My escape plan fell by the wayside. I’m now entrapped in the tenacious clutches of the very people I’ve been running from.
Yet, when I find the opportunity to damn the Resistance and free myself, I withhold vital information. Deep in my heart, I believe in their cause.
Torn between a life on the run, the Resistance, and helping the Houses prevent a war, I finally make a choice . . . but it’s much too late.
The lives of loved ones are on the line. And now, to save everyone, I must surrender to the beast within–even if it means losing myself to the shadows.
I awoke shivering with cold, my body sore, head pounding. Memories of the fight in my kitchen came gradually: luminous yellow eyes, Bradley’s prone body on the floor, and blood all around. I remembered Echon Jeffery, the beast, and the fact I had been kidnapped. Snaps of a dark van, people talking, and my weightless body being carried came to mind, but I wasn’t sure if they were real or figments of a dream.
I lifted a hand to my aching head, or tried to, and discovered I was bound to whatever I was lying on. A brush of fingers told me it was metal, perhaps an examination table stripped of padding and sheet. My cold body told me I was naked underneath a cover that provided no warmth. My ankles were shackled as well, and when I opened my eyes, I discovered the room was dim, the only light coming from a gap underneath the door to my left. I scanned the room with my eyes, then sent out my shadows, and found nothing living. A bleep to my right had my head turning, but whatever made the sound wasn’t in my line of vision. Another probe into the shadows told me there was nothing there but inanimate objects. Another bleep came. It wasn’t constant enough to be a heart monitor. Maybe an alarm?
I raised my head the few inches I could and searched the room, trying to give visuals to the shadowy map in my brain. Twisting my head from side to side showed me a bunch of empty nothingness, save for a stool tucked under a desk on the far left and a file cabinet to the right.
“Hello?” I rasped, voice hoarse, as if I’d been screaming. For all I knew, I had been.
Unsurprisingly, no one answered.
I wasn’t left waiting in the dark for long, though my body protested every second. Shivering in misery and dread, I listened as footsteps approached. There was a soft click, a long bleep, then the sound of locks disengaging before the door opened and the lights turned on. I squinted, unwilling to close my eyes even to reduce the stabbing pain the bright illumination caused.
Echon Jeffery wasn’t alone. A man in a white lab coat with round-rimmed dark glasses stepped beside him, a cap of salt-and-pepper hair giving him the appearance of someone’s uncle. They were both smiling, though Echon’s expression lacked the warmth his companion’s possessed. The friendliness in the stranger’s eyes made me more wary of him than the cold indifference in Echon’s. Alarm blared in my head, urging me to run.
“Melaina Celosia,” the stranger said in a surprisingly deep voice. “My name is Doctor Leonardo Levine. I’m the head scientist of this facility and your physician. You can call me Doctor Leo.” He clasped his hands together, the excitement in his eyes not boding well for me. “I want you to know how happy I am you’ve joined us, and that I’ll be taking good care of you.”
“If I refuse your care?” I asked.
A malicious light entered his eyes and he laughed, as if my question was the most hilarious thing he’d ever heard. Dread pooled in my stomach, a sensation that spread like tentacles inside me.
“You’re not in a position to refuse, or even agree, to anything. I’ll be your caregiver, and you’ll lap up every tiny piece of attention I feed you.”
Echon sneered. “Please, dramatics don’t become you.” He gestured with a hand. “Now, tell me what the machine read.”
What the machine read.
Doctor Leo scowled, but the gleam of anticipation in his eyes as he moved around the bed implied he was eager to do Echon’s bidding. He paused beside my head and reached for something behind me. I craned my neck, but my sight was obstructed by the large pillow.
“Ah, here it is, looks like you were lied to,” Doctor Leo said, humming as he fretted about the machine.
God, oh God.
Cold sweat broke all over my body, the metal slab underneath me turning slick with it.
“Oh yes,” the scientist went on, plugging rubber disks on my forehead, the bend of my elbow, my chest. In less than a minute, my whole body was covered with electrodes. The fact I was bare in a room with two strange men didn’t even register in my embarrassment meter.
“Zenith, ninety-nine percent,” Doctor Leo mused. “I thought you said she was a Significant?”
“Someone lied.” Echon met my terrified eyes, his expression unreadable. “What’s her affinity?”
“Patience. This thing takes time.”
Echon approached the side of the bed and peered down at me. His eyes didn’t stray to my chest, yet dread formed a hard fist in my stomach. “Zeniths aren’t so rare that Camila would find it necessary to lie about. So why did she?” He rubbed a hand over his face, dark with stubble. “Your magi registrar says you’re mundane, your magic aptitude a pathetic two percent. Add the lie, and doesn’t that turn into a riddle?”
I glared. I hated that he and my aunt had been a thing. Hated how easy it had been for him to get rid of her once he thought she was no longer compliant. “Maybe she didn’t trust you as much as you thought.”
“Maybe,” he conceded with an incline of his head. “But she confided in me enough secrets that you being a Zenith shouldn’t have been one she kept.”
I scoffed. “She knew I didn’t want to serve a House, and if a House got a whiff of my aptitude, I’d be shackled and collared before I could beg mercy.”
“Yet, your aunt worked for the alternative. She could have brought you in to the Resistance.”
“If I joined the Resistance, I’d be affiliated with another group. She knew I’d have said no.”
“Not everyone with an affinity out there is affiliated with a House.”
“Not Zeniths. Not anyone above Significant. We aren’t rare, but Houses gobble up Zeniths like a piece of meat in a shark tank. We’re never free.”
Echon cocked his head. “So your affinity is?”
I scowled my answer.
“Doctor Leo will find that out soon enough.”
Sighing in defeat, I said with resignation, “Pyro. I’m a pyro.”
Echon’s eyes moved to Doctor Leo. “Well?”
“Get out. I can’t work with you mighty, self-important people breathing down my neck, demanding answers as if I had them stored up my sleeves.”
Echon stepped back, crossed his arms, and leaned against the desk. “I’ll wait here.”
Doctor Leo clenched his jaw, but said nothing more. For the next few minutes, the only sounds were those of my labored breathing, the bleeps of the machine, and the humming of the scientist. I felt nothing different. I didn’t even know how affinities were determined, having scored mundane on the magi registrar and skipping whatever other tests people who scored higher underwent. The time ticked away, minutes that stretched into infinity.
“Not a mentalist,” Doctor Leo said under his breath, but he might as well have shouted on a bullhorn.
Oh, God, it was happening. My worst nightmare. I was strapped down, incapacitated in a room where I was forcefully tested, and my shadow affinity came to light. Bile rose in my throat, swift and furious, and I barely had time to turn my head sideways.
“Hey, watch it,” Doctor Leo said, jumping away. “What in hell’s mercy did you eat?”
He threw a packet at Echon, who caught it one-handed. “Here, clean her up. I can’t turn my attention away or I’ll need to start from the beginning.”
“Leave it,” Echon replied, putting what I recognized as baby wipes on the desk.
“No, you want to stay, you clean her up. I can’t focus with that putrid smell.”
Gritting his teeth, Echon approached and began slowly cleaning the table beside my head, mouth set with disgust. The indignant complaint I expected never came.
Mentalists were truth-seekers, empaths, telepaths, mind readers, and a few other classes I couldn’t remember. I was none of those, but if he had tested and crossed mentalists out within minutes, I had no doubt he’d get my shadow affinity sooner than later.
Doctor Leo appeared beside me, holding a long needle in his hand. Tapping the middle of my forearm, he pressed the needle to the large vein and depressed the contents of the injection. Once done, he adjusted the rubber plugs and turned away.
The next thirty minutes of my life were measured by injections, heartbeats, and blinks.
When Doctor Leo next clapped with satisfaction, a yelp lodged in my throat. “Excellent.”
From my other side, Echon roused himself. “What?”
The blank look in Doctor Leo’s eyes told me he’d forgotten he had guests. “Nothing yet.” He dropped the tablet he was holding and stretched his back, then turned. “This will take a while. I’m heading to grab myself something to drink.”
“I need to use the bathroom.” My voice was weak and small, a direct result of my increasing anxiety and erratic heartbeat.
“You’ll need to hold it for now,” Doctor Leo said without stopping. At the door, he glanced back at Echon. “Do not touch anything.” Then he disappeared into a white-washed corridor illuminated by LED lights.
“What are you hoping to gain from this?” I asked Echon. “I’m not going to help you start a war. You might as well let me go.”
“I don’t think so.”
“So you’re going to keep me duct-taped to a chair—and what? Torture me? Because you’re not going to win me over like that.”
“I don’t need to send you to the frontline to have you help. I don’t even need you conscious.”
Chills skated down my spine at the statement. “What? I don’t understand.”
“We have a method of storing magic that any mundane can use later. I believe you’ve seen what the fire of a pyro mixed with the acid of a botanist can do.”
The blue flames he’d used to destroy the apartment. Would they be able to store my shadows too? I fisted my hands. I couldn’t let them. The machine behind me bleeped. I’d heard enough of those in the past hour to understand the bleeps meant the magi machine had read something. Echon’s eyes moved behind me, and I didn’t like that.
“What did you do to Bradley? Is he here?”
“I didn’t need to do anything.” He shrugged, casual and uncaring, and that, more than his next words, was what got to me. “That metal pan was heavy. Combined with the blood loss and injuries . . . I don’t think he made it through the night.”
Rage, fear, grief joined inside me and exploded in a jumble of confusing thoughts. “You bastard!” I screamed and pulled at the bindings, trying to free my hands, my legs, ignoring the way pain blossomed on my wrists and ankles with each movement. “You fucking bastard! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”
The door flew open, hitting the wall with such force, it bounced back. Doctor Leo put his hand up to keep it from smacking him in the face on the return trip. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he snapped at Echon. “Get out.” He pointed a thumb behind him. That was when I saw the two men armed with submachine guns and utility belts lined with assorted equipment I had no name for.
Echon looked like he wanted to protest, but with a scowl and a glacial look aimed at me, he relented and left.
“Make sure he’s not allowed back here,” Doctor Leo told the guards, then shut the door and approached the machine to my right.
I should have been relieved that Echon had been kicked out, but the fact that this scientist had the power to do that to Echon Jeffery meant I was at his mercy. That should have frightened me. And it did. But fear and grief for Bradley ate at me, overshadowing any worry for myself.
Please let him be all right. Please let him have found help.
Even though my neighborhood was friendly, I knew no one would have ventured outside at night to check on strange noises and screams in the dark, much less confront a beast abducting one of their neighbors. They might have called the police, but if they had, that meant Bradley would be back in Bellator custody.
Better in jail than dead, I thought fiercely. Either way, no one would be coming to help me.
“You ping for psychometry,” Doctor Leo said, wrenching my fear-fogged mind back to reality. “Care to tell me what kind?”
“I already did. Pyrokinesis.” Any other time, I’d have rather not answered. But better that than the alternative. Maybe, just maybe, he’d be satisfied with a pyro and not dig deeper.
“Oh?” Doctor Leo fidgeted with a small box, then placed it under my hand, pressing it against my palm. Something spongy and wet vibrated underneath my fingers, and I tried closing my hand against it as it began heating. “Uh-uh, none of that,” Doctor Leo said, forcing my fingers open.
The machine bleeped again. Doctor Leo glanced at it, eyebrows raised. Then he disappeared behind me. I closed my hand again, though I knew it was too late.
“Well, I was sure you were lying,” he mused from somewhere to my right and out of my sight.
“What’s the point? The sooner you’re done, the sooner I can go pee.”
“Not yet,” the scientist said, “not yet.”
Available as eBook and paperback.