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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6. On the Highway to Hell (Part 1)

Chapter 5: On the Highway to Hell

Pain. That was the first thing I felt. It was eclipsing. It was all of me. Then came the cold. Bitter and freezing. My body was an icebox. I was racked with violent shivers; my teeth chattered uncontrollably.

My left arm, the one I’d been lying on, was numb and unresponsive from lack of circulation. When I tried to move it, something dug into my wrist sharply. My hands were bound behind my back. I shifted my legs: they were tied too.

My eyelids were as heavy as concrete, but I forced them open.

It was dark. Why did it always have to be dark?

Since I couldn’t see anything and my eyes felt as if they were about to burst from their sockets, I closed them again. The relief was instantaneous.

Maybe it would be okay to sleep a little more, I told myself. I was so very tired and part of me wanted nothing more than to drift back into the unknowing bliss of unconsciousness.

But I shouldn’t. As my awareness returned, so did the details of my sorry situation.

I’d been kidnapped. Was gravely injured by the feel of it. Bound and – I tried to stretch my body out straight, but my head and feet were stopped by a thin but sturdy metal mesh – caged. That's when I noticed my boots were missing.

I was also moving. Or rather, whatever the cage was in was moving.

I concentrated on the motion and listened. The drone was dull but distinguishable. I was in a truck, a well-insulated one. Maybe one of those refrigerated big rigs. That would certainly account for the cold.

Or would it? I was obviously in shock. I also had a pounding headache and a raging fever. I didn’t need the use of my hands or legs to know that. When I was little, I never really believed that the horrible stinging stuff Estella poured on my cuts was entirely necessary. I’d always been sure a rinse and bandage would be good enough. But she’d been right to be worried, and now I was worried too.

I was nearly one hundred percent certain, the wound – the bite! – was infected. And it was all my fault: not the infection but the attack itself. I’d had to go and try to be a tough girl and look what it had gotten me: a slow, painful death.

I was just debating whether I should stay quiet or call out, when one of my captors noticed I’d woken up.

“Boras – the girl, she’s with us again.”

The man’s voice sounded far away, as if he were in an entirely different dimension, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to correct him. Uh, I’ve been with you ever since you attacked and kidnapped me. I just couldn’t find the energy to open my mouth and form the words. So I let myself drift as I listened to the men talk. When I tried to concentrate it only accentuated the burning, hot pain that extended outwards from the rear of my neck.

“Good,” said a husky voice that sounded as if it should be doing voice-over work for movie trailers. “Harck did an idiotic thing back there. Nearly got all of us killed. Still likely might.”

“So what now?” the first man asked. He sounded younger than his companion. I guessed mid-twenties.

“We talk to her,” said Boras. My fever-addled brain warmed to that idea. I could lose myself in his rumbling cadence.

“I’m not talking to that,” the young man snapped. It sounded as though the idea disgusted him. That was fine by me: he wasn’t the one with the voice. That was the one I wanted.

You’re in danger! my brain screamed, but it didn’t seem very important. I was exhausted and my eyes burned and the seeping wound at the back of my neck completed the holy trinity of discomfort. I couldn’t move even if I’d wanted to.

“Then I’ll do it,” Boras said gruffly. “Because apparently I’m the only one around here who wants to live to see next week.”

I heard the other man mumble something unintelligible before stomping off to the other end of the truck. Boras, meanwhile, dragged what sounded like a plastic folding chair over to my cage.

“Hey, girlie,” he said. Why did they all have to call me girlie? It was seriously icking me out.

When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “We need to talk. You’re sick. But if you promise not to pull any stunts, I’ll clip your restraints and allow you to heal yourself. Do you understand me?”

I didn’t. In fact, I was pretty sure I was hallucinating. No one in their right mind would think someone would be able to treat a wound like mine by themselves. I needed to get to a hospital.

“Do you want to die?” he asked, when I failed to acknowledge him.

Did I? I was scared to look too deep within myself for an answer. I wasn’t sure I’d like what I found there.

“Because you will.”

I opened my mouth and coughed to clear my throat. “I need to see a doctor,” I rasped. “Take me to a doctor.”

“No can do, missy, so you can stop putting on that act right now,” he said, “You’re just going to have to take care of this yourself.”

What are you talking about?” I said wearily. If he was going to spew nonsense at me, I might as well allow the soothing ocean of sleep to pull me back into its depths.

“Your powers,” he said in a tone that implied that I was the idiot. “I’ll free you up so you can do your little ritual spell thing and heal that mess that Harck made of your neck. “

I laughed. It erupted as a course, pitchy giggle, as if I was a lifelong smoker. My throat was that parched.

“What powers?” I chortled. I was so delirious I was uncertain whether this was a dream or reality – either way, it was uproariously funny. “If you think I have powers, you either kidnapped the wrong person or are freakin’ insane. This isn’t some dumb comic book.”

The chair squeaked as Boras got to his feet.

“Anton, come here for a second,” he shouted, and a moment later a familiar set of footsteps approached. I recognized their stompy, impatient rhythm mostly because Boras and his companion were the only people I’d heard moving around since waking up, so I didn’t exactly have a large pool of suspects. Anton was the guy who’d wanted nothing to do with me.

“What is it?” he asked. It sounded like he was annoyed about being called back over.

“She says she has no powers,” Boras said, “Is it possible that she doesn’t know what she is?”

Anton chucked. “Don’t be a fool. It’s another trick.”

“But what if it isn’t?” Boras said. His concern was evident. “Do you think the King won’t kill all of us if we fail to deliver her alive? Even if he doesn’t, how do you think we’ll be treated when it gets out that we were the ones responsible for screwing up the most important royal manoeuvre in centuries? We’ll be pariahs, left to suck on rats until we die. So I think we damned well better consider the possibility that she knows nothing.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Anton said with a sigh. “Just cut her restraints and then watch her. See what happens.”

Their conversation had taken on a murky, unreal quality, as though I’d drifted off on the couch in front of the television and snippets of its programming were invading my dreams. I listened but I was too weary to sift through and try to make sense of it.

The rattle and pop of the lock on my cage opening yanked me a bit closer to lucidity, and when Boras flipped me over to cut the ties on my wrists, I wailed in agony. It was an unholy sound that echoed off of the truck’s metal walls and ceiling, and reminded me of the plaintive cry of a cat in heat.

Then I was free. I gently tried to massage some feeling back into my left arm, but the dizziness was intense, and sleep pulled at me ever more fiercely. Boras retreated from my cage and snapped the lock back in place. He took a couple more steps, then I heard the tell-tale creak of his chair.

He didn’t say anything else, but I knew he was watching me.

The silence made it impossible to keep myself awake, and a short while later, sleep claimed me.

* * *

When I came to, everything was different.

The first thing I felt – after my raging, angry wound, that is – was a cool breeze blowing over my already frosty skin. The air smelled fresh and crisp, and was likely what pulled me out of my slumber. I was so cold, but I’d dreamt of fire, that I’d been set ablaze a half dozen different ways: in bed while I slept, doused in gasoline at the public library, burned at the stake in some bygone century. I wondered if these nightmares were a symptom of the infection.

When I opened my eyes, which were even more sore and boulder-like than before, I saw I was no longer in complete darkness.

I shifted my head to get a better look at where they were holding me, but I could only crane my neck a little. Each fraction of an inch I tilted it felt like a mile. If the initial attack had been the worst pain I’d ever experienced, this trumped it tenfold. The infection must be spreading.

The light was coming from some streetlamps outside. The truck was parked and its rear doors had been thrown wide open. All around my cage – actually a large metal dog kennel – stood my captors. I didn’t notice them right away because their black garb and drawn hoods caused them to meld with the shadows.

“Karn,” Boras said, as yet another man climbed up into the trailer. “You need to see this.”

Karn’s boots pounded their way towards me, stopping just outside my cage.

“You said she’d heal herself, sir,” Boras continued. “But as you can see, she hasn’t done anything.”

“Curious,” said Karn. He was the one who had led the assault in the cellar: Mr. Nose, I recognized both his voice and his imposing silhouette. “What do you make of it? Do you think she’s just being stubborn? Or is this an act of self-sacrifice?”

“I don’t know,” Boras said. “This is the first time I’ve met one of them. The King is the expert. Is it possible that she doesn’t know who she is?”

“I wouldn’t think it, but I guess anything’s possible,” Karn said. “If she’s not going to take care of herself, we must.”

A burst of heated, hostile whispers broke out around the room. The troops disagreed with their leader’s decision.

Karn must have gotten the same impression I did, because a second later he snapped, “You have your orders, Boras. The rest of you, this has nothing to do with you, clear out.”

Within a minute, the trailer had emptied and the doors were slammed shut, cutting off the only source of light. Boras didn’t waste any time, a second later he was fiddling with the lock on my cage.

“You sure you don’t want to do this yourself, girlie?” he asked.

“My name’s Mills,” I said. My mouth was so dry the words were practically inaudible. “Thirsty,” I choked out.

Boras stepped away from the cage. When he returned, he pressed a bottle to my mouth. The cool liquid stung as it slid down my throat. I coughed a couple of times, splattering myself with water.

“I need to get you up on that table over there,” he said when he pulled the bottle away from my lips. I couldn’t see the table, or where he was gesturing, if he was gesturing at all. “So don’t try anything. I don’t know what your game is, but I have orders to help, so don’t make me regret it.”

I didn’t know how he expected me to make a move. As soon as he started pulling me up, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to walk on my own. Every time I tried to put any weight on my legs, they just wobbled out from beneath me as if they’d turned into sticks of bendy liquorice. Thankfully I didn’t need to. Boras lifted me up as if I was no heavier than a sack of feathers. I got another whiff of that sickly odor from back in the cellar, when my head came to rest on his chest. I was too weak to turn away from it, so I breathed through my mouth instead. I cringed when I noticed that even the air tasted stale.

Boras deposited me on the icy metal table. Cold and metal seemed to be key themes around here. He stretched me out on the slab so I was lying face-down, and then he secured my hands and feet with what felt like leather restraints. I wanted to kick at him as he did so, but my limbs appeared to be on strike. I settled on growling instead.

“What did I say?” Boras asked as he tightened the last shackle.

I pretended he wasn’t talking to me. In fact, I pretended he wasn’t in the room with me at all. My feverish logic suggested that if I forgot he existed, then he just might. But as soon as he started assessing the wound, that became impossible. Each poke and prod was another rusty nail hammered between my shoulder blades. I shrieked and bucked against the restraints with an energy I assumed long gone, until I blacked out.

My life was quickly becoming a series of excruciating and terrifying vignettes.

* * *

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