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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5. Breaking Down the House

Chapter 4: Breaking Down the House

Fredrick gently shoved me aside as he bent down in front of the cupboard closest to the kitchen’s rear wall. While it was too dark to make out what he was doing, I heard a few metallic clinks and then the sound of something on wheels moving, so it wasn’t difficult to figure out what was going on. The entrance to the root cellar was beneath one of the sections of countertop. Clever. And not just that, it must have been professionally designed and constructed too, because I’d caught sight of nothing unusual yesterday when I’d scoped out the kitchen.

There was another clink and a barely audible squeak, then Fredrick reached up and grabbed my wrist. “Okay, come on,” he whispered. “The first step is here. Go inside. Seal the latch, then follow the stairs down. Once you’re in the cellar, find a good place to hide, stay there and be quiet.”

“What about you? What are you going to do?” I asked while Fredrick guided me to the hole in the floor. It was clear from his instructions that he didn’t intend to join me, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being down there alone, waiting to be found. And I felt that was inevitable. From the army outside to whatever high tech gadgets they were packing, it seemed Humbolt Sarker, or whoever he was, had vastly underestimated his enemies. My life as I knew it could now be measured in minutes rather than years, and I really didn’t want to spend the last of them all by myself in a cold, dark subterranean room.

“Don’t worry about me. I need to secure the cellar from this side,” he said.

“But Dad, I…”

“I know. Now get down there: we don’t have much time,” he said as he started closing the trap door, forcing me down the stairs. Once it was shut, I felt around in the dark until I found the latching mechanism and secured it. Like the rest of the cottage, the door was made out of wood and completely useless. I had little doubt an axe or a sledgehammer could easily smash through it. It probably wouldn’t even take a minute.

I crept down the stairs slowly, being extra cautious. I was unfamiliar with the layout of the cellar and I didn’t want to trip and fall or knock anything over. As I groped at the walls and shelves and the things on them, my dreams of a covert underground armory were dashed almost immediately. This room was exactly as advertised: a cold storage cellar for food, not weapons or ammunition. I did a couple more laps of the small space just to be sure, but I found little of use. I eventually grabbed a bottle from a mostly stocked rack that was just a tiny bit taller than myself. Then I squeezed my way in behind it, careful not to send any of the other bottles crashing to the floor. It was a tight fit, but I managed. Once I’d gotten as far back as I could, I slid myself down the earthen wall until I was sitting with my knees pressed tight to my chest. I clutched the bottle in front of me. I wouldn’t be able to leap up and attack my pursuers, but I might be able to surprise them and throw them off balance by knocking the shelf over at just the right moment.

I briefly thought of cracking open a bottle – the shape of the one in my hands suggested they contained wine – and taking a swig. There was certainly no shortage of them in the cellar, but with my luck I’d need a corkscrew and I didn’t drink booze anyway. It was tempting though: did I really want to die having never tasted alcohol? But when held up against all the other things I’d hadn’t tried yet – driving a car, living away from home, sex – it seemed so inconsequential. I never wanted to be someone who had a bunch of regrets at the end of her life, but I also expected I’d have a lot more time for living than this.

Maybe, if I had known this was coming, I would have done more with Pete Sakis last summer than just make-out with him in the backseat of his brother’s car in his parents’ garage. A place, according to him, where we were least likely to be walked in on, especially since his brother was away on a school exchange program in England. At the time, I’d pushed his roving hands away because I wasn’t sure he was “the one,” nor was I in a particular hurry to ditch my virginity with just anybody. I had to stifle a laugh when I thought back to how worried I was about STIs and getting pregnant. That was nothing compared to this.

As I’d been slinking down the stairs, I’d heard Fredrick rolling the counter back into place and sealing the latches on his side. He moved around for about another minute or two more after that, then nothing. All was silent inside and out.

Is this what prisoners on death row feel like? I wondered. It was intolerable knowing the end was coming and I was completely helpless to change fate. Suffering through this for any length of time would drive a person crazy.

I wondered if Fredrick was facing these last minutes the same way I was – half choking on painful introspection and fear. Had I been too hard on him and Estella? Or not hard enough, considering how craptastic this desert hideaway turned out to be? I didn’t have enough details to be sure either way. I wished I could reach out to him. I wondered where he was hiding and how he would fare in the upcoming onslaught. I hoped that he would make it through this. He shouldn’t have to die trying to save me. That should be my birth father's job. And if Fredrick did it for me, who would do it for Mikey, if he ever needed saving? We were throwing the whole universe into disarray here.

I thought I heard the man outside speaking again, but I couldn’t be sure. The root cellar was surprisingly impenetrable. What I did hear was the engines starting up. I had hoped his threat had been an empty one, and I still didn’t understand why he and his associates didn’t just come in the usual way. A whole army of men could surely take care of one wooden door. Unless that flash of light was… defensive. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me before, but it made perfect sense – that was why my father wanted Fredrick to bring me here and that was why they were threatening to bulldoze the place. They had tried it the normal way and one of them got charred.

The cottage was booby-trapped.

I wondered if my father had had a hand in that, or if he’d simply commissioned it. Fredrick did say that Sarker was powerful, so he’d likely be able to get his hands on whatever he needed with little difficulty. The only things I couldn’t wrap my brain around were how the rig worked or where it was. The cabin betrayed no hint of its actual fortitude.

Of course, none of this mattered, and the only reason I was even thinking about it was to stop my brain from speculating as to who was about to bash their way in here. I was currently leaning toward cult: the whole olfactory fixation and monarchic hierarchy seemed to scream “wackos” more than “organized crime.” I just that hoped if they killed me, they would do it fast. I didn’t want to become part of some drawn-out sacrifice to their gods or anything.

Whenever I imagined myself in life-threatening situations, I always cast myself as tough and resourceful – the heroine who would kick ass and save the day – but now, my hands were shaking so hard that I was afraid the bottle would slip from between my sweaty fingers. I knew it might make a decent weapon if broken, but was I really ballsy enough to take on who knows how many full-grown men? In all actuality, I’d be more likely to swing wild, cut myself by accident and bleed out.

The sound of the first car – truck? tank? – hitting the house was ear-shattering. It was like a bomb going off directly above my head. Whatever safeguards this place had on it were no match for an all-out vehicular assault. I had no idea if the cabin was still standing.

My dad, oh god, my dad.

I shoved my fist into my mouth so hard that I cut my knuckles open with my teeth. If I hadn’t, I would have started screaming and then all this would have been over, and Fredrick would have made the ultimate sacrifice for nothing. I was barely on the right side of hysterical, but I fought back the panic. I needed to hold on, and hold out, no matter what it took. I owed him that. I jammed myself further into corner, and willed it to swallow me.

The wall was unresponsive. Too bad and tough luck.

I pressed my hands over my ears as the vehicles kept ramming the house, but nothing was as loud as that initial impact. The rest sounded like the building being broken into smaller and smaller fragments, as if it were a chunk of rock-hard soil in need of mulching. There’s no way he could have survived this, I thought, and bit down on my lip until the physical pain matched the emotional. Maybe I didn’t want to live though this. How would I go back to New York and say that Fredrick had died, but somehow I’d lived, even though I was the one our pursuers had wanted? Estella would hate me forever.

Eventually the noise ended. Or perhaps they simply ran out of cabin to decimate. The motors died and stillness descended once more – in the cellar, at least. Above, I could hear the shattered remnants of the building cracking and creaking as it settled.

Would they think I was dead and leave?

No matter how much I wished it, it didn't make it so. Moments later, I heard someone – or rather multiple someones – digging through the rubble. They didn’t seem to care that they might have killed me in their little demolition derby, and that probably didn’t bode well for my chances if they found me.

My terror seemed to have peaked, however, and was being replaced by what felt like mental numbness, spiked with a whole month’s supply of coffee. I was alert, but emotionally disembodied. Still, it was better than shaking, sobbing and nearly pissing myself.

I listened as my father’s enemies dug around in the remains of the cottage for a long time. My legs fell asleep at one point, forcing me to stretch them out, even though I knew that would make it impossible to stand up quickly. But if they were full of pins and needles it would be just as difficult.

The men sifted through the rubble so painstakingly that I became certain they weren’t going to leave with anything less than me or my dead body. It was almost a relief when they finally found the trap door. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to be stuck in suspended animation forever either, with only my morbid thoughts and the guilt about Fredrick’s murder to keep me company. It was better to face the future, even if I didn’t have one.

That said, I didn’t get up and unlatch the door. I made them break it down, which they did.

“We know you’re down here, girlie,” said the same low voice that had yelled at us earlier from outside the cabin, only now his tone was softer and more cajoling. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

One of the men who was with him laughed. It was a sharp, mean sound that made my skin crawl.

“You smell wonderful, and so very, very alive. Anyone ever tell you that?” the man continued. “Too bad you are a gift for the King, because you and I could've had some fun.”

The “king” thing puzzled me but the "fun" and "gift" bits freaked me right out. I guessed the latter meant I’d live long enough to see the outside of this cellar again – unless, his majesty was travelling as part of the cavalcade. Still, I doubted I’d like anything that being a “gift” entailed. The word itself suggested an utter lack of free will. Would the king want to have "fun" with me too? That thought repelled me in all of its connotations.

I let him talk. I didn’t move. I barely even breathed. He could goad me as much as he wanted to, I wasn’t about to give up my location. It was very likely the last advantage I had.

“It’s real cute that you’re still hiding,” he sneered. “But we know exactly where you are.”

He closed the distance between him and me impossibly fast. I stumbled to my feet and clumsily threw my weight against the bottle rack as I did, in hopes of knocking it over and pinning him to the floor, buying myself a tiny bit more time, but he was too quick. I’d barely begun to stand up and shove when he knocked the shelf down himself. I bristled as glass exploded across the floor.

I’d been exposed.

I quickly leaned down and smashed the bottle I was holding against the toppled rack, spraying myself with alcohol and causing my cargo pants to stick uncomfortably to my legs in the places where the liquid had soaked through the fabric. I waved my makeshift weapon erratically at the blurry shapes in front of me. The lack of light almost fully obscured the men. I had no idea how they had known exactly where I was. Maybe they wearing infra-red goggles? Or perhaps it had something to do with my scent? It seemed possible since the talkative one – let’s call him Mr. Nose – kept bringing it up.

“She doesn’t look like anything special,” commented yet another man who’d followed Mr. Nose down the stairs.

“Remember what the King said: you can’t underestimate them,” Mr. Nose stated.

They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there, and while that should have been scaring me, it wasn’t. It was pissing me off.

“Who are you people?” I demanded, as loudly and as confidently as I could.

“Oh, look, she can talk,” Mr. Nose said. “I wonder what else she can do.”

“Hey jerk-off, I’m standing right here.” Insulting them was probably a stupid, reckless thing to do, but it was clear they already had their marching orders and a little belligerence probably wasn’t going to change them. Just like their barbecued comrade didn’t faze them.

Mr. Nose continued to ignore me. “Go topside and get me some back up down here. I don’t want to take any chances with this one.”

Back-up?

It sounded like whoever these people were they were intimidated by me. I had not expected that.

I wondered who they thought I was. Obviously at some point, somewhere, someone had gotten something wrong. This gave me a faint glimmer of hope. Perhaps I could use their faulty intelligence to my advantage.

Problem was, I had no idea what they thought I could do.

“Who are you?” I asked again. Even in the almost total absence of light I could see that Mr. Nose had positioned himself directly between me and the stairs leading out of the cellar, cutting off any potential escape route. The others flanked him tightly, so there was zero chance of dodging my way past him. Not that I thought that I could, not with the fallen shelf in the way.

“None of your business,” he snapped.

“Says who?” I said. “You’ve just smashed your way into my life, so why wouldn’t it be my business?”

“Because you don’t matter, blood bag.”

Ouch.

“If I don’t matter, then why are you having your friend come down here with back up?” 

“Shut up,” he ordered.

In a way, I was thankful for his callousness, because it made it so much easier to mouth off at him. While I was raised to respect my elders, I was positive that Fredrick and Estella hadn’t meant that to extend to total douchebags – and besides, the only person left to stick up for me was me. I hoped that if I kept up the back-talk, it would take them longer to realize that I wasn’t the threat they thought I was. Maybe the tough-girl act would even grant me an opportunity to escape.

“No, not until you give me some answers,” I insisted.

Just then, Mr. Nose’s reinforcements arrived. I tried to count how many people were swarming down into the cellar, but it was impossible. Their boots sounded like a procession of elephants on the debris of the cottage and the wood of the stairs.

A snake-like hiss came from somewhere among the newly arrived troops, “She’s bleeding.”

Was I? I ignored the men for a moment and tuned into my body. Oh right, my knuckles. I wiped the back of my hand roughly against my pants. It stung as the raw skin scraped across the fabric. 

Every one of them inhaled. The sound made me shiver. It was completely inhuman.

“So sweet,” Mr. Snake said, sighing.

“Bet she’s tasty,” someone else interjected. I gripped the bottleneck in my hand even tighter and tried to block out the images that my brain was feeding me. In each of them, I was trussed up, naked and served like a side of beef on a banquet table.

I wished I could see my captors. Their mysteriousness made their casual cruelty all the more incisive.

“You know she belongs to the King, and he’ll have your head if he finds out you’ve been snacking on his magic ticket,” Mr. Nose said, suddenly growing more serious. “Don’t let the smell of her blood seduce you, either. Or have you already forgotten what that scent means?”

First I was a gift. Now I was a “magic ticket”? What the hell was a magic ticket? Whatever it was, it had to be better than being a snack. Metaphorically or sexually or literally.

“But she’s bleeding and it’s just going to waste,” Mr. Snake whined. I cringed and thrust the broken bottle even further out in front of me. “I have never tasted one of them,” he went on, “and she’s so young still. I bet her blood is quite the delicacy.”

There was nothing in my life that could have prepared me for hearing myself discussed as food - and certainly not so casually. It broke through the numbness and caused my blood to run cold. A cult was bad enough. But cannibals? In America? Why did no one know about this? It seemed like something tabloid TV would be all over. Even "cannibals" didn't seem quite right, though, and I could feel the beginnings of a revelation taking shape in my head, but whenever I tried to get a firm grip on it, it slipped away, eluding me. One thing I did know was that I didn’t want any of these people touching me, let alone licking me or doing anything else to me.

“Think you can stop us, girlie?” Mr. Snake hissed.

I shuddered violently – something about the sound of his voice totally unnerved me – and a wave of snickers broke out among the men in the cellar. Crap, crap, crap, I thought, I’ve just given myself away.

“Enough,” Mr. Nose said, angrily. It was obvious that he wasn’t used to giving the same instructions twice.

I wondered what that meant for me, if I resisted them.

“Let’s do this,” Mr. Nose commanded. “And you all know what were up against here, so be careful.”

I had a feeling I knew what “this” was, so I braced for it. I bent my knees slightly and retracted the bottle so that I’d be able take a good stab at anyone who came near me. I tried to slow my breathing. If I was going to attempt to fend them off in a treacherous, debris-strewn room, I couldn’t be a spaz. I’d have to make smart decisions and remain in control.

“That’s all you got?” Mr. Snake asked. It took me a moment to figure out he was talking about the broken bottle. “I thought you were supposed to be powerful.”

“Harck, you did the training, you know what they are and what they are capable of,” shouted Mr. Nose. “Now, close your mouth, or do you need me to close it for you?”

Harck – Mr. Snake – said nothing for a minute, then he muttered, “No, sir,”  and the group’s attention shifted back to me.

“That bottle is likely a ruse,” Mr. Nose continued. “This whole helpless act is a set up, just like the unprotected cabin was. You want to go the same way as Tork?”

So that flash of light had been defensive! Score one for the good guys. Though I doubted we’d be getting any more points in this showdown, not if it was solely up to me.

And it seemed to be. The men hadn’t mentioned Fredrick and he hadn’t come barrelling down here trying to save me. A fist closed over my heart and squeezed when I imagined his broken body lying out there somewhere, crushed by a fallen wall. Would anyone find him and give him a proper funeral? Would Estella return here to search for him when he didn’t come home or would she be too scared? This would devastate Mikey, and I ached for him. He was going to lose his father, his sister and his innocence all in one day. No eight-year-old deserved that.

I shook my head to rid myself of the vision of my brother’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t lose myself in his misery right now. I needed to live through this, so that someday I could take revenge.

I snapped back into the here and now as the group, every single one of them, stepped forward in unison. Their boots crunched down simultaneously on the broken glass that littered the floor. They had formed a loose semi-circle around me and were now closing in – perhaps rightly guessing that I wouldn’t be able to slice and dice all them at once with my broken wine bottle. It was a good strategy on their part, and one I didn’t have a foil for, so I started to swing the bottle wildly again, kind of like how Harrison Ford swung the torch in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to keep the snakes at bay. Only it wasn’t quite as effective for me.

I clipped two or three of my pursuers with the sharp glass, but they didn’t flinch. I managed to get a couple more strikes in before the bottle was knocked forcefully from my hand. It hit my foot before rolling away. The men squeezed in around me so tightly that all I could feel was the rough fabric of their clothes and their bony, rock-hard bodies. I knew they were towering over me, but the darkness of the cellar still kept their faces secret. I couldn’t make out any distinguishing details, but I could see they wore low-draped hoods over black S.W.A.T. team–like attire.

They also stank. Not of sweat or cologne or oil or gunpowder, but of sickness and decrepitude. It reminded me of old people and the hospital, where underneath the sterile odour of cleaning products, there always lurked the stench of disease. I started to gag involuntarily and lashed out at the men, trying to get them to back up. It was like throwing punches at a wall. Then their hands were on me, pinning my arms to side. So I started kicking. Hard. I aimed squarely for where I thought their crotches might be. I’d seen more than one guy taken down in the schoolyard by a good swift kick to his junk, and I had nothing to lose. But my feet had no more effect than my fists, unless my goal had been to have my legs restrained too. At that point, I would have tried biting, but none of them put their hands or limbs close enough to my face to allow me to sink my teeth in.

“Looks like we win,” Mr. Harck whispered in my ear, and then he licked it, his tongue cold and rough against my lobe.

“Screw you,” I shouted, disgusted by trail of moisture his mouth left on my skin. I thrust my head to the left as hard as could, head-butting him square in the face.

“You have a thing or two to learn, little girl,” he growled. His voice was more nasal now. I hoped I’d broken his nose. “And you can consider this your first lesson."

I expected Harck to hit me back, so I lowered my head to my chest, attempting to shield myself from his fist as best I could – which wouldn’t have been very well since his cohorts were still firmly clutching my arms and legs. But instead, he followed the trajectory of my head down, sinking his teeth into my neck, like a dog worrying its prey.

The pain was instantaneous and blinding. It was the worst thing I'd ever felt. A million times more excruciating than having cavities drilled or even breaking an arm – my only previous points of reference. I shrieked like a woman on fire and instinctively flailed against my captors, but that only seemed to make Harck's teeth sink deeper into the muscles of my neck. I’d seen enough crime shows on TV to know that if he bit too deep or in the wrong place, he’d sever an artery and I’d be dead in a matter of minutes.

I forced myself to stop fighting, which only brought his actions into sharper focus. He was exploring my wound with his tongue, using it to push apart the ripped folds of my skin and poke at what lay beneath. By this point, the others had discovered what he had done and now they too were pushing in closer, as if they were also determined to take a sip of their hard-won trophy.

As their muscular bodies jockeyed for position around me, I found myself crushed between them, gasping for air. I wondered what would kill me first: suffocation or blood loss. When dizziness overcame me, heralding the imminent arrival of unconsciousness, I almost welcomed it. If my final moments on Earth were to be spent being consumed by cannibals, then I’d rather not remember them.

Right before I blacked out, I heard an angry voice lay in on Harck, but the words were indistinguishable. They sounded like that teacher in the old Charlie Brown cartoons, all garbled and nonsensical. A moment later, someone yanked Harck off of me, and I felt a sudden gush of warmth – blood? – rush down my back. I tried to reach back to feel it, but my hands didn’t seem to be responding properly. My wrists flopped weakly against those who continued to restrain them.

I felt something soft being pushed against my wound, and the pain instantly flared back up to unbearable, finally pushing me over the edge into unconsciousness. And for that, I should probably have been grateful.

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