Authors: Diana Pharaoh Francis
I clamped my teeth together, refusing to scream or cry. He lit another cigarette and another, until he’d covered both hands with burns. Milky white blisters bloomed in the center of a few, the rest were white and red. Both hands throbbed. Pain lay over me in a fiery blanket.
By the time he was done, tears ran freely down my face. I hadn’t made a sound. It was a pitiful victory.
“Now,” he said. “I ask you again. Can you see dead trace?”
Everything inside me told me not to answer. Don’t let him win.
“Yes,” I muttered. I didn’t doubt that he’d continue his burning until I answered. I didn’t know how long that would be, but I knew I would eventually. People were coming to find me. If they didn’t, I would escape on my own. Either way, I had to be alive and able-bodied. I could still feel the amethyst heal-all hanging around my neck. It should have enough juice to handle these burns. Not answering out of pride was just a good way to get hurt.
“Very good, Miss Hollis. Now tell me, what other skills do you have? Do speak up.”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t stand looking at him. “The usual. I make nulls, I track people.”
“Come, now. Don’t waste my time.”
My eyes flicked open as he lit another cigarette. My stomach heaved, and I swallowed. He smiled faintly at my reaction.
I needed to give him something. “If I’m close enough to an active spell, I can sense it and what kind of magic made it.”
Percy nodded. “Interesting. That could come in handy. What else?”
“I’ve been able to take apart a null wall, but it almost killed me.”
“Very good. What else?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t tear my gaze from the cherry glow of the cigarette. “Nothing most tracers can’t do. I just tend to be better at it.”
“Ah. Are you sure?”
I wasn’t going to tell him about being able to touch trace or reach into the spirit dimension, or the fact that I had made a blood null—even though it was almost as deadly for me as for anybody else. I shrugged, tensing against what he might do. “That’s all I’ve got.” I barely pushed the words through the fear choking my throat.
He stood and walked around behind me again. His fingers brushed the nape of my neck. I shivered. I waited for the heat of the cigarette to replace his touch. Nothing happened. Maybe he was waiting for me to break down and babble out more confessions. How many burns would it take before I vomited up everything I knew?
Finally he returned to his desk chair. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray with the butts of the others he’d used on me. He rested his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers like he was going to pray.
“Very well, Miss Hollis. I will believe you, for now. We will revisit the subject after your next Sparkle Dust treatment.” He smiled without teeth.
He waited for me to say something. No, not just something, I realized. He wanted me to say thank you. Like I should be grateful he’d chosen not to torture me some more. Worst thing was that I was grateful.
“Thanks,” I said, hardly moving my lips.
He heard it and nodded. “You’re quite welcome, I am sure. Now, I will escort you to your room so that you can rest and eat. Later we will continue your initiation and training.”
“Initiation and training?” I repeated, turning cold. “What does that mean?”
“It means that I wish to trust you, Miss Hollis. In order to do that, you must learn my rules, and you must demonstrate your eagerness to obey them. Don’t worry. You are a smart woman. I’m sure you’ll do well. And as they say, pain cements the lesson in your mind far better than reward, though there will be rewards for you as well. Not the least of which will be more Sparkle Dust.”
“No!” I said before I could stop myself.
His brows arched. “No? Perhaps you should review the last half hour and reconsider. Not that you have a choice. By tomorrow, your opinions won’t make any difference. You’ll be begging for SD. You
do as I ask, whenever I ask. Things will go much more pleasantly for you if you accept that.”
That would happen when pigs flew and screwed butterflies.
Because I was smart enough not to antagonize him into hurting me again, I kept that to myself.
I wondered if I should deactivate my belly null. I didn’t want Percy to know I had any protections. He’d probably cut it out. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get sideswiped with a magic attack.
After a long moment, I chose to deactivate it. I might need what was left of it later. Right now, I expected I was safe enough. Percy liked the personal touch in torture.
I don’t know how Percy summoned his minions, but the door opened with a rush of sound and air. I heard the trundle of wheels. Two women unbuckled me and unceremoniously hooked their hands under my arms and knees, lifting me up and none-too-gently laying me into the cart. My head banged the edge. My broken finger hit the side. Jagged pain flared through my hand and into my chest. Despite myself, I whimpered.
“Careful,” Percy admonished sharply. “She’s far more valuable to me than you are.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the woman said, fear curling around the words. “I apologize.”
“I prefer good work to apologies,” Percy said. “Remember that.”
If his people were afraid of him, maybe I had a chance to worm help out of them. Maybe they’d want to get away, get out from under his thumb. The hope filled me for a bare second and then died. It didn’t work that way. Not fast enough for me, anyhow.
I was now almost positive that somehow my null had prevented the SD from taking hold. I had felt the magical barbs pulling out of me. It wouldn’t be strong enough to do it again. I had maybe a day or two at most before he exposed me again. He’d do it faster when I didn’t show the right signs of addiction. I didn’t even know what those were, beyond groveling for the drug.
I still had my scalp null. It was the nuclear option and stood as much chance of killing me as saving me. It would send out debilitating pain to everyone around me, and was a powerful null besides. All well and good, but once it used up its own magic, it would suck the life out of me in order to power itself, unless I deactivated it. If I didn’t, I’d die. So if I passed out or got hit on the head, it would kill me before I woke up.
Unlike the last time Percy’s minions had come for me, I didn’t go paralyzed. They didn’t have the brilliant auras surrounding them, nor did I hear the sound-not-sound drilling down through me.
They wheeled me out, following Percy. We passed through several caverns. One looked more like a hospital. It was full of bright lights, stainless steel tables and tubs, and smelled of antiseptic and the same sweet rot of the Sparkle Dust fumes. I almost gagged and fought against activating my belly null again, but stopped myself. I didn’t feel its corrosive magic digging into me.
Percy slowed. “How is progress today, Dr. Inawa?” he asked someone I couldn’t see. A woman answered, her voice low and scratchy.
“We should be wrapped up by the end of the week. We’ve only a little stock left to finish ripening before harvest, and of course, to finish testing the effectiveness of the SD we’ve used for fumigation.”
I could hear the frost in Percy’s voice. “I was unaware further testing was required.”
The doctor was uncowed by his anger. “I thought it useful to continue the research to learn how long before the SD becomes ineffective altogether once it’s become a fume source. Once we establish the lifespan, we can stop short and package it. A less powerful dosage could be sold more cheaply, and build our consumer base. If not, we could use it on the stock to shorten harvest times. Either way, it would be a more efficient use of resources.”
Percy considered. After a moment he nodded. “Your rationale is convincing, Dr. Inawa. Write me up the details when you are done. Be sure to finish before migration.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
With that, Percy resumed walking. I lay there, trying to piece together what I’d heard.
We could use it on the stock to shorten harvest times
. If that meant what it sounded like—
I swallowed, icy cold trickling through my veins.
Percy was giving his so-called stock SD. A drug so expensive it sold for five thousand dollars an ounce. Who was this stock? And what was Percy harvesting from them?
Every possible answer I could come up with was too horrible to contemplate. Percy had some sort of Hitleresque Mengele project going on down here, along with manufacturing Sparkle Dust.
What the hell had I gotten myself into?
My prison was a stone cell about twelve by twelve feet. It had a twin bed, a table with two chairs, a toilet and a sink, and nothing else. All the furniture was bolted to the floor. The door was made of heavy metal mesh. The two women lifted me out of the cart and set me on the bed, more gently than previously.
They left when Percy dismissed them. I sat up, eyeing him warily.
“Someone will bring you something to eat and drink,” he said. He glanced at my hands. “I’ll let you reflect on your pain for a while. You may benefit from contemplation.”
“What were you talking to that doctor about?”
“Nothing to concern you.”
With that, he left, swinging the door shut and bolting it. I followed. My entire body ached. The convulsions had wrenched muscles I didn’t know I had. My head ached, and I didn’t want to think about my broken hand or the burns. I felt like I was wearing flaming gloves.
I limped across the stone floor to the door. I pressed against it. The damned thing was as solid as the rest of the place. I glanced up at the roof. I couldn’t see any veins of metal running through it. It was low. I could reach up and touch it if I wanted. For a second I froze, feeling the mountain collapsing on top of me. I panted, my mind going blank.
I slipped down to sit on the floor, hyperventilating. My head spun, and tingles circled my mouth and then spread down my arms to my fingertips. I tried to slow down, to count breaths in and out, but the next thing I knew, I pitched sideways onto the floor.
When I woke up, I felt worse than before. My headache had ratcheted up from a ten to a hundred, and when I’d tipped over, I’d landed on my broken hand. Now it was screaming at me. I sat up, leaning against the door as I gathered myself. I wondered if the mesh was telling Leo where I was. How long before he and Dalton came and got me?
I reached under my collar and pulled the heal-all out, clutching the pendant in my fist. I was going to have to thank Dalton later for making me keep it. Reluctantly, I tucked it away. I couldn’t heal myself. Not yet. Not until I had an escape plan. Percy would only repeat the lesson. I frowned. What else did I still have?
I fumbled at my pockets. Nothing. Sometime after I passed out, his people must have cleaned me out. Thank goodness they hadn’t cared about my jewelry. Or maybe they were just sloppy.
I snorted. That could get them killed, working for Percy. He wouldn’t easily forgive that sort of mistake.
I needed to get up. That was harder than it sounded. I rolled up onto my knees, bracing myself with my unbroken hand. Leaning my shoulder against the door, I slowly levered myself up. My legs shook, and I forced them to steady.
When I was upright, I staggered back to the bed and collapsed on it. I closed my eyes so that I didn’t have to see how low the ceiling was. I counted breaths until my breathing was steady and my head stopped spinning. I must have dozed off.
The sound of the bolt on the door shooting back woke me. A girl came in carrying an orange plastic tray. She
have been legal to drink. A broad-shouldered man in khaki army pants and a black shirt blocked the doorway so that I couldn’t make a run for it.
The girl glanced at me and gave me a shy, apologetic smile before withdrawing. A couple seconds later, she returned with a pint-sized carton of milk and a gallon jug of water. She set those down, along with a disposable plastic cup.
“Tray pickup is in an hour,” she said. Her gaze locked onto my burns. She went green. “Oh my God! Are you—”
She broke off, flicking a nervous glance at the door guard. He scowled. She tossed her blond ponytail and persevered.
“Are you okay?” she asked, then shook her head, recognizing how stupid the question was. “I could get you some bandages or ice or something. Maybe some aspirin or ibuprofen.”
Her escort made a noise. I shook my head.
“Thanks. I don’t think that’s in your best interests. Your boss wants me to suffer.”
She recoiled, and her eyes got shiny like she wanted to cry. It was like watching Bambi find out his mother was dead. How the hell did someone so innocent get involved in Percy’s operation?
“Run them under cold water at least,” she urged, not giving up. “You could make bandages from the pillowcase.”
I held up my broken hand. “Not going to be tearing anything anytime soon. But thanks. I appreciate your concern.”
“Let’s go, Madison,” her khaki goon said. “You’re wasting time.”
She leveled a furious look at him but complied, shoving through the doorway past him, elbowing him in the ribs as she went. He eyed her back and shook his head before shutting the door.
Madison was feisty. I wondered if I could get her to help me. I caught myself up short. And if I did? Would Percy kill her? I didn’t even have to think to know the answer to that. If she helped me—if anybody helped me—I’d have to find a way to get them out and protect them, or else I wouldn’t be any better than Lauren—selling out someone else to save my own ass. I wouldn’t do it.
I wondered what had become of her. Was Percy even now conducting his little interview with her? Was she getting her hands burned? I shuddered. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Well, except maybe for Percy.
I figured Madison’s advice on the cold water for my arms was smart, so I headed for the sink. Before I got there, I was sidetracked by the food on the tray. I stopped to investigate. The tray was heavily loaded with a butter-and-bacon-heaped baked potato, a steak, a pile of roasted vegetables, and a cup of soup. A chocolate bar finished off the meal. It was accompanied by a plastic fork, spoon, and knife.
Dared I eat? Would they have sprinkled Sparkle Dust on the food? I bent to sniff it. It smelled good—without any of that sweet rot that seemed to characterize the drug. I picked up the candy bar and tore it open. I stuffed chocolate in my mouth, then went to the sink and ran my hands under the cold water.
After that, I returned to the table and sat. The chair was too far from the table, and it was bolted down. I gritted my teeth and started eating. I broke the tines of the fork within a minute. I mashed the potato as well as I could with the knife and ate it with a spoon. I ate the vegetables with my fingers, then just ripped at the steak with my teeth.
I drank the milk despite the fact that it was fat free. Disgusting. Why even bother milking the cow? Still, I needed the calories and protein. I guzzled about half the gallon of water. By then my arms were hurting again. I returned to the sink.
I was still running water when the door unbolted and swung toward me. Madison came in with tall, broad, and burly standing in the doorway again.
“Sorry about the silverware,” she said, stacking my dinner debris on the tray. “Plastic is all prisoners are allowed.”
“Prisoners?” I repeated. “How many are there?”
She shrugged. “Only a dozen or so right now.”
I blinked. That many? And from the sounds of it, fewer than normal. “Who else? And why?”
“You don’t need to know that,” growled her companion.
Madison rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a jerk, Luke.”
“I’m following orders. You should pay attention. You don’t want to end up—” He looked at my arms. I turned off the water. Thankfully, it was ice cold. It felt like it had come from deep underground. Tasted like it, too. I’d tried a sip. Nothing like drinking down tea made from quarters, nickels, and dimes. Yum.
“You don’t want to get yourself in torture trouble,” I finished for him. “How’d someone like you get roped into working for Percy anyway?”
Madison’s already-pale face blanched. She averted her face. “It’s a long story.”
I looked at Luke, whose expression had gone savage. Oops. I’d stepped on a land mine. “None of my business, anyway,” I said. All of a sudden, the food combined with my exhaustion to make my knees weak. I hadn’t thought I’d sleep, but now I could barely stay awake.
“That’s right,” Luke said. “Let’s go, Madison.”
Her jaw jutted, then she picked up the tray. Luke stepped aside as she went by. He gave me a dour look as he jerked the door shut with an echoing clang that had shrapnel dancing through my skull. My head hurt too much to think about what was going on between Luke and Madison. Instead, I decided to use the toilet and go to sleep.
It isn’t that easy to go to the bathroom when the door is nothing more than a heavy-duty screen. Not to mention pulling my pants down with a broken finger was no fun. No one walked by, but my bladder got really shy for a while. Finally the tide grew too strong, and I was able to go. Afterward, I washed up and searched for a light switch. It was just inside the door. I flipped it down. Instantly, darkness filled the cell. I stumbled over to the bed, knocking my knee into it. Swearing, I crawled onto the mattress and sprawled flat.
It was as hard as a board. I like soft. Something I can squish down on. I felt like a nun, lying on this bed. Like Percy had decided an extra bit of torture or sleep deprivation was a good idea. Maybe that’s exactly what he thought.
My pillow was a hard rectangular piece of foam inside a gritty pillowcase. I was too tired to really care. Still, I forced myself to plan. My cell was entirely magic-less. I couldn’t null the locks or the walls. The bolt was on the outside of the door—impossible for me to pick, even if I had the tools, and even if my hands were working properly. No windows. On the other hand, it was full of metal—the table, the bed, the chairs, the sink, the door—enough that Leo should be able to find me. I sighed. So either I had to hope that Leo and Dalton would rescue me before I got turned into an SD addict, or I had to convince someone to help me break out. Madison might, but Luke didn’t seem inclined to let her out of his sight.
There wasn’t anything else I could do for myself at the moment but to sleep and recuperate as best I could. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered where Dalton and Leo were. Did Price know where I was? He was going to be pissed if I missed our date. On the other hand, he might be so furious that he’d track me down. ’Course if he did, he was as likely to kill me as not, so maybe I shouldn’t get excited about that.
It couldn’t have been more than a few hours later when I jerked awake. I listened. I wasn’t alone.
“Are you awake? It’s me, Madison.” Her voice came from the other side of the door.
I breathed out slowly and sat up. “What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to see if you were all right. I brought some aspirin.”
“You shouldn’t have done that. Your boss isn’t a nice guy.” All the same, I edged my way over to the door. I didn’t turn the light on. I didn’t want anyone to notice it and come investigate.
“I’ll slide them under,” she said.
I bent, feeling for the pills. I found three oblong tablets and picked them up.
“This is nice of you, but I need to get out of here,” I said. “Can you help me?”
“I—I can’t,” she whispered.
“Just pull back the lock. I’ll get out on my own. You know what’s going to happen to me.”
“It already has. He’s got you—don’t you see? You don’t feel it yet, but tomorrow you’ll start. You’ll need the Sparkle Dust. You’ll do anything to get it, even crawl back to
. You’ll tell him everything.”
With that, she fled. I bit my tongue to keep from swearing. Instead, I took the pills with a swallow of water from the jug on the table, then clambered back into bed. This time I didn’t fall asleep so quickly.
My hands throbbed. I couldn’t find a position to ease the pain humming through them. My brain scrabbled to come up with an escape plan. The primary hurdle was getting out of my cell. Nothing in the cell was usable for tools, except for maybe the toilet innards. I got up and turned on the light and went to have a look in the toilet tank. It was your typical setup, with more plastic than metal parts. Not terribly useful. Next I examined the door lock. It was on the outside. The mesh door fit solidly into a lip of stone, with the bolt shot snuggly into steel housing anchored to the rock. The only gap was at the floor where Madison had pushed through the pills. It was only a finger-width high. The mesh covering the door was fine—too small for anything bigger than a soda straw. The hinges were on the outside.
After an hour of consideration and searching for ways to get at the lock to pick it, I gave up. I wasn’t escaping that way.
I shut off the light and returned to my bed. My mind zigged and zagged. The best chance of escaping would come the next time they took me out of my cell. I had a feeling that would be for my next SD fumigation. After the treatment, I would be useless for a while if my body flipped out again. So I definitely needed to escape before that happened.
That brought up the next problem: when they came for me, would they paralyze me this time? I had no idea if my belly null had counteracted the paralysis last time, but it stood to reason. I could activate the null after they put me in the cart. I had no idea how long it would last. I needed to wait as long as possible to activate it, both to save its strength and to keep myself from accidentally giving myself away. If they happened to jam my broken finger loading me into the cart, I’m pretty sure I’d react no matter how much I tried not to. Then I’d be screwed.
Once I was in the cart and activated my null, then the major problem was going to be getting back out away from my two guards. They wouldn’t be expecting me to be able to move, but they’d get over that by the time I hefted myself up onto my feet. With my ribs hurting and my hands in crap shape, I wasn’t going to be moving quickly. Not unless I used the heal-all first. As in, before I activated my null, otherwise the null would kill it. That meant using the heal-all before anybody showed up to take me. But if Percy came along first and realized I’d healed myself, he’d have at me again. He wouldn’t take my defiance lightly. This time his torture would be worse. Plus, he wanted me to suffer my burns and was going to make damned sure I did just that.
I had to pray that didn’t happen. I’d heal myself after breakfast so no one would notice what I’d done, but before Percy’s paralytic goons came for me. Then I’d activate the null once I was in the cart. After that, I had to find a good spot that would give me a chance to escape into the tunnels
get lost before anybody could catch me. If there was a spot like that. Finally, I had to find my way back to the surface without tripping a booby trap and blowing myself to bits.