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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7. On the Highway to Hell (Part 2)

I was still strapped to the table when I rejoined the world of the waking.

The cold remained ever-present, as did the pain.

The truck was stopped again, but this time the rear doors were shut.

I couldn’t tell if my savaged neck was beginning to heal or if it had gotten worse. It still hurt like hell when I tried to move my head.

So I laid there and listened. There wasn’t much else I could do. I heard a soft plinking on the truck’s roof. It was raining outside. Not hard, but a steady shower. A thousand tiny drums serenading me. A soundtrack to my imprisonment. How depressing.

If anyone was in the rear compartment with me, they were absolutely silent.

I wondered what was going on. If I was so important, why would they leave me alone? This might well be my best and only chance to make a break for it, but the mere thought of trying to work my hands and feet free was exhausting in and of itself.

I didn’t know who I was kidding. I was no hero. And whatever these people thought I could do, they were sorely mistaken. I worried what would happen when they figured that out. I was supposed to be a “gift” for a King, but what would he do when he discovered I was nothing more than a booby prize? Kill me in a fit of rage? I’d be lucky if it was just that. I didn’t know the man, but his troops feared him and that was enough to put the fear in me as well. I wasn’t stupid.

What had Boras suggested I do? Heal myself? With a spell? Sheer madness, that’s what that was. I couldn’t get a handle on this cannibal cult at all. Bizarre didn’t begin to sum it up.

I was right in the middle of going over my fractured, nightmare-tinged post-injury recollections when I felt something move – on the back of my neck.

I yelped and threw my head back despite the excruciating torment doing so caused. Sharp splinters of pain shot down my arms and spine, as if Harck had torn out considerably more flesh than he had. My scream reverberated, but no one came to investigate. Maybe they really had left me alone, or perhaps they’d run afoul of someone and simply abandoned the truck. If so, would I be found before I starved to death or died of an infection, strapped to this table? Again I told myself to breathe and tried to find strength in the knowledge that they wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble just to leave me stranded in the back of an eighteen-wheeler.

The squirming sensation on my neck resumed and I resisted the urge to swing my head from side to side until whatever was back there dislodged itself. If I did that I’d likely rip the wound wide open again.

But what was on me?  Shackled, in the dark, I had no way of knowing.

It was as though every police procedural and episode of America’s Most Wanted that I’d watched with Fredrick was coming back to haunt me. The only way I was able to sit through those shows was to tell myself that stuff like that only happened to other people. Now I was other people. And that gave me a hundred different gruesome scenarios to torture myself with.

Other than the occasional bit of wriggling, which made me want to flail and gag in equal measure, the pain masked any sensation that would have revealed the true shape and form of what was tormenting me.

The thing about being in a dark space in a moving vehicle and falling in and out of consciousness was that it made it easy to lose track of time. Normally hunger would have been a good back-up indicator, but the fever had chased my appetite away entirely. I was thirsty again, but there was no immediate way to rectify that and it spoke nothing of the time lapsed since I was abducted. Was it hours? More likely days. Though either was possible. I’d lost a week of my life to pneumonia when I was nine. I couldn’t remember any of it at all, and my current fever was easily as high.

Would anyone have found Fredrick’s corpse yet? I hoped so. I hoped the noise of the late-night demolition had drawn the curious, if not while my abductors were still on the scene, then by the first light of day. I didn’t want to think of him eaten by wild animals, picked clean by opportunistic desert scavengers. He didn’t deserve that. Whatever his mistakes, that’s just what they were: his mistakes. He’d been a good man, a good dad. He deserved a proper burial, with a funeral service, teary-eyed speeches, flowers, an over-flowing room full of mourners – all that.

Had Estella begun to tell people about our deaths? Mikey would take it the hardest. We weren’t close in age, but I didn’t torment him like some kids do their younger siblings. I teased him a little, but I always tried to be there for him too, whether that meant getting up super early on Saturday mornings to gobble down disgusting, rainbow-coloured cereal while watching superhero cartoons or cheering him on at his Little League games. His dad’s death would devastate him, but mine would also have a profound effect.

Soon, only Estella would be left to bear witness to his first day of high school, his graduation, the rest of his life.

Anna would take it hard too. I wondered if she’d continue to spend time with my family now that I was no longer in the picture. Or would she be just another reminder to Estella of the girl who had brought about her husband’s demise?

I worried she would crumble without the support of her best friend. Anna didn’t open up to people quickly, and her shyness was often misconstrued as standoffishness. It wouldn’t be easy for her to replace me – and the truth of the matter was that I didn’t want to be replaced. I didn’t want her swapping tacky souvenirs with someone new. I know that sounds selfish. But I wanted her to do that with me.

Jenny would get over it quicker. It’d become a story she’d stow away for that biography she’d write when she became rich and famous. I’d probably never live to see it.

But I’d do my damndest to try. Even now, I promised myself that. For Mikey. And for Anna and Jenny. And for hope. Most of all for hope.

My sorrow solidified into a raw hollowness, a hunger of the soul to replace my non-existent appetite.

I felt the wriggling mass push a tiny bit deeper into the soft tissue at the back of my neck and crackling sob spilled from my lips.

I’d never been a “why me?” kind of girl, but holy hell, why me? I desperately wanted to believe that someone would rescue me. But who? Not Estella, she had Mikey to protect. Not any of my friends, they would believe whatever terrible fate she told them befell me.

My birth father then? I wanted to believe he’d storm in and whisk me away to safety, but if that plan was as flawed as his last one, I didn’t have a lot of optimism about seeing results.

I wished I knew spellcraft, like they said, or even believed it was real – the crazy blood-drinking cultists could profess it all they wanted, but it just made them more crazy. I felt that little tweak in my head again, the one that kept telling me that everything wasn’t adding up. But the places it wanted to take me, I wasn’t willing to go. It’s the infection, I told myself. There has to be a rational explanation for all of this.  

If I allowed myself to think past the natural into the supernatural, a whole world of frightening new possibilities opened up. But the latter wasn’t real.

Then again: an impossibly fast, brutally strong, unnaturally tall, blood-drinking cult that smelled of festering disease and could see in the dark?

It was right there. I just had to reach out and lay claim to it. But even in my feverish state I couldn’t. That admission would unleash a terror greater than any I had felt yet. Humans were one thing, but monsters?

There are no such things as monsters.

There are no such things as monsters.

There are no such things as monsters. I chanted it to myself like a mantra, but still the thought wouldn’t leave me.

Maybe I was going crazy too? Maybe I was succumbing to delusion and my eventual death.

But that wasn’t it. And that wasn’t why my brain kept dancing around the word I refused to take ownership of. It was doing that because it fit. Better than mobsters, cultists or cannibals.

Vampires.

Oh how I wanted them to be wannabes and just a bunch of messed-up humans who had taken to drinking blood. But that didn’t speak to their speed, strength, height or night vision. Drugs might account for the first two, but only the V-word explained all four.

Now that I’d opened myself to the possibility, I couldn’t stop considering it. It changed everything. None of it for the better, but it did allow me to consider events from a different perspective.

The bright flash of light back at the cabin – supernatural? If so, what exactly did that mean about Humbolt Sarker? I gasped, and my stomach did an uncomfortable somersault.

I had barely convinced myself to consider the supernatural. The next leap of logic was even more difficult to swallow, but again it provided a tidy explanation. These vampires – I cringed at the way that word assaulted everything I thought I knew about the universe – believed my father was supernatural, which is why they thought I was too.

But that’s where it all fell apart, because I wasn’t.

My captors insisted I could do magic, so I wracked my brain for any instant in my life where I might have shown an aptitude for that. But I was no Harry Potter. I’d never made glass vanish, spoken to snakes or inflated any evil relatives. I’d done nothing of note at all. If my father was supernatural, any hereditary powers had skipped a generation.

I flinched against my shackles when I heard the rear doors of the truck being unlocked. I’d just spent who knows how long psyching myself out with the idea that I’d been kidnapped by monsters, so it came as no surprise that suddenly the idea of being alone with one or more of them terrified me.

But they’ve let you live this long, I reminded myself.

But vampires! my brain screamed. And one of them already bit you!

The rear doors swung open. I tilted my head to allow myself a peek in that direction. It was dusk. Chalk up another one for my bloodsucker theory: the creatures slept during the day – or at least they did in the movies – and that would explain not only why we’d stopped moving but why they’d left me back here alone. Funny how once you opened your mind to the crazy, it was easy to keep running with it.

“You’re awake,” Boras said as he closed the doors and approached the table.

“Water,” I rasped at him, and he fed me another bottle. As before, the first few swallows felt as if I was choking down gravel.

“What’s on my neck?” I asked as soon as he pulled the beverage away. Just because I hadn’t been able to do anything about the weird squirming did not mean that I had forgotten about it.

“Maggots,” Boras stated as casually as he might have said bandage or heat pack.

I shrieked and started shaking my head. A trickle of acidic bile rushed up my throat and splattered onto the table. “Get ’em off, get ’em off, get ’em off!” I screamed. The only thing worse than discovering what had been wiggling against my raw flesh was the knowledge that they had been doing it all day.

Boras placed his cold, rough hands against my bare shoulders and held me down so I could no longer bash my head around.

“I can’t do that,” he told me. “Unless, of course, you will heal yourself.”

“I don’t know how!” I shouted as I tried to dislodge his grip, but it was preternaturally strong.

“Then it has to be this,” he said. “They’ll eat away any decay, keep the wound clean.”

“Please, please, please get them off,” I pleaded, while I cursed the tears that were streaming down my face. I just couldn’t stop imagining the little white worms tunnelling ever deeper into my body until they found a nice warm place to call home.

“You need to calm down,” Boras said. “This is for your own good.”

“Like kidnapping me!?”

“No,” he said. “That was for the King’s good.”


As much as the thought of maggots feasting on my flesh repulsed me – I was pretty sure I’d have nightmares about that for months – I had to agree that they seemed to be working. I wasn’t quite as bone weary as I’d been during my previous bouts of wakefulness.

“How long have we been travelling?” I asked. If my strength was returning, I’d need to start thinking about escape plans and the best place to begin was to figure out where exactly we were.

“That’s none of your business,” said Boras. I loathed how everything was on a need-to-know basis these days and everyone thought I shouldn’t know anything.

“How can you see in the dark?” If he wouldn’t answer questions about our destination, perhaps he’d answer some about himself.

“Just can,” he said. I was really hoping he would have admitted to wearing infra-red goggles instead.

“What are you?” I asked. Might as well settle this once and for all. My fear was absolutely electric. But I was no less determined to face it head on.

“You really, honestly don’t know?” he said, with a laugh that sounded as if it were laced with honey. His voice was something else. It was wrong for it to belong to a monster.

“I really, honestly don’t know,” I said, emphasising my exasperation.

“Amazing,” he said, as if he were studying a particularly rare specimen in a lab. He also must have decided I was done struggling because he finally let go of my shoulders.

“What’s amazing?”

“That you are so completely innocent, so completely unaware. The King expended so much money and power capturing you and none of it was necessary, was it?”

“What are you?” I repeated. It was better than admitting weakness, though apparently I totally sucked at hiding it.

“I think I’ll leave that for the King to explain. I suspect he’ll be quite pleased with this new development.”

I had no idea why the King would be happy to discover that he’d kidnapped a completely powerless teenage girl. Perhaps if nothing else, I’d still be good for ransom. Maybe he could get back some of the money he’d wasted on this initiative.

Since looking like an idiot in front of my abductors was not something that concerned me, I blurted out, “Are you vampires?”

“You want to know what I am?” Boras said; an implied threat dangled off of every word. “I am done answering questions, that is what I am.”

“Wait,” I said, afraid he was going to leave again. I didn’t exactly want to hang out, but I didn’t want him disappearing until I found some way to convince him to remove the maggots. “Are you ever going to feed me?”

This got his attention. “Your appetite is returning? This is a good sign.”

“Not really,” I admitted, “but don’t you think I should eat something?”

“I’ll be right back,” he said. When he opened the truck’s rear doors to exit, I caught a brief glimpse of a lone maggot gyrating on the table about an inch from my nose. It must have fallen from my neck. I shivered, sucked in a deep breath and blew it off of the table.

Boras was gone not more than five or six minutes; when he returned, he began to feed me a nonsensical sequence of foods: two sticks of beef jerky, more water, a chocolate bar, some hard little salty pretzels – until I complained they were abrading my throat – and what tasted like an extremely stale honey cruller, more cardboard than pastry. I got the impression my meal was just the remnants of whatever Boras could find lying around. I hoped he hadn’t fished any of it out of the garbage. That donut had been pretty dodgy.

He plied me with more water when he ran out of gas-station snacks to stuff in my mouth.

I was hoping for the opportunity to ask more questions, but as soon as I tried, Boras shut me down.

“Karn doesn’t think it’s a good idea if we talk to you. Harck made that mistake, and look what happened.”

“Harck bit me. That’s got nothing to do with talking,” I argued, impressed by how good I was getting at swallowing back my fear.

“No, but it’s got everything to do with following orders. And I follow orders,” Boras insisted. “If the others cannot, then I must remove the element of risk. Too much has gone wrong already.”

I was just going to complain about being strapped to a table in the dark with absolutely nothing to do but lose myself in the squirming ministrations of my maggot passengers, when Boras pressed a moist cloth over my face. It smelled of sweetness and antiseptic, and the wooziness set in almost immediately.

He was drugging me.

I tried to turn away from the cloth he was clutching to my nose and mouth, but he held my head firm.

“No, please,” I begged, “don’t do th–”

Then my mind went as dark as my metal prison.

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