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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8. A Lesson in the Royal Way

Chapter 6: A Lesson in the Royal Way

I was already being dragged out of the truck when the smelling salts they were waving under my nose blasted me back into full wakefulness. My hands were bound behind my back again; I was blindfolded and had what felt like a neck brace securing my blaring wound. Why didn’t they just dress it properly? I wondered. One man – monster?! – gripped each of my upper arms with a leathered-gloved hand, as they propelled me forward. Struggling would likely dislocate one or both of my shoulders. They hadn’t tied up my ankles again, but they also hadn’t returned my boots; the tops of my bare feet scraped abrasively along the floor.

Once I began supporting my own weight, the strain on my shoulders decreased, though my captors held my arms no less tightly.

The truck had been backed into a loading dock or something similar. The floor was concrete: smooth and cool and free of pebbles and other small debris, probably swept regularly. When my feet touched it, the sense memory transported me back to the unfinished basement beneath Jeremy Cline’s father’s antique shop. It had been one of our favourite places to hang out in junior high, not only because it was full of weird old furniture and creepy trinkets, but because it was relatively free of adult supervision.

Yet another place I’ll never set foot in again, I thought dourly.

The concrete gave way to a set of metal steps, though no one saw fit to warn me about them, so my ankles slammed into the first couple before I was able to change my gait to compensate.

“Ow,” I grunted.

“Shut up,” commanded someone to my left. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard this voice before or not. I didn’t think so.

“Where are we?” I asked.

A heavy hand crashed into the back of my head. Whoever had hit me had done so with an open palm, but it was more than hard enough to ignite a fresh explosion of agony in my stiff, throbbing neck. My knees gave out, setting off secondary incendiaries in the joints of my shoulders as my kidnappers yanked upwards on my arms to stabilize me.

“What did I just say?” he snapped.

I took that to be rhetorical, and without any way of breaking free, I didn’t see what good inviting myself to be their punching bag would do. The way my luck was going, I'd likely end up missing another chunk of flesh. Just thinking about being gnawed on again got my pulse pounding. While fear had become a chronic condition, the levels of terror varied. But being eaten alive pretty much ranked a ten.

We came to an abrupt halt at the top of the staircase, and I heard the dull metallic thunk of a deadbolt being withdrawn. Realizing this was my last opportunity to assess the space we were in, I concentrated on what I could learn from my remaining senses. I caught a hint of fresh air; I’d missed it earlier because my abductors’ peculiar decrepit odour overshadowed everything else when I was in close quarters with several of them, but it was definitely there. Whatever this room was, one or more of its doors led outside. That tiny spark of hope, the one that had almost been extinguished, found some fuel in that: If I could remember the way back here, I could find my way out.

There was an audible squeak as the door swung open, and then I was led further into what could’ve been the basement of an apartment complex or a factory or any number of other places. The concrete floor told me nothing. I sniffed at the air again, in hopes that it would be less frugal with its secrets, but the stench of my captors kept any further olfactory clues at bay, except one: this space was much smaller than the room we’d just left. As we walked further, it became obvious we were moving down a hallway.

We passed through two more doors – both locked – hung a sharp right, and then descended four flights of stairs. The further down we went, the more my encroaching claustrophobia chewed away at my resolve, never mind my ability to keep track of our winding path. I couldn’t imagine a worse way to die than to be buried alive, choking down dirt instead of air. Being underground always brought that phobia percolating to the surface. Breathe, I reminded myself. Focus. I’d whispered those same words to myself during my algebra exam, but here they bore the weight of stone-hewn commandments.

The now-familiar jingle of keys and shifting bolts indicated yet another door at the bottom of the staircase. This place is a vault, I thought. Memorization alone was going to get me nowhere.

As if to punctuate that depressing truth, a motor whirred to life, the sound was unmistakeable: elevator, likely here to transport us even deeper into the bowels of the Earth; we obviously hadn’t walked down all those stairs just to go right back up again.

This is a place that is never meant to be found. Once I’d thought it, the revelation consumed me, testing my sanity. I will never be found.

For a moment I stopped complying and went limp – without hope there was nothing – not that it mattered, they just kept dragging me along as if they hadn’t noticed the shift in weight.

Apart from the one who had shouted at me earlier, none of my escorts spoke. They were single-minded in their task, militiamen of the King.

We exited the elevator into another concrete-floored room, with another locked door. Surprise, surprise. When we stepped through it, my aching feet were met by soft, plush shag carpeting. I longed to collapse and indulge myself in the tiny slice of heaven its fibres offered, but my captors were relentless. I’d been counting the steps we’d taken since the last door, but lost track around eighty.

“That her?” said a menacing voice directly in front of me, when we finally came to a stop. Rancid, slaughterhouse breath assaulted my sinuses. I coughed and lowered my head, in case he spoke again.

“Yes, sir,” replied a member of our entourage in an official-sounding tone.

“Take her in then,” Mr. Nasty said. “The King’s waiting.”

A tremor rattled through me. This is it, I thought. The moment that every other moment has been leading up to – and I’m going in blind. Fitting.

The opulent carpet gave way to a cold, hard surface that could’ve been tile or marble. Twenty-two steps in the hands that gripped my upper arms released me, and shoved me unceremoniously forward. My legs wobbled like those of a newborn calf, weak and unsure. I stumbled, then fell to my knees. My kneecaps cracked on the floor, adding a brand new accompaniment to my body’s orchestra of pain. Despite having my hands bound, I was able to centre my weight and narrowly avoided falling flat on my face, allowing myself to retain the tiny sliver of dignity that remained.

I had no delusions about what the King was seeing: a scrawny, filthy girl in a blood-crusted tank top with bird’s-nest hair. I undoubtedly reeked too, but my kidnappers stank worse.

“Your Majesty, we have what you are due,” announced the man who had spoken to the guard outside of the chamber.

“Take that cloth off her face, Heint. I want to get a look at her,” boomed a voice that could have belonged to no one but the king. It echoed around us, as if the room had been constructed to amplify his words.

As terrifying as spending so much time in the dark had been, the prospect of finally being able to see was indescribable. I was about to come to face to face with whatever horrors the thin strip of cotton and the pitch black before it had sought to conceal. How does a person prepare for something like this? I wondered, as Heint stepped forward and began loosening the knot.

The question remained unanswered as the blindfold dropped to the ground in front of me.

It took my eyes a moment to completely adjust to the light – the electric sconces that lined the walls gave off the dim, vaguely sinister quality of gaslight – and when they did, I found myself skittering backwards in the world’s most awkward crab walk; my bound hands toppled me several times before I ran up against multiple sturdy pairs of legs, which prevented any further retreat and forced me to confront the very thing I was fleeing from.

What stood before me – the King; it had to be – was no man.

Any doubts about the existence of monsters were nuked the moment I saw him.

Like the others, who now also had their hoods thrown back, revealing their true monstrosity, he was unnaturally tall, but even his clansmen were dwarfed by him. He must have been seven feet, maybe taller – and thin. His heavy red robe was accented with long bones – human, by the looks of it – and he donned a gruesome crown to match. But its bone-work was more intricate and delicate – made from hands and feet, probably. My fists clenched shut on their own volition. The King’s face was ashen, but from within it burned two red eyes, as if they were bulbs rather than irises. His sunken cheekbones and colourless lips completed the ghoulish living portrait of a cruel warrior king who thought nothing of wearing his proclivities as a measure of his strength, virility and the absolute control he possessed over his charges.

I opened my mouth to scream, but the horror of him had stolen my voice.

The King sniffed the air as he studied me. “What happened to her?” he demanded.

That’s when I saw his fangs. White and sharp and totally vampiric. Shit.

“She’s been injured, your Majesty,” said Heint.

“Bring her here.” Two sets of hands immediately reached down, hoisted me up and manoeuvred me toward the King. And just like that, my survival instinct kicked in. I twisted and turned and kicked and growled and screamed. But none of it did an iota of good. Even if it had, there was nowhere to run or hide. The only furnishings were the ones gathered around the King’s throne, which was imposing in its own right: upholstered with what looked like leather but, if one dared consider the human skulls that adorned the front of its armrests and the peak of its high back, was most likely human skin. To the left of the royal chair, was a rack of vicious-looking weapons – none modern. Apart from a gleaming sword with a handle shaped like a snake coiling in upon itself, a cat o’ nine tails and a mace that appeared to have some hair and skin from previous victims caught in its spiky metal protrusions, I didn’t recognize any of the weaponry, though all of it looked as if it could inflict massive damage.

Suddenly, the flooring made sense. If the king used his little collection with any frequency – and the reasonably fresh fleshy bits suggested he did – then there were likely a whole lot of grisly clean-ups in aisle twelve. The black marble wasn't just appealing, it served a dual purpose. If that wasn’t so stomach-turning, I might have admired the practicality of it.

On the other side of the throne was an ornate ebony table, edged in bronze. Atop it, a single, intricately etched chalice. As I got closer, the carvings took on the shape of letters, spelling out words and passages in some arcane, unidentifiable language. I wondered if the cup held human blood.

Would it hold mine?

The vampires flung me to the floor at feet of their leader and then scurried back to where the rest of their comrades stood. None seemed willing to get too close to the King. Yet here I was. Lucky me. I bowed my head, refusing to meet his strange luminous eyes. I worried what I might find there.

His hulking shadow fell over me as he leaned down to rip off the neck brace. It took at least one layer of skin with it, unleashing a tiny squeal from between my lips.

“She’s been bitten,” he roared. “Who is responsible for this treason?”

I cringed at his angry outburst, his rage was volcanic.

Karn answered. “Harck, your Majesty. He lost control during the apprehension.”

“Where is he now?”

“Still with the vehicles.”

“Bring him to me at once.”

Karn spun on his heel and marched out of the throne room, undoubtedly unwilling to risk upsetting the King any further, but his Majesty already had another target. “And you,” he hollered.

I scanned the vampires who had escorted me in, trying to pinpoint the direction of his anger, but they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight cluster so it was impossible to tell.

“Why isn’t she healed?”

“She claims she cannot,” said Boras, stepping forward. I recognized his velvet voice immediately. His facial features, like the King’s, were a variation on a theme: pale, hollow, inhuman. “I don’t believe she knows what she is.”

The King erupted with laughter: a diabolic cackle equal parts thunderous and maniacal. “Could it be true?” he bellowed. “Was Alastair really such a fool? The day shall be ours, do you hear me? The day shall be ours!”

The vampires joined their King in his revelry, though their hooting and hollering was cautiously boisterous, as if they’d seen his Majesty’s mood swing sharply once too often – and were expecting it to do so again.

The King was still chuckling when he planted the toe of his black leather boot firmly against my shoulder and kicked, knocking me over backwards in a clumsy partial somersault. The momentum bounced the back of my skull off of the marble floor and the room leapt and lurched before my eyes. The pounding headache arrived just as everything started to swing back into focus.

I finally dared look up at him then – and I didn’t even try to mask the hate in my eyes. Casting me onto the ground served no constructive purpose: it was an act of abject cruelty.

“So, child,” he said. His red eyes bored into me. “Do you know what you are?”

I shook my head. His casual brutality demanded the truth. As did the cornucopia of weapons.

“Human?”

“This is perfect,” the King said, sounding genuinely pleased for the first time since we entered his throne room. But his face darkened again almost immediately; Karn had returned with Harck. My attacker kept his eyes glued to the floor as Karn guided him up to the throne, never once releasing his grip on Harck’s shoulder until he’d delivered him to the King. He doesn't look so big and tough now, I thought, pleased at the prospect of seeing justice dispensed, even if was at the hands of a monster.

“What’s the meaning of this?” the King said, nodding toward me. The gesture was unnecessary. Harck knew why he’d been summoned.

“I’m sorry, your Majesty,” he offered, though his snakelike voice made the apology sound false. “She…”

The King’s right hand lashed out from the sleeve of his robe revealing five long claw-like nails; he sliced through Harck’s neck in one fluid motion. As his decapitated body crumpled to the floor, Harck’s head bounced once, with a wet squelch, then rolled back towards me, coming to rest beside my right hip; its lifeless eyes glared up at me in accusation.

I shuddered.

Even though Harck wasn’t human, and had attacked me, his execution was still shocking. His life – or was that unlife? – had been snuffed out in a fraction of a second, and I’d been made to bear witness. Lesson or threat? There didn’t appear to be much distinction between the two down here.

A dark red puddle formed under the stump of Harck’s neck, which had already begun to decompose. I tried not to gag as I watched it spread, inching ever closer to my legs. I scooted myself to the left, away from the creeping putrescence. There was no way I was going to get any of that on my cargo pants.

As the smell of rotting flesh began to permeate the room, the King tired of his murder set piece and ordered Karn to clean up “the mess.” Boras was instructed to take me to my chambers. The King also charged him with overseeing my rehabilitation. Hopefully that didn’t mean more maggots. Even though they’d been removed from my neck, I still felt the occasional phantom squirming. Boras gathered the neck brace from where the King had discarded it and helped me to my feet, the action was not so much kind as simply a necessary part of getting me out of there. He too was careful not to step in Harck’s offal.

I put up no resistance as Boras led me from the room, still supporting half of my weight. I leaned into him, my shoulders drooping in defeat. That little demonstration of what happened to those who defied the King had drained the fight out of me, it was circling the pipes right along with any hope I had of mounting an escape. His Majesty was ruthless. If he thought nothing of executing his own people, he’d do the same to me in a blink.

Boras didn’t bother replacing my blindfold. I guess it didn’t matter anymore now that I was underground and belonged to the King. Whatever that means, I thought petulantly. I was no closer to figuring out my role in all of this.

The carpet in the long hallway was black, as were the walls, creating the unsettling optical illusion that we were traversing down an endless tunnel. There were no doors dispel it either. The corridor was illuminated by flickering electric candles, just like the artificial lights in the throne room, as if hydro was an inconvenient necessity for them.

Eventually we came to a steel door, also painted black, which Boras unlocked with a key that hung on a ring with about two dozen others. We were back in the elevator foyer, a room as stark and grey as Boras himself, who remained expressionless even as I stared up at him and studied his cadaverous face. It was so rigid and unyielding it might as well have been carved in stone. He pushed the “down” button, and my claustrophobia returned full force, sending hundreds of imaginary flapping butterflies fluttering through my ribcage. How deep did this place go?    

When we stepped into the elevator and Boras jabbed the lowest button, I got my answer: seven storeys. Don’t panic, I told myself sternly, and for god’s sake don’t give him any reason to knock you out again.

The elevator opened into featureless lobby that was an exact replica of the one we’d just left.

While I hadn’t heard them from the vestibule, as soon as Boras swung open the heavy door, their moans of misery cast a pall over us. Row after row of cells filled the cavernous space, each housing a single human captive. The sound of the door appeared to bring them to life, each and every one of them hauled their heads up to assess me, the new arrival. Even the most disinterested and sullen seemed unable to turn away, as if this scene took them back to the moment they themselves were confronted with the enormity of what lay before them, and what it all meant. How could this exist without anyone knowing about it? Or was this what happened to those that found out? Would I become like them? Broken, quivering, lost, and forever trapped in the waking horrors of this half life.

As I was led past the spartan 8’ by 8’ steel enclosures, I scrutinized the captives further. They were a study in contradictions: some young, barely pubescent, while others were middle-aged. All plump yet filthy, bruised and scarred, but otherwise healthy. Each of their faces wore the same weary expression, issuing a single collective warning: This is where hope dies.

There was something else about them too, something I didn’t notice at first, or perhaps I’d been trying to block it out: the bite marks.

Some of the wounds were so old that lumpy, discoloured scar tissue was all that remained, but others were fresh, barely scabbed over. All of the prisoners exhibited some combination of the two, as if when the creatures tired of biting one area, they simply moved to the next. Or perhaps more than one vampire fed from each captive, and the monsters refused to sink their fangs into the same spot another of their kind had. Either way, these people – these human beings, who probably had family and friends out there somewhere worrying about them – were being kept as little more than glorified cattle, food for the blood-hungry masses.

My movements became stiffer and more robotic as the full scope their operation unfolded around me, giving my nightmares both form and shape. This was a blood farm, and here we were not the top of the food chain, we were prey. I was prey.

Boras steered me to a steel door with a small meshed window at eye height, using a key from his ring to open it. How the hell did the bloodsuckers keep all the doors and keys straight? I wondered.

Behind it: my “chamber.” A cell like the others, but with walls instead of bars. All the luxury of solitary confinement.

Boras guided me to a flat, fluid-stained, uncomfortable-looking mat on the far side of the tiny concrete room. At its foot was a toilet. I eyed the set-up with distaste. Why would anyone put those two things so close together? When Boras switched the restraints on my hands for the metal shackles that were chained to the wall, it became clear. I was being kept on a short leash. But why? Hadn’t we already established I had no powers?

 If I were in one of those other cells, at least I could talk the some of my fellow prisoners, but in here…  

As I sulked, Boras inspected my neck, then replaced the brace.

“When they bring you food, eat,” he instructed. “You need to, because tomorrow you’ll start your service to the King.”

“But,” I said, attempting to gesture at my neck, but running out of chain before I could finish the motion, “I’m barely healed.”

“You’re healed enough,” he said curtly, without an inkling of compassion. “Besides, the King is not the patient sort.”

Then he turned and left, slamming both doors behind him. The duo of loud clangs rang in my ears long after his footsteps faded.

Tomorrow I start my service... as an entrée for the King.  

I curled up on my side on the mat, my shackled hands clenched tightly to my chest, trying to hold myself together. I must’ve finally run out of tears because none came. I lost myself in the dull grey walls of my cell, imagining that a nostalgic slideshow loop of birthdays and Christmases, camping trips and school plays, friends and crushes, was playing out them. Home videos for the condemned. Anything was better than fixating on the unknown horrors that awaited me… tomorrow.

Those three syllables had never sounded more ominous.

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