Authors: Diana Pharaoh Francis
But these two weren’t travellers. They were something altogether different. Magic radiated off them like beacons in a lighthouse. I’d never seen anything like it. I almost had to squint. That wasn’t all. The magic moved around them, rippling and swirling. It shone with rainbow colors. A sound that wasn’t quite sound filled the room. I covered my ears, but it made little difference. The sound drilled down through the marrow of my bones and turned them to taffy. I sank to the floor, my body too heavy and too graceless to move. My head thudded against the stone floor. I heard the clunk of Lauren’s gun as it fell, then the sound of her body slumping to the ground.
I dropped out of my trace vision, letting go my hold on Trevor’s trace. I blinked my eyes slowly. It took most of the strength I had left to manage it.
In the chill blue fluorescent lights, the two men who’d come for us looked ordinary. The taller one had broad shoulders and a barrel chest. He wore his brown hair in a ponytail. The other one was shorter and just as broad in the shoulders, but his stomach overlapped his belt, and his legs bowed slightly. His blond hair curled around his ears. He’d not shaved for at least several days.
They looked at me and then at Lauren.
“She had people with her,” the blond said, nudging her with his boot. “Where’d they go?”
Lauren attempted to say something, but the sound came out garbled.
“Dammit,” the ponytailed one said. He went to a box on the wall and flipped down the metal cover. Inside was a phone. He lifted the receiver and stabbed in a three-digit number. In just a few seconds, someone answered.
“We’ve got the cop and the tracer. The rest are on the run.” He waited for the other person to reply. “Right. On our way.”
He hung up and closed the box. Magical communication didn’t work reliably in the mines, any more than radios. A lot of magic permeated the mountain. Maybe Diamond City’s strong node of ley lines gave too much interference, or maybe the lines knotted up there around the diamonds and other gems hidden in the mountain—it was an ongoing debate in scientific circles. Either way, it made magical communication tough underground. Physical lines were necessary.
“Grab the wagon,” ponytail told his companion. “Random says the boss wants them ASAP.”
Blondie went out the opening and returned with a four-wheeled cart. He pulled me up in a fireman’s carry and dumped me inside, shoving me over to leave room for Lauren. He dropped her next to me. She landed on her side, her face pressing up against my left breast like she was looking to nurse. I tried to push her upright, but my body still wasn’t answering. Except for breathing and blinking, I was essentially paralyzed.
I decided not to think about how scary that was. Panic wasn’t going to help me. These people wanted to use my magic talents. They needed me whole. This paralysis was, therefore, not permanent. I kept repeating that in my head as ponytail got in front and blondie got behind to push us.
We went through brightly lit areas. I could hear machinery and people. No one paid attention to us. Maybe we weren’t all that unusual. Maybe these men did this on a regular basis.
At one point, the cart stopped inside a closed-in space. Our two guards disappeared. Shortly after, the air filled with a sweet, putrid miasma. It sank down over us in a heavy blanket. The smell coated the insides of my nose and mouth until I could taste nothing else. I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat and, with it, that thickness in the air. It congealed into thick honey in my stomach, then expanded, pressing outward even as it seeped inward through my skin. It was repulsive. I shrank away from it, while at the same time I trembled with hungry eagerness. My body pulsed and throbbed with electric pleasure. Soon I teetered on the edge of an orgasm. Lauren moaned and twitched as if she’d gone over delight’s edge. If it weren’t for the fact that Sparkle Dust cost a ton of money and it wasn’t airborne, I’d have thought we were getting dosed.
Magic shot through me in hot streaks. Barbed-wire twisted into me, down into deepest places where my talent grows. Instant agony. Inwardly, I rolled and twisted, heat roiling and crashing into me. Pain sharpened in my head until tears rolled down my cheeks. All that, and still my body fluttered and hummed with growing euphoria.
I tried to think. What was happening? My brain kept spinning back to Sparkle Dust. But that wasn’t possible or likely. And yet—there seemed no other answer. I wanted to scream and force it back out of my lungs. The stuff hung thick in the air. Every breath pulled the poison into my lungs and bloodstream. I fought to move. Inside, I kicked and raged. Outside, my body remained still. I felt like a marionette with the strings cut. Or one of those people who wake up in the middle of the surgery to feel all the pain but remain paralyzed, screaming into endless silence.
I couldn’t let this happen. I couldn’t stop it.
I had a weapon. I didn’t know if it could do anything. I had two null tattoos. One was in the shape of a purple calla lily circling my belly button. The other was done in white in my scalp. I kept both charged at all times. The ink didn’t tend to hold magic for that long—a month maybe—but as dangerous as it was to wear a null on my flesh, I liked the fact that if I ended up naked and alone, I’d have a last line of defense.
Since the null on my scalp was the nuclear option, I chose the calla lily. Because it was already a part of me, I didn’t need to touch it to activate it. I just needed to focus on it. That turned out to be harder than I liked. The euphoria of the drug sanded away the edges of my mind. I felt myself wanting to yield to it. Instead, I sent a pulse of power into my belly tattoo.
Magic exploded. Pain surged, overwhelming the Sparkle Dust bliss. My body convulsed. My arms and legs flailed, my torso arching and twisting in agonizing spasms. My head banged against the cart, and I tasted blood. Mewling gasps squeezed through my throat.
The barbed-wire tendrils ripped away. Pain smashed into me, crushing me under its weight. I passed out.
I was strapped to a chair when I woke up. My head dangled forward, and drool dripped from my mouth onto my chest. The coppery taste of blood saturated my taste buds. I blinked, remaining still, trying to pull myself together before anybody noticed I was awake.
The chair I was strapped to was a whole lot like a dentist’s chair. My ankles and wrists were buckled in tight with new leather straps. The stench of Sparkle Dust was gone, though I could still smell the odor of sweet rot drifting off my hair and clothing, along with the sour stink of my own sweat and fear. Wherever I was now, smelled of machine oil and the cool damp of the underground. And pizza. I wrinkled my nose. I’m almost always hungry, but at the moment, the idea of food was about as enticing as the idea of taking an acid bath.
I could hear muted sounds that made no sense to me. Rumblings and clangings and beneath those, an insistent whine. I felt it more than heard it. My ears ached with the pressure.
I took stock of myself. I felt like I’d been tossed into an industrial dryer with a couple of cannonballs and left to tenderize. My body throbbed all over. Something felt like it was drilling through my left shoulder, and my right wrist and hand were swollen to three times their normal size. My middle finger stuck out straight and when I tried to move it, pain shot up my arm. Something was definitely broken there.
My belly null remained active, though its strength was nearly gone. I’d designed it to nullify only magic in my body or on my skin. The idea was that it wouldn’t sap itself on unimportant exterior magic.
On the positive side, the null had clearly worked hard against the SD. I froze a moment as realization sank into me. I might be on my way to becoming a Sparkle Dust addict, not to mention a wraith. Before I could panic, I took a breath. I might be able to get over the addiction. Cass had helped my almost-brother-in-law Josh do just that, when he’d been given Sparkle Dust. His captors had been trying to pry information out of him and figured the SD would help lube the process. Since I hadn’t seen him since Cass had treated him, I didn’t know how well it had worked. I liked to think he was free and clear, especially since I was staring down the same gun.
As far as I knew, there was no cure for what changes the drug made in a body. I looked at my hands but didn’t see any differences. Maybe there wouldn’t be any. Maybe they’d show up in a week. I didn’t know enough about Sparkle Dust to say. Hopefully my null had worked in time.
Worry chewed at my stomach. When would I start craving it? Would they give me more? Turn me into an addict? Would I be able to walk away from them if they did? I had no doubt that the whole point was to break me, to make me beg to help them with whatever they wanted. They’d reward me with the drug. Whoever they hell
I gritted my teeth together. It wasn’t going to happen. I was never going to beg. A snotty little voice gophered up inside my head and laughed. Like I had a choice. I stomped it back into its hole. I refused to consider the possibility that I didn’t have a choice.
I figured maybe a minute or two had gone by since I woke up. There didn’t seem a whole lot of point in playing possum any longer. I wanted to know where I was, and I wanted to know if I could move. I lifted my head with a groan, totally not faked. My neck ached with whiplash. My convulsions from the null’s magic had been violent, and every inch of my muscles protested movement. It was more than a little bit nice to be able to move of my own volition, despite the pain.
My chair sat on a polished wood floor facing a large glass-topped desk that sat on a thick woven rug. A man sat behind it, his feet set together on the floor, his back straight. He wore a charcoal-gray suit with a blinding white shirt and a cobalt tie. His light blond hair hung down to his shoulders. His hands were laced in his lap, his head tilted to the side as he watched me.
I stared back, saying nothing. His expression didn’t change. He didn’t acknowledge me in any way, shape, or form. My gaze roved over him. His skin was pale, his eyes light blue. His eyelashes and eyebrows were so light they were almost nonexistent. His hair was thick, and he definitely used hair spray.
After I’d gotten an eyeful of him, and he still said nothing, I checked out the rest of the room. The walls had been drywalled, and colorful paintings hung on them. They had no frames. The ceiling was stone. Veins of gold and quartz ran through it, the vaulted surface polished to a high shine. The light came from several freestanding brass and blue-enameled lamps.
Aside from my chair and the desk, the only other furniture consisted of two cushiony chairs against the wall. I didn’t know where Lauren was. I’m not sure that I cared.
I resumed looking at my captor. He was going to have to speak first, though I didn’t know how long before he’d get bored of looking at me.
Another minute or two passed with the two of us staring deeply into each other’s eyes before he finally looked away. He fished a silver box from his inside breast pocket. He flicked it open and drew out a cigarette. It was terribly James Bondian of him, and I almost had to laugh. Except I was shackled to a chair, my null was sucking the life out of me, and I might be turning into a wraith. So pretty much there was nothing funny about my situation. The corners of my mouth still turned up, despite myself.
He set the case down and tucked the cigarette between his lips. He picked a lighter up off the desk and thumbed the flame to life. The tip of the cigarette glowed orange as he drew deeply on it. He closed the lid of the lighter and set it down beside the crystal ashtray. At the same time, he blew the smoke out. It was a rich, spicy smell. Unusual.
“Welcome, Miss Hollis. I have been looking forward to meeting you.” He sat back, crossing his legs and watching me. His voice was higher than I expected, with just a hint of gravel in it. Like he’d strained it. Maybe he’d been singing his boy band songs in the shower. Maybe it was his smoking habit.
“So go ahead and meet me,” I said. “What are you waiting for?”
His brows rose, his forehead wrinkling. He chuckled. It was a dry sound that reminded me of a rattlesnake. “Charming,” he said. “I believe I will quite enjoy our acquaintance.”
That made one of us.
? Who the hell says that? Where was this guy from? Since he still hadn’t actually made an effort to meet me, I decided to hurry him along. “Who are you?”
He answered slowly, drawing on his cigarette again. He closed his eyes to savor the smoke, then opened them again. He set the cigarette on the ashtray and slowly breathed out his dragon breath. “My name is Caldwell. George Percival James Borden Caldwell the fourth. I go by Percy.”
“That’s a mouthful. Your parents couldn’t squeeze any more names onto the line when they were filling out your birth certificate?”
He smiled, his teeth straight and white. I bet they were fakes.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Like I’ve been drugged and then run over by a tractor,” I said, not bothering to hide my irritation. When I’m scared, it helps to be a smart-ass. Makes me feel more in control, even if I’m totally screwed. I was hoping that my rescue team was on their way, but I had serious doubts that Leo or Dalton had summoned help. Both were too stubborn and both would have been afraid I’d vanish while they were gone. I glanced up at the ceiling. With all that gold, Leo might be able to tell where I was. I could hope. I glanced down at my chair to see if there was any metal I could touch to help him find me. None. The Amish must have made it.
“Yes, I was surprised at your reaction to the Sparkle Dust fumes. I’ve never seen that before.”
Percy went back to smoking and watching me. I felt like an experiment he was trying to figure out.
“I guess I’m special that way,” I said.
“Let’s hope next time goes better for you,” he said.
“Next time?” My heart dropped into my stomach.
“Of course. No need for concern. By then you’ll want it. Even with your rather violent reaction, I expect the addiction has already taken hold. Within a day or two you’ll be sweating and aching for it.”
I did my damndest to keep the horror from my face. “And then what? You’ll happily provide?”
“Absolutely. So long, of course, as you do as I ask. Sparkle Dust is quite expensive, you know. You get your first taste free, but after that, it costs. Of course, the fumes are less potent, but I understand they are quite enjoyable, as I’m sure you discovered. They also make a slower impact on the user’s body. The process of turning wraith is much more gradual. Given your talents, I thought it best to prolong your life as long as possible.”
“Why give me the drug at all?” I hated the tremble I heard in my voice. If he’d been more threatening, I might have been able to stir up more anger to control my fear. His matter-of-fact revelations were so much more terrifying just because he seemed unconcerned.
“Quite simple, Miss Hollis. When I have something you would die to get, you not only stop fighting me, but you cooperate enthusiastically. I will get far more from you addicted than I would if you were not. Using the fumes instead of letting you inject or snort it, you should survive for six months to a year. That should be ample time for my plans.”
“What plans? Who the hell
Percy tapped his fingers on his chin, smoke curling around his face from the cigarette. Finally he set it back into the ashtray before sitting back and crossing his legs.
“Scuttlebutt claims that you are a valuable asset and that a number of various people would like to have possession of you. Anyone who procured you could offer your skills up for a fee. Sort of like a prize stud.” He frowned and shook his head. “You do realize that you’ve been charging ludicrously low prices for what you can do. As for security—you must be mad, the way you go about. Surely you knew that
would come for you?”
I didn’t answer. I
known I was at risk, but I’d been swimming in denial. That will be the cause of death on my death certificate. In red letters and all caps.
He waved his hand. “At any rate, I have no need of stud fees. I have something else planned for you entirely. Something that requires your complete and utmost cooperation and enthusiasm.”
His expression took my breath away. It wasn’t just cold, it was evil. True evil. I shuddered. When I didn’t answer him, Percy rose and turned away. He adjusted a perfectly straight picture of what appeared to be somebody’s version of an acid trip, and wandered around to the side and behind me. I tensed, ears reaching for every sound. What was he up to?
“I’ve been told you can see dead trace. Is that accurate?” he asked finally.
I didn’t answer that either. Instead I went with a question of my own. “What did you do with Lauren?”
“Do you care?”
Oh great. A game of ping-pong questions. “Would I have asked if I didn’t?”
“I believe she explained that she lured you down here. I should think you wouldn’t care what happened to her or perhaps you want to know that she has suffered for her crimes.”
“I just want to know what you did with her.” I honestly didn’t know why I cared. The woman had led me into a trap. She deserved whatever crap this guy dumped on her. On the other hand, maybe she was eating peeled grapes while muscular men massaged her. A grand reward for capturing me. “You exposed her to the SD fumes, too. Why?”
“My, you certainly are curious.” He came back around to stand in front of me. He folded his arms over his chest. “Very well. Detective Morton served her purpose well. However, I am not one to waste manpower. She could prove useful again. I have now made her willing to provide her services to me without having to go to the trouble of blackmail.”
“You’re a fucking bastard.”
He tilted his head at me, then before I even saw him move, he slapped me. My head twisted to the side with the force of it. My eye felt like it was going to pop out, and blood seeped where I cut my cheek on the edges of my teeth. I turned to look at him again, wincing from the pain radiating across my face.
“I don’t care for insults,” he said, no sign of anger in his voice. “I suggest you curb yourself. It will be more pleasant for both of us if you do. Now, back to my question: can you see dead trace?”
I considered whether or not I wanted to answer. I was at the bastard’s mercy, and he was willing to beat the answer out of me, or worse. It wasn’t like he couldn’t get the answer from somebody else. He already had. All the same—
“I would much prefer to keep our relationship civilized,” Percy said, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it. He drew a deep breath and let the smoke out slowly, watching me through the curling blue tendrils. “However, my personal preferences must be set aside from time to time. It’s the price of succeeding at business.”
He took another deep drag and eyed the glowing tip of the cigarette a moment, then leaned forward and gently touched it to the top of my hand. I tried to jerk away, but the shackles held me firm. I bit my lips as my nerves registered the heat and then pain. I refused to make a sound.
He lifted the cigarette away. I stared at the wound, too shocked that he’d so casually burned me to even think. A band of dark pink surrounded a white circle on the back of my hand. I could smell burned skin. My stomach lurched, and I turned my head barely in time to throw up onto the floor.
My captor eyed the mess with furrowed brows. “Very poor manners, Miss Hollis. I should think you’d know better.”
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I gasped.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He examined the tip of the cigarette and relit it, drawing deeply to get the cherry going again.
Once again, he leaned forward and set it on my skin. I jerked back, kicking and twisting, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Jesus fuck!” I yelled, pretending tears weren’t burning the back of my eyes. “Stop it already!”
He waited until he was done and then drew away. This time the circle around the white burn was darker red. The pain drilled down through my hand and skewered steel knives up my arm.
“I want to be sure you learn the lesson I’m teaching you,” Percy said, relighting the cigarette. “I expect my employees to behave politely and with respect.” He touched the burning end to me again. “That means behaving yourself politely and obeying my orders promptly and without question.”