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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9. Truth or Dare

 

Chapter 7: Truth or Dare

When my mental movies started to bring more misery than relief – and remembering spiralled into wallowing – I sat up and blinked them away. The grey walls of my cell had lost none of their starkness while I’d been ignoring them. The flickering fluorescent lights on the ceiling that had facilitated the fictional film projector now only made my head throb harder. I’d been lucky the marble floor hadn’t given me a concussion.

I tested the heavy iron shackles that bound my wrists, pulling the chains taut and then releasing them; they were bolted into the wall and had no give whatsoever. They were also way too tight to wiggle out of; I’d already lost two or three layers of skin trying. And what if I did free myself? I wondered, levelling a glare at my cell door. I’ll never get by that.

I sighed and slumped back against the concrete wall. Might as well dub me Mills, Queen of Impossible Situations. I just wished I understood all of this better: the monsters, my alleged supernatural lineage, the role I would play here.

What’s there to know? You’re a human blood bag. The only difference between you and the rest of them is that you’re gonna be fed on by the King.

I shivered at my choice of words, but there was zero point in candy-coating it for myself. It wouldn’t make the network of human enslavement on the other side of my cell door any less horrific. It wouldn’t change their purpose or mine. But while the truth wouldn't set me free, it was at least a change from the lies that had brought me here.

Without a watch or my cellphone, it was impossible to know how long I sat there weighing different outcomes – each and every one of them ending in my death. I imagined my pale, drained body dangling limp in the King’s clawed hands, my mouth still forming the “O” of a choked-off scream. Or maybe my entrails would end up splashed across the throne room floor, setting a feeding frenzy in motion: dozens of gaunt vampires would drop to their hands and knees, jostling for position to lick my blood off the black marble, while others tore the rest of me limb from limb, sucking on my severed appendages as if they were Freezies.

I clenched my eyes shut and willed myself to think of something else. Anything else. But what? Certainly not the six-inch, metal-meshed drain in the centre of the cell’s floor and what its purpose might be - that would only lead to more horror-show visuals. It was all too easy to picture my blood trickling towards it and dripping down past the grate into whatever lay beyond it in the murky darkness, mingling with the fluids of who-knows-how-many victims who had come before me. I shook my head violently, trying to force the morbid thoughts out of mind – hoping, if nothing else, that the renewed ache in my neck wound would distract me.

Just then, the muffled clang of the prison door rang out, breaking the silence. I flinched and my eyes flew open. I’d done a good job at setting myself on edge. Too good. I crept to the far side of the mattress, which was as close to the cell door as the shackles would allow me to get, and strained to hear what was going on. As I listened, a pattern began to emerge: short, dull rattle, followed by a brief silence, followed by a cell door slamming shut.

Slowly but surely, the noise and whatever was causing it drew closer. No one’s screaming, I told myself, but the comfort that offered was trivial. Who knew how vampires took their meals?

But it’s not tomorrow yet.

I almost laughed out loud. If I had, I’m sure it would have come out as a wild, half-mad giggle. When did I become such an idiot? Did I honestly believe monsters would keep their word? God, I was as naïve as the King thought I was.

By the time the rattle rolled up to my cage – I was almost certain it was the sound of a cart being wheeled about – I’d decided that I would use the shackles as a weapon. I couldn’t extend them very far, but if I kept my back to the wall, I should be able to get enough motion to bash one of the creatures in the face if they entered my personal space. It might get me killed, but there was no way I was just going to roll over and become a chew toy for another vampire. King or not. No way.

Every muscle in my body tensed as the deadbolt on my cell door was thrown. I took a deep breath and waited. Patience, Mills, I thought. You know how fast they are. Don’t give yourself away here.

When the door swung open, however, I wasn't face to face with some ravenous beast, but rather a huge tray of delicious-smelling food. It was carried in by a vampire I hadn’t seen before. This one was clad in black pants and a long-sleeved black cotton shirt.  If not for his inhuman features, he wouldn’t have looked out of place anywhere in North America.

Like the prisoners they kept, the bloodsuckers were a contradiction. Some elements of their compound  – I could think of no better word for it, except perhaps “bunker” – were archaic, but other things were more modern, such as the outfit this one wore, and the paramilitary garb the King’s soldiers had donned when they came for me in the desert. The very existence of this subterranean enclave said it all: they could not walk freely amongst humans, so they lived separate from us, but off of us, like parasites.

Though I had intended not to eat – how could I give them what they wanted when they’d taken so much already? – once I saw the spread, I was doomed. It was a feast: there was enough food piled on the stainless steel tray to feed a family of four – half a succulent barbecued chicken; four baked potatoes; an eight-ounce steak, still a bit rare; a garden salad; four slices of garlic toast – guess the garlic thing’s a myth – a head each of broccoli and cauliflower; the list went on and on. And it all looked absolutely mouth-watering. My stomach rumbled as if it were a chainsaw buzzing to life and boldly announced its intentions to anyone that would listen, reminding me of exactly how long it had been since I’d last had a proper meal. I was salivating like a hungry dog at the sight of all that food. Resisting it was truly and utterly hopeless.

I wasn’t even fazed by the lack of cutlery, even though eating with my fingers usually sent me dashing for the sink three or four times during a meal. As soon as the vampire set the tray down within arm’s reach, my hand shot out and grabbed the steak. He studied me as I gnawed on the chunk of beef, its warm juices running down my arm and dripping onto the mattress. It was quite possibly the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten.

“What?” I said, between quick, savage bites.

My question clearly startled him. He took a step back, opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, then turned and abruptly left, locking my cell door behind him. What the hell was that all about? I wondered, before being distracted by the food again.

Once my hunger strike resolve was extinguished, there was no reason to hold back.

I shoved handful after handful of it into my mouth, not caring just how much slopped down the front of my tank top. It’s not like there was anyone to impress down here. Maybe I’d start smelling so rank that not even the vampires would want to touch me. Unlikely, but a girl could hope.

Suddenly I understood the grim mechanics of what I’d seen when I’d been escorted in. It was so simple, it was perfect. Food was clearly the only joy these prisoners were granted, but it was given in abundance, so they lost themselves in it, happily gobbling down every single tasty buffet that was placed before them, thereby fattening themselves up for those who would feed on them.

And I was doing it too. Yet even knowing that, I could not stop eating. Instinct was issuing this imperative, not my brain and not common sense.

I’d barely made it through a fraction of the meal when I began to feel sick. I’d eaten too much too fast.

I shoved the tray away – the rich scents of cooked meat and savory spices were only adding to the sudden onset nausea – and flopped back down on the mattress. Fresh grease stains glistened on fabric in front of my face, further turning my stomach.

Don’t puke, I told myself. There’s nothing to flush your mouth out with here but more food. The thought of that was absolutely repellent, but I’d drank the cup of water supplied with my meal before I’d been halfway done eating, and my cell didn’t have a sink. No, I would not, could not throw up. Repeatedly swallowing back the rising bile made me gag uncontrollably, but I held it in. By the time, the worst of the nausea had passed my ribs ached from the effort.

You deserve this, I thought bitterly. Now that I’d eaten, all that was left was to chastise myself for my lack of self-control. I’d wanted to rebel, but they’d proven me weak yet again, and all it took was a heaving plate full of food. No threat of misery. No torture. Just a home-cooked meal. I really was pathetic.

Eventually my self-loathing gave way to sleep, but it was renewed each time I awoke and reached for the tray. Even cold, its remaining morsels were impossible to resist. Maybe they drugged it, I reasoned, but deep down in my heart I knew I was just looking to blame my weakness on something else. My body needed sustenance to heal, and I didn’t have the willpower to do anything but give in.

Night came and went, though the only indication of that was the passage of time itself, neither the lights in my cell – nor those in the main area of the prison, which I could see through the cell’s small window – ever dimmed. But is night really night here? Maybe it's day that's just passed? I wasn’t sure. If the vampires were nocturnal, and their behaviour during my transport seemed to suggest that they were, might our day not be their night? I riddled that around in my head for a few minutes, before giving up. What did it matter what time it was in the human world? This wasn’t that place. I’d never have to worry about being late for school down here or anything else. What did sunlight or moonlight matter when I’d never get to see either again?

What was important was the passage of time. I clumsily shifted myself around on the mattress until I was facing the wall, then I used the edge of my right shackle to scratch a thin, wobbly line into the concrete. One meal. One day. It seemed safe to assume that with portion sizes like that, we were only fed once daily.

Aside from the occasional cough and flushing of toilets, the prison was like a tomb. If the people housed in the common area talked, they kept their voices low. Did they tell each other stories from their old lives, lamenting lost loves and lost families? Did they trade information about the creatures who kept them? Did they comfort each other, winding their fingers together between the bars of their cells to indulge themselves in the tiny bit of human contact that was still available to them? Or had they forgotten what they were, becoming more like the livestock they resemble in their imprisonment than the people they used to be?

I stared forlornly at my cell door, and cursed the secrets it kept hidden from me.

When the cart returned, it moved through the facility more slowly, and its bearer was not alone. A steady parade of boot steps echoed through the prison. The absence of screams was no more assuring than it had been yesterday.

After all, tomorrow was today. And the inevitable was inching ever closer.

The urge to freak out, to thrash against my bonds and howl like a banshee increased the closer the activity came to my cell. This was too much. How did the others not crack? Or maybe they had: maybe that was the root of their silence, their malaise, their haunted stares, their docile acceptance of this living hell.

When my captors reached my door, I immediately shifted into the defensive position I’d devised yesterday, though my knees trembled furiously. You can do this, I assured myself. Just be brave. And don't forget, they can smell fear.

I was almost thankful when Boras stepped through the door, allowing me to drop the flimsy façade. Monster or not, he’d never actually tried to hurt me and as unpleasant as the maggots had been, he’d used them with good intentions. He moved out of the way while another of his kind picked up the tray and carried it from the room.

“Good, you ate,” he said, as his eyes assessed me, lingering on my food-stained tank top. Despite being fully clothed, the way he looked at me made me feel naked. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him.

“How’s your neck?”

When I said nothing, he crossed the cell to have a look for himself, but I swung my head away, so he couldn’t remove the brace. I’d failed with the food, but this I could resist.

“Do I need to get the guards in here?” he asked. “I promise you won’t like that. Especially after I just convinced them I could handle you myself.”

“I already don’t like this,” I told him bluntly. “What’s to like?”

He gave me an exasperated look and shook his head. It was such a human expression that it took me aback. But a second later, he was all vampire again. Still, it was enough to get my mind going: Were these things once us? Hollywood sure thought so.

“Why do you care anyway?” I asked. I imagined shooting fiery daggers at him from my retinas, ones so hot they’d scorch clear through his military garb. “Oh wait, I know: it’s because you have your orders, isn’t it?”

Boras used his preternatural speed and strength to reach out and shove me down onto my knees. Less than a second later he had the brace off and was inspecting my neck. His right hand clutched my shoulder, making it impossible to move, let alone resist his inspection.

This is why I insisted in coming in here alone,” he said, his tone dead serious.

I stared up at him blankly. Not even annoyance brought colour to his cheeks.

“More of us are like Harck than the King thinks,” Boras continued. “Many would need far less incentive to do far more damage. And you seem determined to give it to them, to goad them on, like you have a death wish.”

“And what if I do?” I asked, my question amplified by the small room. “This is it for me, isn’t it? I’m not a moron, I know that when you’re done with me you’re not just going to drop me off on some street corner and thank me for my service.”

“There’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t live a good long life here,” he offered, as if he was presenting me with a much-coveted prize.

I waved my hands at my tiny, dour cell. “You call this good living?” I asked angrily. I struggled to get to my feet, but his hand kept me locked in my pose of submission. I clawed at his arms helplessly, my nails completely unable to find any purchase. “I should just be a good little cow, and accept my fate?”

“If you knew what’s good for you, you would.”

“And how’s being the King’s lunch good for me?” I shot back at him.

“It’s all relative,” he said cryptically.

‘Screw you.” I spit the words up at him with newfound venom. Boras was just as bad as the rest of them: he didn’t care about me, he just cared about making me fall obediently in line. Another soldier, following orders and diffusing threats, as if I was a bomb that needed disarming instead of sentient being.

Boras shifted his grip from my shoulder to my neck, lifting me up and slamming me back into the wall. My teeth clattered together painfully and I just narrowly avoided sinking them into my tongue. No more than an inch separated my face from his. His putrid breath cascaded into my nose and mouth, as if I was standing over a freshly exhumed grave. My eyes met his, and I watched with equal parts fascination and horror as the red of his irises faded away entirely. Soon I was staring into two gaping black chasms.

I wheezed and struggled as I tried to gasp down a breath, but his hand was cutting off most of my air. “Do it,” I choked out at him. In that moment, I hated him as much as I hated the King, and as much as I hated this world they’d built on cruelty and submission. “I dare you.”

My pent-up rage had found itself a target, and to hell with the consequences.

Boras shifted his grip back to my shoulders and I sucked in a desperate, ragged breath, one that was immediately stolen when he leaned forward and brushed his sharp fangs along the tender skin of my neck. He obviously had mountains more control than Harck, who would have torn out the rest of my throat given the same opportunity, but the reality wasn’t so different. I’d just entered into a suicidal game of chicken with a vampire – over my own blood. Maybe he was right: I did have a death wish.

As Boras pressed his teeth deeper into my neck, threatening to break flesh, his breath came faster and harsher. The sound of his laboured panting filled the room. While it likely had been his initial intention to teach me a lesson, he was now struggling to maintain control – and losing. His composure was falling away in hulking chunks, revealing the beast that lay in wait beneath. His claw-fingers skewered my shoulders as if he planned on nailing me to the wall with them. As my blood escaped from the tiny puncture wounds, he inhaled deeply and pressed himself up against me, trapping me between his rock hard body and the concrete, as if the smell of my blood had awoken other hungers inside him as well. Oh god, please no. No, no, no, I begged silently.

The two pinpricks where his fangs met my flesh began to sting from the incessant, unyielding pressure and I fought the urge to yank my neck away from his hot mouth, afraid even the slightest movement would cause him to snap. His hands may have been blocks of ice, but his hunger was pure heat. My heart beat faster, providing a drumbeat for the rhythm of his fetid, rasping exhalations. It was almost as if my blood was beckoning him to take his fill of it, as if I was born to be his prey. What I had offered – nourishment and the promise of satiation – hung heavily between us, as he fought not to bite down and take the same thing that Harck had died for.

If I survived this little exchange, I really needed to stop favouring the reckless over the responsible. And I definitely needed to stop letting my emotions run the show. Boras was right, they were going to get me killed. I doubted the Mills I was last week, the one who refused to even J-walk during rush hour traffic, would even recognize who I’d become.

As I hung there, my toes barely able to touch the ground, the teeth of a born predator caressing my neck like a horny impatient lover, I almost wanted him to bite down and end it, to give me an easy way out of this nightmare. Suicide by monster, if you will. And as the first of his fangs pierced my skin, I was sure that was exactly what was about to happen.

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