’s loading bay and he’d thumbed the button to close the garage doors.
As they rolled down, shutting us inside the belly of the hulking metal and concrete beast, I mouthed a solemn goodbye to the sun.
I still couldn’t believe I was really doing this. I had to be mental.
I let Arthos climb out of the van first. We were here now; there was no more reason to rush. As he walked around the front of the vehicle to my door, I forced myself to inhale and exhale slowly and steadily, attempting to ready myself for the next phase of this insanity: walking through the hallways I’d once been so desperate to escape, and the Induction Ceremony that awaited me at the end of them.
As Arthos opened the door for me, every nerve in my body sprang to attention. The whole of my insides were tingling and vibrating, as if my entire sensory system had gone into overdrive. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt, and yet I inherently understood what it meant: Keel was nearby. The bond – and by extension every cell of my physical body – was reacting to his proximity. It wanted me to go to him and deep down I knew it would not cease its shiver and twang until I obeyed that imperative or fought my way back to a safe distance. We were too close now; the circuit screamed for completion.
I gracelessly fumbled my way out of the van, attempting to focus on maintaining my footing rather than the tremors that threatened to shake me to pieces. Before I could stop myself, my gaze flickered out across the concrete floor, searching for long-dried bloodstains or scorch marks or any other indication of the great battle that had occurred there six months before. But all signs of the conflict were gone, either scrubbed clean, painted over, or resurfaced entirely.
“We couldn’t risk some human walking in here and asking questions,” Arthos stated. It was only then that I noticed him following the direction of my stare. What was the proper etiquette here? Should I apologize for my part in the massacre or simply avert my eyes and pretend that he hadn’t brought it up?
I settled for the latter. I was still angry with him and I figured I’d likely have weeks to express remorse. Right then, my mind was thick with other thoughts. Very soon I’d be seeing Keel for the first time since the night he turned. I’d be seeing the him he’d become. I mentally kicked myself for not prodding Arthos for more information about Keel’s problematic transition during the final leg of our journey; sure, I’d been pissed off and hadn’t wanted to talk anymore, but in the end the only one I’d done a disservice to was myself. Maybe if I’d just sucked it up and been less childish – as Arthos put it – I could have been better prepared for our reunion; how was I supposed to stay unemotional and stoic when my gut felt as if it was twisting itself into a pretzel and the bond was playing my nerve endings like a hyperactive toddler with a xylophone?
Entering the compound was an altogether different experience this time around, but that provided only the smallest of comforts. Last time I’d been blindfolded and barefoot, flanked by the king’s henchmen as they practically dragged me through the complex toward Keel’s father. I was to be his brand new meal ticket and greatest royal coup. This time I walked myself to the throne room. If I was being honest, however, I was no less scared.
Arthos strode beside me, though I could have found my way there even without his help. The tingling had metamorphosed into a tether. Keel could have been anywhere in the compound and it would have led me straight to him. The closer I got, the tauter it became, until it felt as if I could stop walking and it would propel me to him of its own volition. I wondered if Keel was feeling it too.
As we came to the end of the warren of featureless hallways and locked doors, and stepped into the final long, plush-carpeted corridor that led to the throne room, I felt as though a vice had formed around my lungs.
I’d spent months alternately dreading and dreaming of this moment: now my feet were marching straight toward the double doors that marked the entrance to the structure's big, black marble heart. I tried to stop to catch my breath and couldn’t. The tug of the bond had grown so forceful and incessant that I was absolutely lost to it. I only wished it had the same nullifying effect on my mind, which was clear and alert and freaking the hell out. There was no turning back, no escaping from what was to come next. This is it, I thought darkly. Showtime.
No one was guarding the entrance to the throne room, though I’m not sure why that surprised me. The sun was up, so most of the Nosferatu would be asleep; their sensitivity to daylight not only made them naturally nocturnal, but it was ultimately why they’d adopted this subterranean existence. That, and living underground made it easy to keep out of the purview of humans.
Arthos gave me what I think was supposed to be an encouraging look, but it didn’t translate properly through his vampiric features; the tiny smile took the shape of a slightly upturned grimace as he reached out and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. I wanted to shrug his hand away, but found I was far too grateful for the gesture. The line between friend and enemy had become a frightfully fine one.
Then he threw open the hulking double doors.
As I crossed the threshold into the throne room, I felt it: electricity, just like on a hot summer night before a particularly vicious thunderstorm. The air was alive. Pulsing. Throbbing. Prickling at my skin. And I wasn't the only one who was picking up on it: a cursory glance at the dozen or so Nosferatu who formed a loose but orderly semicircle around the elevated throne, told me as much. They cast nervous looks at one another, before turning their glares in my direction. The disgust that regularly graced my classmates’ faces was nothing compared to the open malevolence with which the Nosferatu council regarded me. Any one of them would have torn me limb from limb and then guzzled my blood from the spurting stumps should the opportunity have presented itself. The hate wafting off of them was nearly as all-consuming – and as volatile – as the electricity.
I purposely hadn't looked up at Keel yet. But I knew he was there. I could feel him looming large above me, holding court over the room and everyone in it. The bond’s internal tether tightened around my heart and rib cage and gave a final unyielding yank, reeling me toward the throne platform – and the king.
Still I didn’t lift my head. I'd spent months worrying about what I'd see when we finally came face to face and I just wanted to delay that moment a little longer. As long as I wasn't looking, I didn't have to swallow the finality of his new monstrosity.
Instead I kept my eyes glued to the marble floor. It – and the rest of this room – held only one memory for me: the first time I met Keel’s father, a day shrouded in horror and spilled blood and the wet thud of Harck’s severed head unceremoniously landing beside me.
“Sorceress,” Keel said. My pulse quickened at the sound of his voice, even as my heart sank at his refusal to address me by name. “Your deference is noted. Now look at me.”
I slowly raised my eyes, taking him in from feet to crown. He was standing in front of the large, ornate, human-skull adorned chair. The first things I saw were the polished human bones that ringed the royal robes. It was no shock to see him garbed in them. This is what Nosferatu kings wore when in chambers; once, when he’d first been crowned, he’d draped my shoulders in that exquisite, weighty red velvet. I did notice that there wasn’t as much extra fabric pooled at the bottom as there had been; in true Nosferatu fashion, his transition had garnered him at least a couple of extra inches in stature.
His hands were folded regally in front of him. Gone were his human nails: the sharp tell-tale claws of his kind had taken their place. I fought back a shiver as I recalled how easily his father’s had rent open my skin and drawn blood – and how much joy he’d taken in their doing so. Would Keel find pleasure in similar pursuits? What exactly had Arthos meant when he said he hoped he would hurt me no more than he had to?
As my eyes landed on Keel’s face, my breath caught. I’d already subconsciously prepared for the worst, but that was where the effects of his not-so-successful transition were most apparent. Sure, his gorgeous once-green eyes had turned iridescent Nosferatu red – the same as the fiery twin orbs that rested in the craniums of everyone in the room except me – but his hair had not fallen out as it should have. His head was still crowned by that same shaggy, boyish mop of unruly brown hair that he’d had when we’d first met. His pallor was more pronounced, his lips bluer and his cheekbones more prominent, and though his mouth was currently set in a grim, appraising line, I didn’t doubt his fangs had also elongated some. Yet, despite the differences, I could still see a few vestiges of the old Keel in his visage. His cheeks weren’t quite as sunken as those of his peers, nor had his face lengthened as grotesquely. It was almost as if he’d become trapped halfway between what he’d once been and what he should have become.
But all the ogling in the world couldn’t tell me a thing about his personality, and based on what I’d experienced so far, it definitely seemed to hew closer to the traditional Nosferatu end of the spectrum.
We stared at one another for a long time, as I fruitlessly tried to read his expression, to find some trace of recognition, of nostalgia, of kindness there, wondering all the while what he was looking for in mine. Did this moment feel as painfully drawn out and awkward to the council members who were spectating as it did to me? I didn’t dare turn my head to search their disapproving faces.
“You are here to swear allegiance to me and this throne?” Keel asked finally. His voice affected a boom that reminded me of his father. There was nothing but confidence in his voice; unquestionably, this was his domain.
“Yes, your Majesty.” I spoke clearly and concisely, silently reminding myself of all of Arthos’ instructions and that this was allegedly just a formality, albeit an unpleasant one.
Keel raised his right hand and made a sweeping gesture at the room. His council stepped forward as one to surround me. Their closeness ratcheted up their stench so that it almost overwhelmed me. Afraid I might gag, I resorted to breathing through my mouth, and tried not to be too obvious about it.
“And you are prepared to offer me your throat?”
“Yes, your Majesty.” Ephraim would kill me on the spot if he saw me doing this, to hell with the political fallout of my death. He’d consider this unforgivable, the ultimate treachery.
“Then approach and offer it.”
I swallowed hard. His words and manner were so unsettlingly cold that even with the bond’s ongoing internal cajoling my feet refused to budge. It seemed impossible, but my fear had finally trumped the bond’s strength and I found myself locked at an impasse. Behind me, I could feel the eyes of the council burning invisible rivets into my back. They were waiting for some error, for some misstep, for some hesitation.
I squared my shoulders, and silently commanded my foot to lift itself up onto the first step. This time it obeyed and thankfully the other one followed suit. Those four stairs seemed as steep and as difficult to negotiate as Mount Everest. Then I was there, standing face to not-quite-face with Keel. He really had shot up. I was now eye-level with his shoulders. At least, he didn't reek. Another thing I suppose I had the faulty transition to thank for.
As I awaited the inevitable – his next words, which would begin with an order and end with a pair of fangs burying themselves deep in my skin – I tried to be brave. I’d agreed to this, after all. And Arthos’ argument that this was necessary to save Keel’s rule was a convincing one. Yet, that still didn’t make the public spectacle of it any less humiliating. The last time I’d been here, I had wiped out a good number of Keel’s father’s army, and now I was offering myself up in servitude? I didn’t doubt for a moment that despite all the hostility the council felt towards me, they were also taking some sick pleasure in the irony of this display: the powerful sorceress giving herself over to their king. Ugh.
“Neck,” Keel commanded.
Once more I desperately searched his face for any trace of the old Keel, but his hardened, serious expression hid anything recognizable that may have still lurked there.
“Offer me your neck,” Keel instructed, several decibels louder. His terseness told me that if I didn’t fall into line soon, things were going to go from awkward to egregious.
I dropped my eyes and tilted my head. My hair naturally fell out of the way, leaving the desired expanse of flesh utterly exposed.
God, please make this quick, I begged, as I tried to keep my knees from shaking too noticeably. That was stupid too, as every vampire in the room already knew how scared I was; my stampeding heartbeat couldn’t lie. I figured they were enjoying that as well.
Keel’s head snapped down, fangs breaking through my jugular in a dizzying blur of speed. The pain was instant and excruciating; from the way he gnawed at my flesh like a rabid dog, it was clear he intended it to be. I wasn’t sure if he was punishing me or testing me, but as the spasms shot from my neck down through my chest and arms, the reason seemed unimportant. I bit the inside of my mouth so hard trying to suppress the scream that was lodged in my throat that soon blood erupted from there too. Just when I thought I was going to black out from the agony, a faint ripple of pleasure coursed through me, its soothing warmth beginning at the exact spot where Keel’s fangs were relentlessly working my wound. It swelled and swelled, growing more and more potent until it gobbled up all traces of discomfort. My eyelids slid shut, unable to withstand its blissful onslaught, as it cascaded through my veins, filling every part of me with sheer rapturous euphoria, before flowing outward over Keel. He paused – and I knew he felt it too – only to resume grinding his fangs against my bones with renewed vigour a few seconds later. He was still trying to hurt me, but it wasn’t working anymore. Whatever was happening inside of me was acting as the world’s most effective painkiller. It was numbing and gorgeous. Then Keel stopped fighting it as well. Without warning, his arms curled around me as his hands slid up under my hoodie; his claws dug into my back like razor blades, drawing more painless blood, while he crushed me up against him.
At that instant, the whole throne room began to shake and tremble. It started as a low rumble, as if a convoy of fully-loaded eighteen-wheelers were rolling by directly overhead, and then it increased exponentially. The lights flickered erratically, threatening to cast us into darkness. Small chunks of dust and debris shook loose from the ceiling, settling on our hair and shoulders, prematurely greying us. I should’ve been terrified – of Keel, of the blood loss, of the quaking earth – but as the pleasure gave way to that almost forgotten feeling of absolute rightness, I was robbed of caring. Let the compound come down upon us, I thought, just don’t let this moment end.
As my blood escaped down Keel's throat, the earthquake grew fiercer until one final roaring seismic blast tore his fangs out of me and knocked the whole of the Nosferatu council off their feet. I clutched at Keel’s robes to prevent myself from being pitched backwards down the stairs and, for a brief moment, we clung to each other, the last two people standing – just barely – in the whole room.
Then it was over.
The look on Keel’s face was downright murderous. “What the hell have you done now?” he hissed, as if he hoped his angry whisper would be lost in the cacophony of the council’s confused chatter.
His rage was so startling and unexpected that I let go of him and took an awkward wobbly step backward. “I didn’t do –” I began. A cold, reeking hand descended over my mouth.
“Don’t talk back,” Arthos growled in my ear. He didn’t release me until I nodded my compliance. “Now, get down on your knees.”
I dropped to the floor immediately, biting my lip as my kneecaps connected with the marble platform and rattled my bones.
“Finish this,” Arthos said. It took me a few seconds to realize he was no longer talking to me, but to Keel.
“Very well,” Keel snapped. He reached down and grabbed my chin between his thumb and forefinger, forcing me to tilt my head upward. There was nothing gentle about the gesture, nor did he wait for his council to assume their previous positions. “With my blood, do you swear your subservience to me and your allegiance to this enclave, understanding treason is punishable by death?”
“I do,” I said quickly, sensing that any further insubordination – perceived or otherwise – would push this whole ceremony way past the tipping point.
“Then it is done,” Keel pronounced, and used one of his clawed fingers to make a deep slash across his wrist. “Drink,” he ordered as his thick, dark blood splattered down onto my face. When I didn’t comply fast enough, he used his uninjured hand to pry open my jaw. I began to choke as the liquid spilled past my tonsils; it tasted more sour and earthy than any living being’s blood should. Even then, Keel did not release my face. I would not be done drinking until he decided I was done. His blood burned every inch of the way down my esophagus, fuelling a fire that flared in my chest, limbs and brain until I felt as if I were going to spontaneously combust. The more the inferno raged on, the more I felt an unexpected strength rise up out of its flames, until I was positive the rings around my irises were glowing as intensely as Keel’s eyes were.
When he did release me, I didn’t quiver or tremble. I didn’t even wipe the blood from my face. I felt imbued with such immense, unfathomable power, all I could do was luxuriate in it as it throbbed through my veins.
“Get her out of here,” Keel ordered, but I barely heard him. When two pairs of hands came and lifted me down from the throne platform, I hardly noticed them. My physical form felt incredibly distant compared to what was going on inside of me. I was intensely – you might even say singularly – aware that the pre-storm electricity had all but drained from the room, but it hadn’t dissipated or evaporated or simply disappeared.
It was still here. Only now it was inside of me – and Keel.
And suddenly everything became very, very clear: this was what had turned the sorcerer Etan.
This was pure power. This was the majesty of the bond. And it was mine.
I closed my eyes, let my body go limp and allowed myself to be carried off, knowing nothing would ever be the same again – for either of us.
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Author's Note - Please Read: Okay, I don't normally leave extended notes at the end of my updates like this but I think this chapter definitely warrants one. Firstly, WHAT DID YOU THINK? I know this is the moment that many of you have been waiting a book and a bit for, so... did I do it justice? Did you like it? Did you see any of it coming? Please tell me, as I'm absolutely dying to know.
This also marks the end of Part One of RULER. As it's my birthday next weekend and I have a bunch of pressing life crap breathing down my neck, the team and I are going to take a bit of a hiatus, probably a couple of weeks, before we return to start posting Part Two, which is going to be called "Keel" (excited yet?). I know news of this break will be a bit of a bummer for some of you, but between working full-time, writing and polishing this book, and being an incubator for a brand-new human being, I desperately need to recharge before tackling the sheer intensity that is this middle portion of RULER. But I promise, the story will only be better for it.
As always, thank you for reading (and for all your "likes" and continued support). Now, seriously, go and leave me a comment, as I really, really, REALLY want to know what you think of Mills and Keel's big reunion!