Blood Sisters (Part 1)
A 2nd Generation Whateley Academy Story
In all the books and comics, the origin of a mutant is big, splashy, and normally dramatic. Even in TV shows like Tales of the MCO, which rarely show the mutant as a hero, the events are at least as spectacular as their special effects budget can afford. Mine started out by trying to hide from some men in body armour behind a couple of cardboard boxes. Hardly heroic, more pathetic really. Although if I'd known what was going to happen later, I would cheerfully have settled for being successfully pathetic. All I was doing was trying to make myself small and not make any sound at all as one of the men steadily moved closer to my hiding place. And it had started out as quite a good day too.
I waved to Aunt Ree as I left. I would have said bye, but I was finishing off the last of my toast, as she shook her head in mock disgust. "Have a good day, Rob."
For once, it was a nice summer morning as I headed down to the bus stop, which made setting off at 8 am at least feel nice. Well, to be fair I didn't really mind - it was only a little earlier than I had to leave for school, and not only did my summer job pay pretty well, it was actually interesting.
Still one had to keep up appearances, so I gave Josh a quick call. Grinning to myself as I heard the rather vague mumbling of someone who I'd just woken up.
"Hey Josh, how's it going?"
"Bleeearg. You do realise what time it is, don't you Rob?"
"Oh yes," I chirped happily - and annoyingly - "Its 8 am on a bright sunny June morning..."
I could almost feel the deep and heartfelt sigh on the other end of the phone. OK, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a morning person, but Josh considered anything before 10 am the middle of the night.
"So, have we got anything planned for Saturday?"
"Yeah, Rob. There isn't anything worth seeing at the Cinema, but Brian just got the new Star Wars on DVD. Dad says we can watch it in the theatre if we want."
That would be fun - Josh's dad was a movie nut, who'd put a sort of mini-theatre in his loft, and it was almost as good as being in the actual Cinema.
"That sounds good; I'd like to watch it again on a big screen. Rest of the guys coming?"
"Probably, I'm texting them, later on, to let them know. Your turn to bring the popcorn."
"Yeah, you. Stop complaining; you're the one with the fancy well-paid summer job."
I grinned at that. Josh was torn between complaining at the fun job I'd got, and teasing me about how my big sister had arranged it. Which didn't worry me in the slightest, it wasn't my fault I had a cool, fun big sister.
"Got to go, Josh, the bus is just coming. See you guys on Saturday."
Such a normal start to the day. Sometimes you just don't realise how good the ordinary mundane life can be.
Advanced Interdisciplinary Mechanics, near Reading, UK.
"Rob, have you got a minute?"
I swivelled around in my chair to look over at my boss. "Sure, I'm just entering some data on the last test results. What do you need?"
"You know about the new lab we're putting in, right?" I nodded - it was hardly a secret since one of the things I'd been given to do was to mark up and sort the stuff they'd been clearing out of the old office area. "Good. Well, we have a big load coming in today - it's the last of the new equipment. We need it sorted and checked in as soon as it arrives, but there's been a bit of a delay. The lorry got caught up in an accident on the M25, so I wondered if you'd be prepared to work late and help get it all sorted?"
I thought for a moment. Technically, I wasn't supposed to work late - as a 15-year-old, there were strict limits on the hours I was allowed to work - but my boss tended to forget that, and what the hell, I wasn't planning on doing anything tonight. Now if it had been a Friday...
"Sure, I can do it if it doesn't mean staying too late - the last bus back to town leaves at ten."
My boss smiled. "Not a problem, the lorry should be getting here at three, and it shouldn't take more than five hours or so. In any case, we'll make sure you get home OK. Oh, and it will pay overtime rate, of course."
I grinned at that. Thanks to my big sister, I'd obtained a pretty good summer job for a 15-year-old, and overtime was always welcome. Being a gopher for a tech company beat the pants off the usual things a kid my age was offered as summer work. I did take a few minutes to text my Aunt and tell her I'd be late, and why, so she wouldn't worry about me.
As usual, the equipment arrived even later that we had been told to expect. But earlier than Bill, a professional pessimist, had expected. There was what seemed to me to be an awful lot of stuff, but I'd never set out a lab before, so I wasn't the expert here. Bill, at least, seemed happy at the piles of boxes and containers that piled up inside the gate. Of course, I was the gopher, and he wasn't going to be doing most of the heavy lifting, but RHIP. Mainly he checked off the containers, some of which carried an interesting assortment of warning decals while I arranged it all in piles. And towers. And big bunches. I even considered at one point arranging some of them artistically, but then I looked at all the warning labels again and thought maybe that wasn't a good idea, even if the look on Bill's face would have been amusing.
I checked the time as we finished logging the last of the boxes. Not quite nine o'clock, so I should make my ride handily.
"Is there anything else? I do have to catch the last bus, I'm afraid."
Bill shook his head. "No, we're done apart from uploading the data; I'll do that, it will only take me about 10 minutes. You head off; I'll lock up and set the alarms when I leave. We'll start on unpacking and checking everything tomorrow." I was about to thank him and get my bag when we were rudely interrupted by the screech of tortured metal as the heavy security gate in the back wall was forced upward, the thick metal buckling as it was jerked out of its frame. Bill froze, understandably, gaping at the men slipping under the still-rising gate. "What the hell?"
He wasn't the only one to be surprised. We both stood there for a long moment, as the heavy steel made its noisy complaint at being treated in that way. As soon as the gap had reached a few feet, a couple of men slipped through it. Men in body armour, carrying weapons. I discovered that even though I was 30 feet away, guns looked a hell of a lot more menacing in real life than they did on the TV. The two were pointing them at Bill, who very sensibly did nothing at all. For my part, I slipped behind one of the piles of empty boxes that had once contained some of the smaller pieces of equipment we'd had to unpack and check separately.
The large piles of boxes which I had spent the evening heaping up ready for tomorrow had left a slit through which I could watch what was going on. Those two guys were only the first - there must have been a dozen of them once they had all come inside. All of whom seemed to know what they were doing, as they carefully examined the equipment boxes we'd spent the evening arranging. I took a look towards the door, but there was a big open gap between me and it, and unless the men decided to get convenient attacks of blindness it didn't seem a run for the security desk at the front of the building was a goer. My only option was to stay still and be very quiet, in the hope they wouldn't notice me.
It was a wonderful idea, and for a couple of minutes, I held some hope it would work as the bulk of the crew seemed to be examining the markings on the equipment and cross-checking it against the paperwork we'd spent the evening laboriously preparing. But then two of them started to check the rest of the room out. I squeezed down as much as I could - there was still a small chance they might miss me. Now I couldn't see much of what was going on, although it seemed Bill had been pushed down to the floor. At least they hadn't shot him. Trying to breathe as quietly as possible, I could hear the sounds of boots on the concrete floor get closer. Then stop. I held my breath, hoping the way my heart was hammering wasn't actually audible. Which didn't help at all, as an amused voice ordered me to stand up. Followed by an arm knocking most of my cardboard concealment onto the floor. I thought some very rude things about the thieves, as I stood up, slowly. The man was grinning at me - he was wearing some sort of hi-tech helmet to go with his body armour, but it didn't conceal the lower half of his face. The gesture he made with his gun was pretty explicit, and I walked over to the gate, trying to act as helpless as possible.
"Looks like we have another one, boss."
The guy he'd spoken to had been giving orders, and I got another look of amusement.
"This one's a bit small; maybe you should throw him back!"
I scowled at the ripple of amusement that went through the watchers. I wasn't daft enough to say anything, though. I was hoping that if these people were as professional as they looked, they wouldn't do anything nasty to Bill or I as long as we didn't try anything stupid. Saying something to deliberately antagonise them struck me as falling into the really stupid category.
"Ok, back to work. And do another sweep, just in case we have any more mice hiding."
For my part, I allowed one of them to cuff and gag me - I could see they'd already done that to Bill, and one of the men pushed me down next to him. In the movies, no doubt the invaders would have been lax enough for me to do something clever, like text a message for help or pick my cuffs with my toenails or something, but sadly this wasn't the movies and these people knew exactly what they were doing. They were collecting some of the boxes and carrying them out - I assumed they had a van or something parked at the loading dock, and in a surprisingly short time they were finished. About a third of our shiny new kit going with them.
"Now, gentlemen, before we go I'm going to make sure you aren't going to escape and do anything silly." He gestured to one of his men, who pulled a couple of ampules out of a pocket. "Don't worry; these will just put you out for a couple of hours." Bill started to struggle at this point, with no result except the man held his arm and stabbed him with the needle. I didn't even bother to struggle. What was I going to do, try wriggling away on the floor faster than he could walk over and stab me? I did jerk as he pushed the needle in - he wasn't gentle, and it hurt - and a few second later the room started to spin a bit before going fuzzy and fading out.
"All done, boss."
"Good, let's just do a last check we have everything and we can be on our way."
A couple of the men did a final sweep, checking to see if they'd passed over any containers with the runic symbols indicating magic while the rest headed for the van. This time, they each held a detection device, sweeping them carefully across the remaining crates just in case anything had been mislabelled.
"Boss? I think we might have something extra here."
The leader turned, frowning in annoyance, at the man who was pointing his device at the two unconscious bodies. "Remember we were told that they needed some experimental subjects? I think we have a winner."
"Which one of them is it?"
The minion didn't answer immediately, pushing the two sleeping forms apart with his boot. "Looks like it's the kid, at least the funky app that girl uploaded is making happy beeping noises when I point at him."
"Well, shove him in the back with the rest of the stuff. Don't hurt him and give him another shot in" - he paused, estimating Rob's weight with an expert eye - "about three hours. Leave him bound just in case he wakes up, and make sure he's gagged and blindfolded. I want to get back tonight before they can work out what we've been up to here."
The plain off-white van pulled away from the delivery gate, looking just like any one of the dozens of similar vehicles that supplied the small industrial estate. Unless someone went around the back of the building, they wouldn't notice the damaged gate by the loading dock, and the drugged security guard wasn't due to be relieved until midnight. Half an hour later, the van pulled into a lay-by on the side road. There was no-one around to see the off-white paint shimmer and be replaced by the black and gold livery of a common courier company, or the plates renumber themselves. Nothing to show that the back contained ten mercenaries, a valuable if small cargo, and one unconscious boy as a souvenir.
An underground cell in a presumably secret lair
I awoke to find myself in a cell. It had to be a cell; it looked just like the ones on television. Bare metal walls, the bed I was lying on, and some pretty minimal sanitary facilities. And one wall was just bars, giving me a view of an empty corridor and two more cells just like the one I was in. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, pausing as a wave of vertigo went through my head and made the walls seem to spin around like a carnival carousel. It made me realise that whatever that thug had used on me still hadn't fully worn off. Without even thinking, I looked down at my wrist to check the time, only to realise my watch wasn't there. Bastards, I'd liked that watch.
Despite the queasiness in my stomach, I managed to stumble over to the sink. My mouth felt parched, and it took four glasses of water before it felt a bit less like the Sahara in a dry spell. Panting slightly, I gave my surroundings a more careful examination, but that didn't reveal anything I hadn't already noticed. The only odd point of the cell was that most of it seemed to be made of steel. Even the sink and toilet were metal. I wasn't sure how long I'd been unconscious. Presumably, one of the reasons they'd taken my watch was to stop me knowing. My arm did feel sore, and as well as the mark from the drug I'd had forced on me at the lab, there were two more spots. So it seemed likely I'd been out of it for quite some time. Of course, I had no idea how long a shot lasted, but three implied I could be just about anywhere. Hell, they'd probably have had time to leave the country if they'd wanted to.
All I could do was to sit back on the bed and worry. WHY had they taken me? I didn't know what had happened to Bill, but there were two other cells in his block, and I was the sole occupant. Did that mean I was the only one taken, or had they taken both of us and put Bill somewhere else? The thought I kept trying to avoid was that they had indeed taken us both and that Bill had already been dealt with in some way. Maybe if I concentrated really hard, I might wake up and find out I'd been dreaming all this.
When the corridor door finally gave the heavy metallic thunk of a security latch unlocking and swung open, I clambered to my feet in a hurry. Maybe, at last, I would find out what the hell I was doing here, and pretty much anything was better than just lying here and worrying myself into a nervous breakdown about what might happen to me. God was I naive. The first man through the door was another of the mercenary types that had robbed the lab, the only obvious difference being that he was carrying some sort of thick baton rather than a gun, and wasn't wearing a facemask. The two people with him were quite different and made my eyes widen in surprise. First was a woman - no, I realised, a girl - wearing a skin-tight ebony leotard that showed off, very clearly, her amazing figure. At any other time, I wouldn't have been able to keep my eyes off her, but her other features made me take an involuntary step back. She wasn't human. Granted, the combination of gold-glinting horns, pointed ears and a mane of flame-coloured hair that tumbled down her back, glowing with its own light, didn't detract from her beauty at all, but she looked way too much like a demoness from one of the TV shows I was supposed to be too young to watch. She wasn't the one that scared me, though. The man with her was thin, almost emaciated, the lines and planes of his face carved out of stone, the deep rust-red robe he wore just making him look even more like an aesthetic fanatic of some sort. But it was his eyes that made my mouth dry up. Not just cold, they looked at me as if I was just a piece of meat, to be used then thrown away. The demoness's eyes looked more human, even if they were the colour of molten gold.
The man gave me a long, considering look before turning slightly to speak to the girl, ignoring me as if I wasn't there. Bastard.
"As I promised, a test subject for you. Our preliminary test showed he had the potential we are looking for."
The girl didn't seem concerned with what he was saying. Instead, she gave me her own detailed examination, then drew a complex symbol in the air next to her. To my amazement, really drew - the convoluted diagram just sat there in mid air, glowing slightly, with no visible means of support. I must have looked like a yokel as I just stared at it, but neither of them seemed to pay me any notice. Her attention turned to her construct for a long moment, then she pursed her lips and nodded.
"Yes, he does seem suitable, Abraxus. I will have to do more detailed tests before I am certain. I will let you know of my progress." Even in my rather agitated state, I noticed that her husky contralto was just as sexy as the rest of her.
The man's lips moved in a way that could possibly be construed as a smile if you were descended from a Komodo dragon, as he gave me one last calculating look before turning to leave. I already realised that my worries about what might happen to me hadn't been nearly as drastic as they should have been - terms like 'test subject' had connotations I was trying to avoid thinking too deeply about. For her part, the girl nodded imperiously to the guard.
"Bring him to my work area, this" - she made a disgusted gesture at the cell - "is hardly conducive to a proper examination."
I stumbled again as the guard pushed me down the corridor. I'd never realised how much having your hands cuffed behind your back affected your balance, but then I hadn't been in the habit of experimenting in that way. Whatever this place was, it seemed quite large, and the whole thing had the air of early medieval with electric light. Not good lighting, at that. I'd thought for a brief moment about making a run for it, but even as I looked around and tensed in anticipation, the guard had poked me with that baton. Which almost sent me into spasms as the jolt of electricity it delivered sparked through me. In any case, I had no idea where to go, and all the doors I'd seen were metal, with modern electronic locks, like the one to the small cell complex. Even if I got away from this guard, I'd run into a door I couldn't open. So after giving my tormentor a dirty look at the shocking, I decided to keep my eyes open and wait. Maybe there would be a better chance later on. I was determined to at least make a try for freedom, but I wanted, at least, some chance - I figured they wouldn't be happy with me afterwards if I tried and failed.
I was startled when I saw where I was being taken. Instead of ending in a door, the passageway - changed, was the only way I could describe it. There was a shimmering scarlet circle where the end wall would have been, a circle which kept fading and blurring every time I tried to focus on it - it kept sliding away from my eyes as if they were trying to follow something impossible to track. The fact that somehow it seemed a lot larger than the passageway containing it did nothing for my peace of mind either.
"Go through there."
The guard's blunt words were reinforced by a hard prod from his stick, which sent me staggering forward a foot.
"Your choice, walk through, or I'll stun you and toss you through."
Wasn't really a choice, was it. I turned my head, but the man was obviously waiting for me to try something, a nasty grin on his face. So I took a deep breath and did as I was told. I know it's clichéd to describe sensations as weird, but going through that circle lived up to every example of that cliché. I felt momentarily hot, stumbling as for a second I didn't seem to be standing on anything, then staggered forward. Then looked around, wondering how the hell they'd managed to get a chamber the size of this one into their cosy little tunnel system.
I didn't want to use the word room; that was inappropriate for something so impressive. The floor and walls seemed to be made of obsidian, the shiny black stone glinting glassily in lights that I couldn't find. Almost half the huge space was filled with slabs of ruby glass standing in neat rows while the rest was a mass of oddly shaped blocks of the ebony rock. Except that some of the 'rocks' were coated in glowing symbols that flickered and changed. If it had been stainless steel and plastic rather than rock, I would have been certain I was in an up-market laboratory of some sort. As it was, I had a crazy moment of waiting for a Neanderthal dressed in a lab coat to turn up with a granite iPad.
"Ahem. When you've quite finished admiring Thulia's workshop, we do have work to do."
I spun around to see the source of the gravelly voice from behind me, to see a short, squat figure grinning up at me. Which would have been fine, except for the greenish scales and the mouth filled with far too many sharp teeth. I looked down at the squat little demon with shock and no small amount of suspicion, edging backwards as far as I could. Which didn't faze it in the slightest, it just grinned up at me, then pushed out a hand. Without taking my eyes off the beings face, I carefully reached out and shook it gingerly, trying not to wince at the feel of the scales. It seemed likely that if he was offering to shake my hand, he wasn't going to bite it off. Probably. "Hi, I'm Bruce." I gaped at not just the name, but the distinct Australian accent. "Bruce!?" It was getting surreal. The short creature's grin widened. "Hey, if you'd wanted Igor you should have asked for my cousin." I closed my eyes for a moment. Maybe I really was dreaming all of this, after all.
Thames Valley Police Station, Reading, CID department
Inspector Morris looked up from his notes as the door was opened by a uniformed constable, then got up to greet the man he was ushering in.
"Thank you for coming in so promptly, Sir."
The man facing him looked tired - not surprising, given the circumstances, thought Morris - as he shook the detective's hand before sitting in the proffered seat.
"Have you any more news on Rob?"
Morris took a moment to tidy his paperwork as he considered the best reply.
"No, nothing. Which may be a good thing under the circumstances."
The man opposite didn't reply, just kept looking at him, as Morris continued."
"I asked you to come in separately as you've been in the Army. So you have a better appreciation of a missing person than average. Now, it's been 48 hours. I must be honest and say that if this were a normal missing child case, the chances of a successful ending would be small. But this isn't a typical case at all."
"You mean because Rob seems to have been kidnapped rather than just been grabbed or gone missing?"
"Exactly. We still have no idea why he would have been targeted by the thieves, all the other evidence suggests a highly professional group, and they try their best not to give us cause to use too much effort on them. Kidnapping a boy has done exactly that, which implies they had a very good reason. And that gives us hope that Rob is still alive."
The inspector paused to contemplate his visitor. "Now, one of the things we have done is to check out your family, to see if there was anything that might give us a clue. When we asked for the details of your Army career, there was a notification that specified a higher than normal clearance on your paperwork. I wonder if you can clear this up before I get the Chief to extract the necessary permissions?"
Tim Jones sighed, and shook his head. "That won't be necessary, there isn't anything there of national security or anything like that; it was just to preserve my privacy after I retired." He paused for a moment to organise his thoughts, before continuing. "I was a Major in the Medical Corps. Nothing terribly secret about that, but what's in the file is the information that I was also a mutant, and a healer."
Morris nodded. "Ah, I see. A useful talent in that job."
"Yes, it was. But one of the snags with being a healer is that if people know about it, everyone and their dog comes running to you for help. So when I retired, they put a protective flag on that part of my career for privacy."
"So you don't practice any more?"
"Some. I spend about five days a month consulting at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and I occasionally do some teaching at the University here, but I'm mainly retired."
Morris frowned. "That's - almost a pity, I was hoping there might have been something in your file that would have given someone a reason to target your family."
Jones shook his head. "It seems unlikely; I wasn't involved in any of the more exotic bits of the Army, just the Medical Corps." His lip quirked slightly. "We don't make as many enemies as some."
"Damn." Morris gave the man a careful look. "Rob wasn't a mutant, was he?"
"Not as far as I know. We thought he might have been, he has the gene, and his elder sister manifested when she was 14, but it was looking like it had skipped him."
Ah yes, his sister. She's studying at Imperial College in London, yes?"
"Yes, she's looking to be an Engineer. Her mutant talent is Gageteer-1, so it helps a little, but that's all she tested for. Nothing spectacular at all."
"How about his parents?"
"His mother never had the gene, and while my brother did, he never manifested. I don't see how anything they would have done would have made someone want to abduct Rob - before they died in that car accident, he was an accountant, and to be honest a pretty boring one."
Morris frowned down at his papers. None of this was making sense. There had to be a reason - and given the level of effort an abducted child brought out, an important one to justify the heat the criminals would have to cope with, but for the life of him, he couldn't make out a pattern. He had the gut feeling they were missing a vital piece of information which would clarify everything, but what was it?
"I'm sorry we haven't been able to make any more headway, Mr. Jones."
The man stood up, the look on his face making him look old. "If anything changes...?"
Morris nodded reassuringly. It was an act he was, unhappily, all too familiar with. "We will let you know at once, of course."
He watched the man leave the room and sighed again. Granted, this case was odd, and there was a small chance the kid was still alive, but the statistics were against it. He'd hoped that the boy's uncle would have given him some clue he could have used to tease the puzzle open, but there didn't seem to be any vengeful skeletons in the family closet. So it was back to grinding the data and hope something significant would pop out for the investigation.
Underground Secret Base
I thought I'd been held in wherever-the-hell-this-place-was for about a week. None of the guards had been talkative - when they'd spoken at all it had mainly been curt orders, none of which left me any the wiser to what this place was. I could only guess based on how many times I'd slept and been fed, but those were the only measuring tools I had. Long enough to worry about how all this was going to end up and to pretty much bite my nails out of existence. I'd spent a lot of time with Thulia and Bruce as they made copious measurements, scans and other more sophisticated arcane experiments that I had no idea about what they were for, and the comments I'd overheard had been too cryptic, or too technical, for me to make much sense of.
I hadn't worked out what to make of Thulia. On the one hand, she was a demoness - well, at least everyone else kept referring to her as one, and she certainly looked the part. As long as the part was that of a young, sexy demoness. On the other, she seemed at times to be a perfectly normal girl (well, normal for an obsessively nerdy girl) with the looks and attitude that could give a statue a raging erection, let alone a 15-year-old boy. But then she also had the sort of attitude to her work as some of the more irrational devisors seen on Tales of the MCO. What was worse was that she actually seemed to like me. Normally something I wouldn't have objected to in the slightest, except that she also saw me as her experimental subject. Sometimes I wondered if she was deliberately projecting such conflicting impressions just to mess with me. Whatever her origin, she was female.
Bruce was another enigma. On the face of it, he was a self-confessed Imp, with a line of sarcastic humour I was quite envious of, and a very low - one might say dirty, but then he did claim to be Australian - sense of humour. Except that more than once he'd shown a technical grasp of what was going on while he helped Thulia that suggested he was a lot smarter and more complicated than the facade he presented to everyone. But he also kept insisting that Thulia wasn't a demon - or at least, not what I thought of as a demon - but what he referred to as a 'type 3 entity', whatever the hell that was supposed to be. Demoness seemed a lot simpler, even if she wasn't acting like one. Yet.
Thulia had made it quite clear what was going to happen to me. In fact, she'd been quite effusive in her presentation, and if I hadn't been kidnapped I might have even have been happy about it - that girl, especially in the rather - minimal - outfits she preferred could have sold snow to Eskimos. Male Eskimos, anyway. It wasn't as if I had a choice in the matter after all. Bruce, in one of his more serious moments, had explained to me the usual fate of the Cult's captives, one that would apply to me if for some reason I wasn't part of the experiment. It had been casually brutal, and gruesome enough to carry the stamp of authenticity. When it came down to it, being turned into some sort of powerful funky mutant who looked like a movie star didn't seem too bad, and at least Thulia had shown me the mercy of not doing a PowerPoint presentation of the whole thing. Of course, what I didn't realise at the time was, like most scientists, Thulia was being quite economical with the facts about what might go wrong with her bleeding-edge experiment.
This time, Bruce had come and collected me from my cell. By now I had found out that I might as well follow along to Thulia's work area - the doors I passed between my cell and the portal would only open with an electronic key and passcode, which for some odd reason they'd forgotten to provide me with - since the most I could do otherwise was to cower in my cell. The only people I'd seen apart from Bruce and Thulia was the guard who put and collected my food tray, and he had unfortunately been meticulously careful in doing so. The room looked a bit different today. First, there were many more than the usual number of diagrams inscribed in the floor, and second all the slabs were glowing. Given that she'd told me just what those piece of ruby were, seeing them all primed and apparently running was worrying. Even a single 32k quantum computer was ridiculously powerful, and she had an array of 256 of them. I'd never seen more than a few active at once. Thulia herself was working away in the middle of a set of obsidian consoles, and she gestured absently to Bruce as I entered.
"You need to get in the circle, Rob."
I looked down at the squat Imp, opening my mouth to object, which he'd obviously anticipated.
"Don't worry; it's just another examination. A more thorough one, this time, that's all."
I looked at the circle inscribed on the floor with considerable apprehension. Partly due to the complexity of the notation in and around the circles, partly due to the way they seemed to be incised into the obsidian floor in glowing red characters and symbols. Which wriggled. Writing shouldn't do that; it should stay still and do as it's told, not move around as if it was in some sort of Neolithic word-processor.
Thulia didn't seem at all concerned with the way I felt, as she swept her hands over more symbol-encrusted rockery. Gestures whose graceful execution left various items either glowing or moving - or both - in their wake. For a moment, I stopped looking at the circle to admire her instead. It wasn't just the way she was moving - let's be honest, the thin, clinging robe she was wearing, that pressed against her and showed every so often that it was all she was wearing did have a considerable amount to do with it. Look, demoness or not, she was a hot babe whose unusual...features...just made her look exotically beautiful. And I was a 15-year-old boy. With, right now, uncomfortably tight jeans.
My (hopefully not obvious) fixation on her was broken when she spoke.
"I'm going to need to do a full scan on you before we go ahead." She nodded casually at the circle. "Just take your clothes off and get in the circle, I'll be ready in a few minutes."
I started to move for a moment before freezing. "Uh...take off my clothes?!"
"Of course, take them off. I need the best readings I can get, for your sake as well as for my experiment."
"But...all of my clothes?" By now my face was probably glowing enough to compete with some of the symbols. Especially since my, well, interest in her would be rather obvious if I stripped. Hell, it was pretty obvious already!
"ALL your clothes." she stopped with her gestures to eye me, a somewhat wicked glint in her eye. "If it's too difficult, I can always help you out of them."
I had to gulp before I could reply. It wasn't as if she was giving me any choice, after all. I'd seen some casual displays of strength by both of them that implied they could handle me like a child if they wished.
"No, I can manage." I squeaked. Even so, it wasn't the easiest of things, to strip off in front of an attractive girl who really wasn't acting in the impersonal way she should have been if this was just some sort of medical exam. She waited until I was naked, then took a long look, making me fidget uncomfortably. Then just to make it worse, she grinned. "Hmm, I suppose that is rather flattering."
Yes, and it was very obvious just what she was looking at, and it wasn't my face. Still, having made her point, she gestured me to step into the circle. Once I had done so, I could feel a tingle crawl all over me like a horde of little insects wearing booties, as without any effort on my part my feet moved apart until I was standing on two markings, and my arms rose up. I must have looked like that Leonardo da Vinci sketch you see, a man with outstretched arms and legs. At least that, and the tingling, had reduced my arousal to something a bit less X-rated, as she busied herself with some more of her equipment. I could see out of the corner of my eye the glassy blades of her computer array start to glow a brighter red, almost-but-not-quite flickering, and licked my already unpleasantly dry lips. She gave me a quick glance, without even pausing in her actions.
"Just hold still, this is just a scan."
That was certainly pushing the definition of 'just' to its limits. I didn't think a normal medical scan required such an amount of magic or the sort of insane computing power she commanded. So I did wonder just what she was scanning. I could almost see a faint sort-of-purple disk slide from the floor up across my body. Not quite see, it was the sort of thing that flickered in the corner of your eye then vanished if you looked straight at it. But she seemed pleased, slender fingers playing expertly as a number of 3-D images constructed themselves in the air around them. A few of them looked almost like images of me, but some were just weird - as my eyes tried to follow them they lurched off sideways like some sort of solid Escher picture, making my eyes hurt.
"Now, that's the first scan all done. It didn't hurt, did it?" Her cheerful words made it obvious she wasn't waiting for an answer as she picked up a few objects. "Now, before I do the next set I'll need some samples."
Well, the first two were straightforward enough. First, a cheek scraping to get some cells, then a blood sample. I winced and looked away when she slid the needle into my arm - I've always hated seeing a needle go into my skin - but she was pretty good, it hardly hurt at all. It wasn't as if I had any choice, whatever this thing was, it was still holding my limbs outstretched.
That done, I just hung there while she did various arcane things with the samples she'd just acquired. She seemed pleased with the data her displays were showing her, as she hummed happily to herself. I wasn't quite sure if that was a good or a bad thing, given my circumastance. So I distracted myself by watching her move gracefully around her working area. I was forced to admit it was very easy to be distracted by her, if it wasn't for the plans she had for me I think I'd have been spending all my time trying to get closer to her. OK, she had horns and glowing hair, but the way that slender body moved, not to mention the way that low-cut robe displayed it...
I sighed to myself. No, it wasn't just the way she looked, I'd been using that as an excuse for ignoring the way I was starting to feel about her. I knew I shouldn't - she was, after all, working for the people who's kidnapped me, but saying that was a lot simpler than ignoring the way I felt.
"Falling asleep on me?"
My head jerked - well, it was the only part of me I could move right now - as I realised she was standing in front of me with a small smile on her face. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn't noticed her moving close.
"Ah...no, I was just thinking, that's all."
The silence drew out as I stammered to a halt and she stood there waiting for me to continue. Instead, I just blushed. Oh, way to go, show how cool you are to the girl.
"Well, I'm all done for now." She gestured, and whatever it was holding me slowly let go until I was just standing there. She was still watching my face, an expression on her face I couldn't work out. Then she leant forward, delicately brushing her lips against my cheek in a feather-soft kiss. It only lasted a moment, before she turned quickly and busied herself in her work again. My mouth just opened and closed a couple of times as I tried to think of what to say, my mind a complete and hopeless blank.
"C'mon, kid, time to get back to your palatial lodgings."
I looked down at Bruce, nodding as I stumbled after him, but I wasn't really paying attention. OK, I knew how I felt about her, but why had she kissed me like that? While she'd turned away quickly, I had the distinct impression she'd looked embaressed. Then I thought again about the way her face looked as she kissed me, and blushed deeply. Oh.
Thulia looked down at Bruce, who'd returned from tucking Rob back in his cell for the night.
"It all looks good; the readings were very promising. " She bit her lip slightly in thought. "We go tomorrow. Don't tell him; he'll only worry."
Bruce tilted his head slightly as he examined her. "You're not getting second thoughts, are you? You seem to be showing feelings for the kid."
"Feelings!" she looked somewhat outraged, but not enough to fool the Imp. "Of course not, I mean...he's only a human. Quite a cute one...and a lot nicer than these scum we're dealing with...no, of course I don't have any real feelings for him. The idea..."
Bruce kept looking at her, then shrugged. "Considering what these guys would do to him if you didn't go ahead, you're doing him a favour. Even if he does die on the table."
The girl winced perceptibly at that. "Look, it's all going to work! The readings are good, all the equipment is ready, I'm going to make it happen!"
Bruce just looked at her with a slight grin. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much."
Thulia glowered down at her stunted helper for a long moment, then sniffed audibly before going back to examine her data.
For the first time, I stopped dead as I entered the chamber. The layout was completely different, and I had a falling sensation in the pit of my stomach as I guessed why. The floor now manifested three large circles, as well as immensely complex sets of diagrams, but what made me freeze was the low table inside one of the rings. The table big enough for a man, with leather straps to tie someone down. Straps that looked like they could hold an adult gorilla, let alone a 15-year-old boy.
Bruce gave me an almost-gentle push into the chamber. "It's time, Rob."
I looked at him, but he refused to meet my eyes, instead looking calm, as if not trying to spook me. Bit late for that. Then I looked at Thulia, who was trying to look professional and disinterested before sighing as I realised my fate wasn't going to be put off any longer. So I walked over to the table and stood there looking at it.
"Just undress and lie down."
I looked down at Bruce. "Straps? Why?"
"Because we don't want you thrashing around and hurting yourself by falling off. And if you fell out of the circle, it could go very badly."
I didn't want to know what badly meant in these circumstances. It could have been anything between bumping my elbow to getting turned into a slug. So I slowly did as I was told. As if taking it slowly would put it off somehow. It wasn't until I sat down and swung my legs up that I realised I wasn't the only one who'd be doing this naked. Both Bruce and Thulia had disrobed while I was taking my time, and while Bruce wasn't exactly more appealing naked - green and warty Australians had never done anything for me - the sight of Thulia made me gasp despite my position. OK, she'd worn some outfits in the past that were obviously designed to show off rather than conceal, but the sight of that slender, powerful body sent a shiver of lust through me. Whatever she really was, she was beautiful.
She must have heard me gasp because she looked up from what she was doing and gave me an odd look as if surprised. Maybe it was the impressive erection I was sporting, or maybe something else. Then she turned away, showing me a back that was just as impressive as the front view before Bruce pushed me back and started to strap me down. He grinned a bit at my reaction.
"Powerful rituals are done naked, kid. Didn't you know?"
I shook my head. Obviously, I had missed out by studying tech rather than magic. Then he touched my head with the tip of a claw, and everything faded out as I slumped back.
"Is he ready?"
Bruce nodded. "Just needs to be inscribed."
Thulia walked over, hips swaying in a way that would have made Rob shudder if he hadn't been unconscious, a wand held loosely between her fingers. Pointing it at the boy, she started to intone in a voice that resonated oddly across the room, as multicoloured glowing symbols appeared on his flesh. She finally stopped, head tilted to one side as she checked her work, then nodded and stepped back to her circle. Bruce was already in the final one.
She looked around, then smiled, cracking her knuckles before starting to gesture over her controls, the lighted patterns engraved in the obsidian shifting as she began. One-half of the space was already lit in the crimson glow of her computer array, and the pattern surrounding Rob began to glow, brighter and brighter as she filled it with magic, curls of power dancing in the air around the prone figure. As the power she drew into herself grew, her form changed. Her features grew more obviously non-human, fingernails turning into claws, horns growing slightly and starting to glow a warm gold. Finally, her wings manifested behind her, ebony and scarlet in the flickering light as she drew more and more power into her physical body as well as into her spell circles.
Things were not going to plan, as Thulia glared at the biometric readings glowing in the air next to her. The molding of the boys manifesting BIT had begun well, and it was shaping nicely into her desired pattern, but now the readings were sliding away from the optimum as if they were personally insulting her. They were NOT doing what she wanted, and the things should know their place. Despite her steadily growing frustration, her fingers flickered over the controls, but it was already obvious what the problem was, and she simply didn't have enough options to make the procedure viable. She had already persuaded the Exemplar part of the BIT to stretch as far as she dared - any more stress on that and the whole thing would collapse into something uncontrollable and undesired. She had left her circle once the ritual had triggered the necessary changes, and she looked more closely at the glowing designs that crawled like luminescent worms across the boy's skin. All that they told her was that things were succeeding far too well.
Ironically it was the success of her forcing of the Wizard trait that was causing her the problems. She had anticipated a level three at best, but it was happily spiking at a good four. Which meant that the subject wasn't going to survive the experiment. There was a limit to the power he could contain while channelling the primal plane, and at his current levels, he'd draw too much for his body to handle. The vital signs were already pointing at an imminent burnout as he struggled with both his manifestation and handling the raw magic she was feeding into him, and while she had been partly successful at slowing it down, it was slowly accelerating into the danger zone. Intra-cellular data was showing the start of a general breakdown in the DNA and the cellular mechanisms themselves - even she wasn't sure just what was happening to the mitochondria - and the use of any more power would just cause the damage to speed up. But more power was what she needed to force the configuration into her desired shape. Her scowl deepened. This wasn't actually a failure - she'd done what her pact had agreed - but she was taking it as a personal insult that her procedure wasn't completely successful. She'd only agreed to do this in the first place because she wanted to prove her theories, and she'd come to feel for her test subject. Feel far more than she was prepared to admit, even to herself. Killing him wasn't the fate she'd had in mind for him at all. Unfortunately, in this case, her usual remedy - more power - would only make things worse. She needed something unconventional to strengthen the body until the BIT had stabilised in its desired format because if things carried on the BIT would shred and that would ruin everything.
She nibbled absently on the tip of one claw as she watched the body shudder and jerk. Frustration and anger at the incipient failure grew inside her, twisting her lips into a snarl. It wasn't her fault, her experimental procedure had worked perfectly, it was just that the damn human wasn't tough enough to take it. It was looking like humans were just too fragile for detail work, the continual stress caused them to break before it was all complete. And she had been so certain that she could succeed in making a successful conduit when so many had failed. Then a grin slowly worked its way onto her face. It was just as well no-one was watching it, it wasn't a reassuring sort of grin, it was the sort far too often associated with the words 'soon I will be INVINCIBLE!'. Leaving the controls for a moment, she rummaged in one of her supply cabinets, muttering to herself. "My technique is perfect, if the stupid human isn't strong enough, well the answer is simple..." she finally came up with a hypodermic and an unsettlingly insane gleam in her eye. "If at first you don't succeed, redefine the problem..."
It wasn't a small syringe, but she didn't even wince as she jabbed the needle into a vein, eyes fixed on the readouts. Good, burnout was beginning, but the subject wasn't close to critical yet. Pulling the needle free, she tapped it, letting a droplet of deep crimson escape, and in a few steps was next to the still-jerking body. The strain was making his veins bulge - hardly surprising as his blood pressure was fast heading for a level that normally caused an aneurism. Without a pause she thrust the sanguine needle into one of the veins in his arm, forcing her blood into him.
The empty hypodermic smashed into jagged splinters as she tossed it aside, her attention already back on her control panel, and this time, her rapid manipulations were forcing the configuration into her desired shape. The biometrics were going crazy, as she noted absently that the DNA structure was mutating again as her manipulations forced changes on his genome. But while the readings would have been fatal for a normal human, now the subject seemed to be stabilising - at least, the spastic jerking of the body was subsiding, and the cellular deterioration had stopped. The important thing was that the BIT was folding nicely into the desired configuration, at least, in the ten dimensions she could monitor. She was fixed on her instrumentation, only aware of the body in her peripheral vision, completely fixated on the success of her procedure. However as the readings finally started to slide into a viable and stable state, it was obvious from them that there was an additional mutational change that she hadn't originally planned. Still, it was only an incidental; the main point was that she had succeeded. The girl would survive.
Underground cell, the morning after the experiment.
I opened my eyes, then hurriedly squeezed them shut again against the glare of the lighting. My head was pounding, and my mouth felt like a herd of goats had taken up residence. Maybe two herds, neither of which was housetrained. Painfully I forced the heavy shutters which seemed to have replaced my eyelids open again, letting my eyes get used to the illumination. The room slowly came into focus, which was the first sign of something odd. Not only was everything around me starkly clear, but it was also in pin-sharp detail far sharper than I was used to seeing. Without really thinking, I sat up on the bed. That felt odd somehow as well. Shakily I rubbed my eyes. Such an automatic act, it took me seconds before I looked at my hand. Except it wasn't my hand. It was a slender, shapely hand. A shapely, slender, FEMALE hand. I just stared at it, too shocked to swear. Very slowly, I put my now-trembling hand back down and looked down at myself. And the two very obvious bumps on my chest, to which I reacted in a quite understandable way. I fainted, sliding off the bed without even a whimper.
I awoke to realise my cheek was rubbing against something harsh. <That's odd. I don't remember having carpet on the walls...?>
A moment of reflection, as my brain tried to get itself back into something resembling working order, allowed me to realise that that was because I was lying on the floor. <Oh, that's all right, then...>
At least, this time, I didn't faint when I looked at myself. Instead, I staggered up to my feet and stared into the mirror above the sink. That just piled on more bad news. I think I might have been able to take the shock of being turned into a girl better if I had, at least, been turned into a human girl. In fact, I looked suspiciously like Thulia - not quite like her - I looked a lot more human for s start, but you could see the resemblance. Considering who had been responsible for this, I didn't think that was entirely co-incidental. I stood there gazing at myself for far too long, running my fingers across my face and hair, as if in some manic attempt to prove that this was some sort of bizarre rubber mask after all.
The girl who stared back at me from the steel mirror was, I had to admit, lovely. Flawless tanned skin, long fine dark-red hair - even the odd gold, crimson-flecked eyes looked good. The problem was the definitely-pointed ears I could clear see pushing through said long hair. Dammit, Thulia had never told me that THIS was what the result of her experiment would be. I could feel the anger rising, and also an odd throbbing in my bones and body I'd never felt before. I growled, wanting to smash out at something, as I felt that throbbing grow, and then felt the steel of the washbasin start to bend like paper in my hands. I shuddered and this time screamed in rage and anger, pulse pounding like a hammer in my temples as the realisation of what had happened finally broke through the shell of disbelief. Which might not have been a good idea.
When I'd recovered enough to open my eyes, I jerked upright in terror as I realised I'd changed yet again. Now I did look a lot like Thulia, the small horns curling around the side of my head impossible to hide. My nails, which had looked normal, now looked far more like claws. About the only thing missing was the weird glow of her hair, mine, at least, stayed free of unnatural illumination. I finally looked down to see what was making the odd metallic noise, which I found was being caused by my hands twisting the steel basin into a piece of bad modern sculpture. It was all too much, I staggered back to the bed and collapsed onto it, face buried in my hands as I curled up into a ball as I tried to make it all go away.
I had no way of measuring time here, but it felt like quite a long time before I heard the metallic grating noise of the door outside my cell opening. I looked up to see Thulia and Bruce standing there. My first instinct was to jump up and scream curses at them both, but something in the expression on her face stopped me. It was the first time I'd seen sadness on her features.
"Why did you do THIS to me!?" OK, maybe I wasn't quite as calm as I thought because she winced at the volume of my voice. She licked her lips as if trying to find the best way to phrase an answer.
"I never intended for this to happen to you."
"So this is all an accident! I thought you said you knew what you were doing?"
"I did. I do. It...it wasn't exactly an accident. It was the only way to save your life."
My mouth must have stayed open for quite a while, as she finally sighed deeply. "I need to explain what happened to you. My procedure started out fine - your BIT was growing as planned, you were exhibiting all the signs of an Exemplar and Wizard. As planned. But there was a problem." She looked at me almost sadly. "It was working TOO well. You were starting to manifest out of control, the stresses on your body were making you burn out. If I'd let it go on, you would have died."
I chewed through what she'd said, then look up angrily. "Then why didn't you just stop it, or tone it down or something?"
"Because trying any of that would just have killed you faster. Once a BIT starts manifesting there is no way of stopping it. I couldn't use more power to keep you under control; that would just have made it worse. Your BIT would have shaped itself, into anything, with no control. It could easily have killed you. So I tried something a bit more desperate."
"Desperate. You turned me into a GIRL!!"
"Actually... not quite a girl." She sighed again. "The only way I could think of to save you was to make your body tough enough to stand the forces transforming you. So I injected you with some of my blood cells."
This time, I didn't just sit there with my mouth open. Instead, I just stared at her as if she'd grown a second head. With added tentacles.
"Rob. This body of mine" she gestured gracefully at herself "It isn't just a manifestation, it's a real physical one on this plane. There's a condition called CTA - Chimerical Trait Acquisition - which sometimes happens when mutant manifests, and they include elements of another creature. It's often fatal, but that's because the other creature is too far from the human norm, and can't support higher brain functions. I hoped splicing some of my DNA into yours would make you strong enough to survive. " Her head dropped as she looked at the floor, rather than at me. "I never thought it would also turn you female."
"So how do my powers work?"
Thulia looked back at me, a thoughtful expression on her face. I carried on quickly, not wanting her to wander off into the closed headspace she used when something interested her.
"Look, you've been testing me for days, surely you must know something by now?"
"Hmm. Well, yes, I do have a good idea now. It's not perfect, of course, I need to work up a few more tests to nail down some specific points, but I have a working idea now."
I waited for her to carry on, then, when she didn't, growled at her in annoyance. "Then TELL ME! Please... now I'm stuck like this, at least, I want to know how it's affected me." I pretended I didn't see the smirk on Bruce's face as he watched - it was pretty obvious from his expression that this wasn't the first time someone had had to dig information out of her.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again with a frown before finally continuing. "Look, I can give you an idea, but it won't be precise. I don't have the vocabulary, and you don't have the mathematics..."
There was a long-suffering sigh from Bruce. "Look, just give her the Magic Powers for Dummies bit, at least for now."
Thulia sniffed, obviously put out at having to dumb down her talk or, perish the thought, not go into things in mind-numbing technical detail I just didn't have the background to understand.
"Oh all right. Now, Rob, the most important thing is that my experiment worked, you're tied into the Fire Plane - well, mainly anyway - and can access it for power. Now people have been trying this for millennia, with nearly always fatal results, but you're a mutant. What you people call a Wiz-class, and the thing that makes you different from a normal mage is that you have a natural ability to collect and draw power from various sources - in your case, the Fire Plane."
I was bent forward in my seat following this, and my obvious interest started her natural enthusiasm for exposition going full blast.
"Now you have to understand a bit about how human mages work. Basically, they draw power in, mainly from outside themselves - they call it essence, I think - and store it in their well. Then they use the essence contained in their well to power their spells. So, mmm, you could think of it like a rechargeable battery, and doing it like that gives them fine control over how they use the essence. Now you do that too, except that nearly all your power is drawn from the Fire Plane, and again you store it in your well."
"So I don't actually use this power directly, I just store it inside?"
"Ah...well, that's when it gets interesting. You see, one of the reasons connecting a human to one of the Planes fails is that it's simply too much power." She looked thoughtful as she sought for a suitable analogy. "Look, think of it like trying to recharge your phone by plugging it into the power station." I winced noticeably as I processed that one, and she hurried on. "By sanitising it and storing it, you avoid that, your ability limits what you can draw to something that's reasonably safe to handle." I kept my face straight at the 'reasonably' bit; from experience, her idea of reasonable risk wouldn't have the local Health and Safety people in paroxysms of happiness.
"Now that was basically what I was trying to do. But the issues that came up" - she winced visibly at that - "that made me infuse my DNA into you has added something I hadn't originally planned on. You see, I designed this body to use magic much more directly, and it seems that you have some of that ability as well. Not perfectly, but you're drawing directly on the power to do things like to make yourself stronger, tougher, and so on. As well as a few other things like creating fire."
I frowned as I tried to assimilate this and ask some, at least, not-stupid questions. "Wait, is that why if I relax and meditate I lose some of the physical changes?" She beamed at me, so at least, I wasn't sounding entirely ignorant. That always felt good.
"Exactly! You see, the physical form is connected to the magic, so certain changes become enhanced or different as the amount of power you use changes. So, very broadly, instead of drawing in power and storing it, you use it directly in your cells."
"But if we're both doing that, why don't I have funky hair like yours?" I pointed at the mane of fire tumbling down her back, glowing with it's own light."
"Ah"... for a brief instant, I almost thought she looked guilty, but I must have imagined it, as she continued. "I think it may be a sort of, well, safety feature. You aren't used to dealing with it, and drawing too much would be dangerous. So you're limiting what you can use. With time and practice, that should increase."
I winced noticeably as I remembered one of the tests she'd made me do. Manifesting fire. Which had been rather cool at first, watching the flames curl around my hand and arm. But trying a bit too hard, and losing control, hadn't gone so well. At least, as Thulia had pointed out with a grin, her workplace was fireproof.
"OK, that makes sense. Can you help me learn that?"
She looked slightly uncomfortable. "Well...I'm not supposed to..." then she saw the pleading look on my face, and her expression softened. "Yes, of course I will."
Next day, Thulia's workplace
"OK, Rob, do you want the good news or the bad news?"
I scowled down at Bruce, who, as usual, was cheerfully unconcerned with my disapproval. Thulia wasn't there, which was unusual, and I found I missed her more than I expected. I'd got to looking forward to the time we spent together.
"MORE bad news?"
The little Imp shrugged. "Well, the good news is your change is stable, you're definitely an Exemplar, and you certainly show Wizard traits. So you aren't going to change into something else, or turn into a puddle of goo, or blow up or anything. Probably. The bad news is - you're stable. As a female."
I slumped down into a chair. I'd rather expected it, but you never give up hope that somehow it would all be a mistake and could be fixed.
"It could be a lot worse."
I looked up at Bruce with a spark of anger. That died as I saw his face - he wasn't trying to be clever this time, he just looked sympathetic.
"You could have died on the table. You could have died after. You could have been horribly deformed, or insane. And I can think of a lot worse things that could have happened."
I sighed deeply. "I guess. It's just - I never WANTED to be a girl, I was perfectly happy as a guy, you know. "
"Yeah, we sort of worked that out from all the screaming and tearing up your cell."
Well, what did he expect? A Zen-like state of calm? Mind, I was glad I was stronger now, or I'd probably have broken my hands with the way I had been hammering away at the cell wall. As it was, the cell had come off far worse.
"So where is Thulia anyway?"
The imp gave a quick, almost guilty, glance at the portal. "She had a meeting to attend to." I must have looked dubious because he sat down with a sigh.
"Look, I know what you're thinking. You want to know if you can be turned back, right?"
I nodded. "Yeah, is it that obvious? Even if I lose all these cool powers, I just want to be, well, myself again."
"Figured. Rob, I'm sorry to have to tell you, but there's no going back from this. None."
"But...if she could change me once, why can't she change me again?"
The short Imp sighed. "Rob, do you know anything about BITs?" I shook my head, as he continued. "Because that's the cause of you being stable. Look, not all mutants have a BIT, but the ones that do - well, simply put it forces them into a specific form. You can't change them, the chances of it working are small. And if it doesn't work..."
"What if it doesn't? Wouldn't I just be like this?"
He shook his head. "Oh hell no. First, the power needed often fractures the BIT. Which leaves you dead. Then, it may well alter it into a non-viable form. Which leaves you dead again. And that isn't the worst result. It can leave you as a monster, mentally as well as physically. Which tends to result in a lot of dead people around you."
I sat there stunned. While I hadn't expected him to tell me it was easy, I hadn't expected anything as negative as this.
"But hang on, if it's so difficult how did she change me in the first place?"
"She cheated, of course." Seeing my somewhat stunned expression, Bruce grinned and carried on. "There is one - and only one - point it's possible to alter a BIT, which is when you manifest. There are all sorts of internal and external forces and situations that affect it then. What Thulia did was to arrange them so that your BIT unfolded into the desired configuration. It's not 100% precise, but it worked. That's why she needed all that computing power, to monitor it and to keep changing the conditions. Think of it as making a mold for your BIT to flow into."
Damn. I knew there had to be something - Thulia had been evasive and changed the subject a couple of times when I'd tried to hint at reversing the process - but I had tried to make myself believe it wasn't so permanent. I looked down at my hand. It was a pretty hand, slender and strong. And female.
"I really am stuck like this now."
Bruce put his hand on my shoulder as I muttered sadly. "Sorry, kid, but yes, you are. Hey, at least you ended up looking sorta like Thulia, some of the random manifestations you get are - well, they ain't pretty."
I frowned, I didn't want to think about it right now, but at least talking gave me something to do other than feeling sorry for myself. "So why do I look like her? Well, like her cousin or something."
"Because when she gave you her blood, you got her DNA. But that infusion of Thalia's genetic material seems to have had some odd effects. " He looked up at me. "You know, you don't just look related, it goes a lot more than skin deep. You seem to have acquired some of the stuff she built in when she designed that body."
I blinked. Twice. "She designed her body? You mean it isn't her, well, usual one?"
He gave me a grin that displayed far too many sharp teeth. "Look, if you don't want a standard template like me, you gotta get inventive. Mind, most of us still use a pretty standard format, but Thulia, she had to get creative. " I was still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of someone actually designing what they wanted to look like, as he continued. "She wanted to be able to use most of her abilities on this plane, which is a bit complicated. So she made some mods to hold fire plane magic in her well - that not only gave her more inbuilt storage, it let her use it to be stronger, faster, all the usual stuff." He grinned again. "Mind, her actual appearance - well, she did watch an awful lot of anime, I think that's where she got some of the stuff from. Look on the bright side, at least, she wasn't into tentacles..."
I just stood there trying to absorb it. I was getting this mental image of myself with tentacles as well, and it wasn't very reassuring. I was enough of a monster already.
Office of the Adept Abraxus
"So the experiment was successful. Good, then our contract is complete and your fee will be paid today."
Thulia looked at the robed man, her face expressionless. She had never appreciated being condescended to, and even without saying anything the garishly ostentatious throne-like seat he was sitting in simply reeked of arrogance.
"What are you going to do with her?"
He chuckled, a dry arid sound that held nothing of humour in it.
"She will be used as a power source, once she has been properly motivated. Not that it's any business of yours now."
Thulia kept her visage expressionless under the surprisingly sharp look the wizened man gave her.
"Of course not, the terms of our contract were quite explicit. I do have a few more tests I would like to perform on the subject before I leave."
His mouth curled in derision. "Yet more tests. Very well, as long as they finish in two hours. Your fee will be paid then, and I expect you to leave as soon as that happens. I will require the report on how to replicate the procedure."
Thulia didn't deign a reply, although his sneering tone made her wonder just how he would like to have his flesh burned from his bones. Slowly. But her contract was quite binding, as well as cleverly worded. So instead she rose to her feet. "She will be ready for you in two hours, and the contract between us will be complete. If you wish to repeat the procedure, the notes will be an adequate guide." She left unsaid the knowledge she'd gained from her experiment - that using her technique to manipulate a BIT during a subjects manifestation would result in a fatal burnout. Not to mention the level of computing power needed to control the process in real time. Let the arrogant mortal find out for himself.
I was sitting talking with Bruce when Thulia stormed into her workplace. Nothing important this time, he'd just been trying to take my mind off what had happened, with little real success. I didn't know what had caused it, but she looked ready to spit nails. Without conscious thought, I was on my feet looking at her.
"Bruce, start getting ready to relocate." The small Imp opened his mouth as if to ask why, then took another look at her face and decided to keep quiet. Then she turned to look at me.
"Take your robe off and get into the testing circle. Quickly, we don't have a lot of time left."
Given her attitude, I started to slip out of my borrowed robe - one of hers, it wasn't as if my old clothes fit me anymore. "Thulia, what's the matter?"
She ignored my question, and the look of confusion on my face, until she'd prodded me into the middle of the complex magical circle she'd been using to test me, and powered it into life with a flick of her fingers. That done, she relaxed just a little.
"Good, that buys us some time. Rob, I have a lot to tell you and only a little time to tell it. I'd hoped - well, I'd hoped I wouldn't have to, which was stupid of me." Her lip twisted up into a crooked smile. "Even things like me have hope."
I had spoken before I realised what I was saying. "You aren't a thing, Thulia."
She looked for a moment as if she was going to reply but then shook her head as if to clear it.
"It doesn't matter now. What I'm going to tell you is vital, it might be what you need to save your life."
Well, if nothing else that got my attention. After what had happened to me, that wasn't the sort of statement to take lightly.
"Let me start at the beginning. I needed backing to provide some of the requirements for my experiments. So I made a contract with the people who own this base, who wanted what I could provide. At the time" - her mouth twisted again - "I didn't realise how disgusting and dishonourable they were. And I thought that whoever would be provided for the experiment would be a willing subject, not a kid they'd kidnapped."
"Um, Thulia? If you found out, couldn't you just have pulled out?"
She shook her head firmly. "No, I couldn't. You see, to a being like me, a contract is binding. It simply wasn't possible to break it. And by the time I realised you weren't a part of them, that you were just an innocent bystander caught in the gears, it was too late. Even if I'd found a way of slipping out, they would just have used you as one of their sacrifices. At least using you in my experiment gave you a chance."
I thought about that, and for once had the sense to keep my mouth shut. Bruce had told me a little about what they did to their sacrifices, and being turned into a girl was a much better fate. Hell, being turned into a slime-dripping hamster was probably a better fate.
Thulia took a deep breath, which worried me again.
"Now...they've just told me the contract is complete, I've provided a viable subject as agreed, and that they will pay me. And then I have to leave."
I tried to reply, but I couldn't think of what to say. I suppose I'd not thought about what would happen to me now; I'd been so busy being tested, and feeling sorry for myself, as well as fuming with rage when I thought of what had happened to me. It took a couple of attempts to get my voice to work.
"So what happens now?"
She gave me a rather odd look. Almost a calculating one.
"The contract is still binding on me. I have about an hour until I finish testing you."
But she wasn't testing me. She'd put me in the circle, and powered it, but she wasn't taking any notice of any results it was putting out. I gave a quick glance at Bruce, who was looking tense, and refused to meet my eyes. Something was going on here.
"There's something you aren't telling me."
She looked straight at me, her eyes glowing slightly. "I don't like what they are making me do. I really don't like it. But I am bound by the wording of the contract."
OK, I wasn't stupid all the time. It was easy to pick up the way she'd emphasised that sentence.
"I cannot do anything to help you escape. Not while the contract holds me. And as soon as it ends, I have to detach my workplace from here. And they were clever enough to make sure I couldn't take any direct action against them even afterwards. However..."
That final word was accompanied by a seriously evil grin, the sort that promised someone a terminally nasty fate. Not, I hoped, me.
"Rob, there are some things they will want you to do. The first is to enter into an agreement, a contract, to do as they wish. Don't sign it. If you do, they will control you, mind and body. You won't be able to break it on your own." She gave me a worryingly sober look. "They will put pressure on you. Resist it. As long as an oath doesn't bind you, you can try to escape. Something will turn up."
I could have sworn for a moment that last was accompanied by a flicker of a wink. There was a real flow of information in how she was telling me, rather than just the bare words.
"Yeah." This time, it was Bruce's gravelly Australian accent. "Give it time; something will turn up."
Well, it certainly looked like the spirit at least of that contract was being folded, spindled and mutilated with extreme prejudice. So..." Anything else I need to know?"
"You do need to remember what you are now." Thulia paused as if to work out the best way to frame her words. "You are an Exemplar and a Wizard. But you are, thanks to absorbing my cells, something a bit different. A wizard uses the magic energy in their well to power spells. You will be able to do that once you learn some actual spells. But you can also take the energy directly into yourself. That's why you show these physical changes, your cells take it in, make you tougher, stronger. The more you take in, the more you change and the more powerful, physically, you become. That's why the Cult wants you; they intend to use you as a power source. Now you aren't powerful enough to just break out of here. There are a lot of those fanatics around, and they know how to deal with a magical threat. Besides, you don't have enough control yet to draw on all the power you could handle, it would just go wild and leave you helpless. I had to give them the raw data on you, so they think they have a good idea of what you are capable of doing. You need to wait until you have an opportunity, you will probably only get one. If possible" - she paused again, making sure I was listening carefully - "wait until you have help to make a break for it."
She gave me an intense look I wasn't quite up to deciphering as if to make sure I'd understood it all.
Bruce cleared his throat, noisily and with obvious meaning. "Thulia, we have to get going, time is almost up."
She nodded, not taking her eyes off mine as with a casual gesture the circle holding me vanished without even the dignity of a *pop*.
"One last thing..." She leaned close, her hand slipping behind my neck and pulling me close, her head tilted as I felt the soft warmth of her lips pressed against mine in a kiss. I couldn't work out how long it lasted; my mind had gone sort of fuzzy about the point our lips touched. Then she finally broke away, looking sad. Another gesture of her hand and it all faded away as I collapsed into unconsciousness.
Thulia looked down at the sleeping girl and sighed. "Bruce, carry her back to her cell. I need to finish up here." The little imp nodded, picking the body up with a casual ease that belied his size, deliberately ignoring the expression on his mistresses face. Thulia was standing there, gaze fixed on the girl on the floor, and Bruce winced as he saw the single slow tear trickling down her cheek, even as he carefully lifted the body. He just knew this wasn't going to end well.
"I want the girl brought before me."
The heavily armed mercenary Captain kept his face expressionless, merely nodding. "I understand, Sir. Do you want any special precautions taken?"
Abraxus thought for a moment. "Nothing special, but make sure your men understand that she is dangerous. And that no matter what happens, they are not to damage her. Or they will wish she had merely killed them."
"Very good Sir." The mercenary kept his face under control until he'd left his employer's presence. Bloody typical, drag the monster in, keep control of her, and don't damage a hair on her head. He sometimes wondered if being disconnected from the reality of handling prisoners was mandatory to some of these cultists, but they did pay very well. Of course, he would make sure he was no-where close, just in case. RHIP, even in Yngvi's Mercenary Company.
I'd been sitting on the edge of my bed, looking miserably at the wall, when the cell block door opened to reveal a number of fully-equipped guards. Thulia leaving had affected me a lot more than I'd expected, so even though I doubted if this entrance stage left, bearing weapons, was to my benefit, at least it broke me out of my gloomy concentration.
"You're to come with us, girl."
I mentally raised an eyebrow. When I was fed, it was one guard. Even when they'd been escorting me to Thulia, after my change, it had only been two. This time, it was six. Interesting. Still, I swung myself off the bed and calmed my face into the best blank expression I could muster.
It was the first time I'd left the corridor between my cell and where Thulia's workshop had been, and I tried to see as much as possible. If they were moving me somewhere, maybe, this time, I'd have a chance at making an escape - after all, I was a lot stronger than I'd been. I felt I could handle a guard or two although the heavy guns they carried worried me. I had no idea if I was bulletproof or not, and finding out the hard way wouldn't be my optimum choice. The only thing that really distinguished any part of the corridors from any other was the small letters and numbers marking each door, so I tried my best to remember them all. It was easier than I'd thought, but then I did have an incentive.
Finally, they brought me to a rather different door. First, it didn't have the keypad/reader most of the other doors were fitted with, but mainly because it was ornamented with some sort of fancy symbol. Four of the guards stopped, while one knocked on the door before opening it. He and another went in, before I was gestured to follow them. I was getting more and more curious as to the level of paranoia they were showing me.
When I saw who was sitting behind the desk, I stopped abruptly. It was the same hatchet-faced man in a robe I'd seen that one time when I first got here, sitting behind a desk on a chair that looked like it wanted to be a throne when it grew up. He made a gesture to me to come closer, and I did so reluctantly, stepping onto the ornate rug that covered the floor in front of his desk. The two guards stepped back to either side, keeping a careful eye on me. Which was redundant, it was quite clear who the dangerous one in the room was.
"Ah, my dear, I see my demon's work was as successful as her reports stated."
I had to work hard not to scowl at his words. I didn't care what he said, Thulia was not 'his' demon, or anyone elses. His tone didn't help, it reminded me of someone trying to sell you something.
"Now, you may have wondered what is going to happen to you now she's left. Well, don't worry. We have a bright - indeed, prosperous - future in mind for you."
Yeah, and I bet he also had a bridge he wanted to sell me.
"So that's why I was kidnapped and experimented on?"
He waved my truculent statement away. "Now, these things happen. But now that they have, you do need to know what happens next. After all, you can hardly resume your old life looking the way you are now, can you."
Oh, thanks for reminding me you just ruined my life, that's going to make me so much more likely to co-operate with you. He seemed to think my silence was some sort of agreement, as he continued, pushing a very fancy sheet of ornamented parchment to the centre of his table.
"Now, we want you to work for us. I assure you, we will take excellent care of you - after all, we wouldn't want all the effort invested in you to be wasted, would we? And I am sure you will find it very profitable. All you have to do is sign, and you will be a full and valued member of our Cabal. You won't regret it."
Good grief, had this guy learnt his sales pitch from the back of a cereal packet? Or maybe he was just so used to people doing what he said he'd lost the skill of persuading them. After Thulia's warning, there was no way I was signing or agreeing to anything this guy offered. Hmm, maybe that was what he hadn't realised? Not just that she'd warned me, but that we'd grown...close. If he thought she'd just treated me as a lab rat, maybe I would feel ready to agree to anything that looked like getting me out of here.
"And what if I don't sign?"
His finger moved slowly over the parchment in little circles, as he looked at me slowly. "That would be...unfortunate. After all, we can hardly be expected to look after someone not a member of our group, could we now?"
Inside, I was getting more and more angry. First, this clown orders me kidnapped - and God knows what my family thought had happened to me. Then he forces Thulia to use me in her experiment, which turned me into a girl. Thulia was the only person here who'd shown any interest in me as a person, and he'd made her leave. It was going to be a cold dark day in hell before I gave this guy anything he wanted, even discounting the warning - and hope - Thulia had given me before she left.
"Don't bother; I'm not going to sign anything for you. Not now, not ever!"
He half stood, his face flushed with anger - I guess it had been quite a while since anyone defied him openly. But if he was angry, he likely wasn't thinking too well, and while he'd been oozing his fake charm all over me, I'd been making my decision. Make a break - this might be the best time when they wouldn't be expecting it. Maybe not a good chance, but I was going crazy in this place, I was fed up with acting nice, and this time I had the power to bull my way through his guards. I hoped.
While making a break for it wasn't likely to get me far, I had to give it my best shot. The two guards were on either side and a little behind me, so I decided to take them out first. Which was pretty stupid of me, as despite their weapons it wasn't the guards that were the real danger, it was Abraxus.
So I turned smoothly, grabbing the left guard with one hand and lifting him up, then kept on spinning as I flung him at his companion. It actually went pretty well, by sudden bursting into action seemed to have surprised them as, with a clatter of dropped weapons, the intertangled pair were flung against the far wall. It can't have taken more than a few seconds as I faced the adept again, but that was far too long. Indeed, he seemed faintly amused by my action, as he made an odd gesture with his left hand, and tentacles rose up from the carpet, wrapping themselves around me. Yes, tentacles. It was like a bad cartoon, but cartoon or not the things were damn strong, and I couldn't get any leverage on them. It took me some struggling - and a fair amount of cursing - before I remembered I had claws. Seems that even magic icky slimy tentacles come apart when you slash them enough times.
I was feeling good at that point - the guards were still trying to get up, the tentacles were being chopped up into convenient freezer-bag sized chunks, and I was going well on the adrenaline. Only to stop at the dry chuckle from the chair.
"I think that is quite enough teenage rebellion for one day."
I spun around to see Abraxus pointing some sort of wand or sceptre at me. Given that it probably wasn't intended to do anything good, I tried to fling myself at the doorway, figuring that if I could get through it he probably couldn't hit what he couldn't see. After that, it would be combat tactic #1 - run away. Lesson for the day; don't give the evil wizard time to prepare. That was brought home to me as even before I could take a step, what looked - and felt - like a bolt of lightning flared from somewhere near the ceiling to hit me on the shoulder. I screamed loudly - whatever it was, it HURT, and there was a charred wound on my shoulder. It also destroyed my concentration, aborting my plan to escape as a second, then a third, hammered me down onto my knees and into oblivion.
Abraxas looked at the unconscious girl and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. If he ever found out who had told her the true facts about his control spell, he was going to see just how long it was possible to keep someone alive while screaming in agony. Still, time for an object lesson - and amusement - later, for now, he had a situation to deal with.
His acolytes had been waiting outside the room and appeared with commendable alacrity. He eyed them coldly as he explained. There was always a small chance one of them might reveal some sign of guilt, and if not it was always good to keep them in fear of his power.
"It seems that somehow she has found out that her willing agreement is needed for proper function of my controls on her. It will be necessary to persuade her of the need to accede to my wishes."
Illyrius perked up immediately at the idea of inflicting pain, and although his face revealed nothing, Abraxus sighed inside. Illyrius was a tool who would be much more useful if his excitement at the prospect of torture didn't get in the way of results.
"For the moment, she is not to be seriously damaged." Illyrius's face fell immediately, but he ignored that and carried on. "There is plenty of time to bend her to my will, she is only a teenager with little experience of resisting mental and physical pressure, and we have some months before I need to use her. We will start with breaking her down mentally. If it proves necessary, more physical methods may be needed, but she will not" - he cast a baleful look at Illyrius - "be permanently damaged. Or raped - I need her to be virgin for the best effects."
Samantha, his second acolyte, stepped forward slightly. "Master, I would suggest that we first use the normal methods used before interrogations. A solitary cell, with no communication with others. We will keep her naked, cold and chained - I have some enchanted mithril shackles which will make sure that her power is bound as well as her body - and vary the lighting and noise to deprive her of sleep. No food, and the minimum of water. Even if that does not work on its own, it will put her into a suitable state for later actions to have more effect."
A window ledge on a warehouse in Bridlington, five weeks later.
Manx shifted a little on the warehouse windowsill to make listening to the conversation easier. Carefully, as the rain had made the decaying concrete rather slippery. She couldn't quite see the men in the room, even to her exceptional vision they were just blurs, but the conversation was fascinating.
"OK, look. We need to get this stuff over to the island tonight. Or the boss is going to be mad, and you know what he does when that happens."
"Yeah, OK. It's just the weather is terrible."
Well, Manx could agree to that. The wind was getting stronger, gusts making the rain slash cold wetness across her with dispiriting regularity. A typical summer evening, she thought cynically. At least, it made it unlikely she'd be spotted, although the broken greys and blacks of her costume were pretty good camouflage anyway. Luckily the noise of the rain against the walls didn't seem to be interfering with her hearing what was going on.
"Last time he made us come out in weather like this it was that kid he'd got hold of last month. What's so important this time?"
'Kid?' Manx thought. 'Captured?' That sounded interesting - and nasty. She pressed her ear a bit closer to the window.
"Hey, how should I know? Last time he wanted all that stuff from the Reading job, maybe, this time, there's something else in the boxes. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Get the stuff shifted onto the boat, and we'll head off at 11, it'll be dark enough by then."
Manx smiled to herself. How nice of them to give her all the details. That mention of a job in Reading had sounded a little familiar, though. She'd check it out when she'd followed them to their boat.
The filthy weather had deepened the summer twilight into a real darkness by the time the fishing boat pulled away from the dock, engine grumbling and puttering as it polluted the air with diesel fumes. Manx had secreted herself between some convenient crates on the deck, making the gamble that in these conditions the crew would stay below in the warm and dry rather than wander around and check the cargo. It wasn't as if the crew had bothered to hide much; they'd just loaded the cargo in a truck, driven it out to the dock and loaded it. No-one other than her had taken the slightest bit of notice. Which she felt a little unusual, and made a mental note to check after to see who in the port was on the take. Given the boat she was on, she was guessing that either they were taking it to another ship, or possible to one of the handful of islands some miles off the coast. If they'd just been moving it around the coast, they needn't have bothered with a boat, after all.
She settled down, ignoring the faint aroma of fish, using the time to do a bit of background checking. Which proved quite productive. That little itch the mention of Reading had given her turned out to likely be a recent job, one that had been flagged up as important due to what had been stolen. Some state of the art tech and magical tech, but also a teenage boy had been kidnapped for no apparent reason. It hadn't been to keep the job a secret, they'd left a couple of employees tied up and drugged. Odd, and no-one had been able to find any logical reason why just the kid had been taken. With a bit of luck, she might find out, although realistically she didn't expect to find the victim alive - normally if they didn't find a kidnap victim in a day or two, all the found was a body, if they found anything at all.
She was quite surprised when around an hour or so later the ship made landfall at a smallish island. She'd expected a ship-to-ship transfer, all the islands around here were supposed to be uninhabited by anything bigger than a seagull. But the boat headed into what looked like a patch of stunted trees until a last minute course change sent it around some rocks and into a well-hidden docking area. She quickly slipped over the side, hiding a gasp as she entered the cold water, and watched as lights came on. Which was quite a help, as she vanished into the blackness outside of the pools of light. Whoever these people were, she was interested to see that their operation was so efficient. A pity, really, given the slackness the boat crew had shown, she'd hoped for the same here. Efficiency always made things more difficult for her; she much preferred dumb, lazy crooks.
Manx padded quietly alongside the road, following the path taken by the cargo shipment. To her expert appraisal, even this 'road' would have been unremarkable from the air, and she was starting to worry why such careful precautions had been taken. This was beginning to look a lot more serious that just the usual criminal organisation. Her initial expectation had been some smuggling operation, but they didn't need, or use, well-hidden secret island bases. Her musings were cut short as the trail she was following ended at a large rock, making her lips twitch in amusement. It had been a while since she'd seen one of the classics used. Slipping behind a wind-distorted tree, she looked around carefully for any guards. Even after five minutes, she hadn't seen any, which didn't mean the area wasn't under surveillance, of course. A little bit of work with a few of the gadgets in her utility belt didn't show any active sensors, but passive ones were always far more difficult to detect. She bit her lip, worrying it as she considered sending in a report to base about all this. But she hadn't found anything much yet, just some people sending stuff out to an island, and some comments which might or might not be relevant. She should investigate more first.
It had taken her a little longer than planned to get into the base, but she had been uncertain about the presence of passive sensors. So far what she had seen had all the hallmarks of an efficient operation, and she wasn't going to take any chances. Once inside, she'd carefully made her way down the corridors, using her enhanced senses as well as some of her toys. She'd been hoping for a layout that offered more in the way of concealment, and the possibility of grabbing someone to answer a few questions, but the plans seemed to have been drawn by a compulsive corridor fetishist. She'd already had one near-miss with a security patrol and was giving serious thought to getting out and calling this in before she ran into something she couldn't handle. The next room, though, held her interest. It was a fairly typical rest area, but the useful thing was three guards drinking coffee and talking. Most of it was the usual minion-equivalent of office gossip, and about as useful to her, but a couple of the times they'd mentioned a prisoner, and one of them had said something about a demon. That was worrying - if someone was being held here, she should try and do something, but a demon was above her pay grade in the magic department. Still, she wasn't that far in, and getting some information out of one of the men seemed a good idea - if the situation looked too difficult, at least she'd have an idea of what reinforcements to call for. So she slipped around the edge of the door, making as little noise as the cat she was named after. Fifteen seconds later, two of the men were down on the floor bleeding, and the other was held helpless, a knifepoint pressing into the side of his neck.
"Now, we're going to have a cosy little chat, aren't we...?"
The man tried to claw his way free, which just earned him some pressure from the knife and a trickle of crimson running down his neck.
"Now the rules are simple. You answer my questions - honestly, I can tell if you are lying - and I won't stick this knife through your neck."
The man writhed frantically, which got him precisely no-where. "No, I can't! He'd kill me - or worse!"
This was interesting. Usually the feel of a knife at your throat was quite persuasive, he must be really scared of someone. "Who will? And if you don't talk, well my knife is already at your throat."
"I can't! All you can do is kill me!" His eyes bugged out as she pushed the knife a bit deeper. "Abraxus! It's..." whatever he was going to say ended in a wet gurgle, as his body jerked then went limp, a torrent of blood pouring in a crimson torrent from his mouth to soak his shirt. "Manx cursed quietly to herself as she stepped clear of the mess. She hadn't detected anything tech on him, so that implied either psionics or magic that had killed him. Time to leave, and call for backup. Whatever was going on here, it was big-league stuff.
"Ah, my dear, how nice of you to drop in on us like this."
She whirled around, dropping into a fighting crouch as she stared at the figure in the doorway. Whoever it was, she hadn't had any idea that he was there, and that was bad. Seeing the symbols covering his robe, and the rod in his hand just confirmed her earlier suspicions. Magic. She tensed and leapt straight at him - a lot of mages weren't that effective if you could get in close - but she bounced hard off some sort of force-field a foot away from him. Bounced much harder than she'd jumped, in fact, the impact sending her flying into the table. This time, she didn't bother to keep her curse silent.
"Now now, there's no need to get violent, is there?" He looked at her closely, and smiled slightly, rather like a shark appreciating a plump, tasty tourist swimming out too far. "Ah, Manx I believe. That powerstone you use should make an interesting study."
Even as she gathered herself again - this time intending to try and get past him, she wasn't stupid enough to fight a mage she knew nothing about - he raised that rod, and a cage of lightning crackled around her, pressing in until the bolts hit her, making her scream even as she jerked spastically and collapsed into unconsciousness.
Abraxus looked down at the unconscious heroine with a calculating expression. "An unexpected arrival." He rubbed his chin. "But one I think who could be turned into an unexpected bonus."
His assistants, who had been staying prudently behind him while he dealt with this feline annoyance, finally stepped forward. His acolyte had an excited glint in his eyes as he eyed the woman's battered body, then his master. "Does that mean I can deal with her, Master?" The older man turned to look at him, voice dripping with acid. "No, it does not. She can serve a useful purpose, rather than feed your pathetic emotional needs."
"I don't quite understand, Master?" At least, this time, his whine was a serious question, rather than the drooling anticipation of a sadist. Besides, it was good at times to show his minions that he was their Master because of his superior intellect, not just because he could turn what feeble instruments they considered their minds into a paste with little effort.
"Consider. We need the girl to swear to us of her own free will. Thanks to your incompetence" - he gave his acolytes another withering look -" so far she has not been persuaded. There are of course limits to what we can do to her physically while still keeping her in a state useful to us." The smile on his face was unpleasant as he poked the unconscious woman with a foot. "However there are no such limits on this idiot."
He turned to a couple of his guards. "Take her, remove all her tools and toys except for her costume and chain her with the girl. I want it obvious that she's a hero. Let them spend a few days together, the subject has had no-one to talk to for a long time, and she will bond with an obvious heroine in the same predicament. Then we shall see if she is quite so recalcitrant when we allow Illyrius to use his toys on the woman. There is, after all, no need to keep Manx in a usable condition afterwards."
I groaned softly as I tried once more to get into a more comfortable - or at least less painful position. It was impossible, of course - I knew this well, by now, but somehow the idea that if I just moved a little, it wouldn't hurt so much, wouldn't go away, no matter how foolish it was. I kept my gaze on the floor - looking up just hurt my eyes, the unshaded bulb that lit the room far too bright. Not that the view of the floor was much better, the bare rock too unforgiving even to allow lichen or mold to grow on its surface. All it did was leach more heat away from me, the cell was freezing cold, my breath clearly visible if I bothered to look. I'd stopped bothering some time ago.
It wasn't as if I didn't have an idea of what they were doing; I'd watched enough spy movies and such to get the basic idea. Cold, naked, no food, it was all intended to soften me up. At the start, I'd tried to show it didn't matter, but as the days wore on my resolve started to slip away. Not that I had any idea how many days had passed, the occasional times they came to give me a little water were random; the light was always on, it gave no clue. At the start, I'd tried gouging a mark on the floor for each guessed-at day, but I'd given that up when I realised how futile it was. I hated and loved the moments they came to give me water. Even the thought of it made me reflexively run my parched tongue across my cracked, bone-dry lips. The fact the guards liked to taunt me and see how I spasmed when they pressed their shock batons against my bare skin, the burns it left, was worth it for the taste of a little water.
I had to be honest with myself. The only thing keeping me going was Thulia's parting words, not to sell them my soul but to wait for something to turn up. I'd hoped that meant what I'd thought it to mean, but each time I woke the hope of rescue faded a little bit more. The worst had been a few days ago when they'd obviously decided that I needed more persuasion. At first, I'd actually welcomed being dragged from my cell, but that feeling vanished once I found out the reason. Even manacled and helpless, I'd fought being chained to the frame as much as I could, the sight of the man standing there, his face lit by what I could only describe as evil anticipation, a knotted rope studded with sharp pieces of metal making it plain what they intended to do to me. Even just thinking about it made me shudder helplessly; they hadn't been interested in anything other than pain, a gag stopped me from screaming, let alone speaking. Which was ironic - after they'd started on me, I would have told them anything, agreed to serve them, if only they had stopped ripping my back to shreds. As it was, all I could do, eventually, was faint, waking up chained and helpless again.
I didn't lean back against the wall any more after that. Every movement let me feel the raw gouges they'd made, and a small part of me worried about getting infected - this cell wasn't exactly sterile, although the wounds seemed to have scabbed over eventually. I hadn't smelt anything that would have indicated infection, but then after being chained here so long I couldn't even smell myself, so I figured my nose had probably shut down in self-defence.
I looked with hatred at the manacles surrounding my wrists. I didn't know what they were made off; they were an odd silvery colour I'd never seen before, but the runic markings on them were probably what was stopping me accessing the power I was tied to. Occasionally I reflected on the oddness of that. I'd only been connected for a week or so after my change, but having the connection sundered had felt like a part of me had been ripped away.
I don't know how long I just sat there staring at my wrists when I heard a noise from outside. I'd like to say I became alert and ready for anything, but truth be told all I could do was raise my eyes to gaze dully at the solid metal of the door. It did seem odd; it wasn't that long since I'd had some water. The door swung open, and this time, I did react, trying to hide a gasp of astonishment. Normally the guards came in pairs, one with a little water, the other to watch from the door. Then they'd take it in turn to taunt me, and use the shock prods. This time, there were three, and the first two had a woman held between them.
Manx tried to fix as many details of the base layout as she could while being shoved through a featureless corridor at the point of a shock baton with a blindfold across her face. Not the best of circumstances, but that was, after all, what training was all about. They'd stripped her of all her equipment, the cat-head belt buckle that was her fake power source, and, with unfortunate efficiency, her real powerstone. The lead guard paused at what was presumably some sort of cell door, judging from the rattle of keys. That was odd, all the doors she'd passed in her early investigation of the complex had been fitted with modern electronic locks, that noise sounded like an old fashioned set of heavy keys. She frowned to herself - they'd taken her toys, but let her keep wearing her costume, which seemed odd for such obvious professionals. She was shoved roughly through the doorway, only barely keeping on her feet as they skidded on the bare rock of the floor. Arms and legs manacled, and a shock baton pressed to the nape of her neck, she accepted the chains locking her to the wall with only a rumbling growl of annoyance.
"Have fun, kitty-cat. Maybe the Master will let us play with what's left after he's done with you." Then the door slammed with a heavy and unpleasantly final-sounding thud.
It was quiet for a few moments before she heard a soft female voice. "Are you OK?"
Manx's ears pricked up. "I've been better. Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
The voice had a distinct edge of bitter amusement. "Damn, I was just going to ask you that! My name's Rob, and I'm here because these bastards want me to swear a binding oath to them."
Manx was trying, with little success, to wriggle the blindfold off her eyes. "My name is Manx, I'm a superhero. I'm afraid I wasn't quite careful enough in exploring this place."
"Oh." The simple word held a volume of disappointment. The voice was silent for a moment, then continued. "Would you like me to help you get that blindfold off? My hands aren't free, but I think I can reach you and slip it off if I stretch a bit."
"Please do, it's on really tight, and it's going to take me a while."
Manx was sure she could get it off in a little while, but she was quite curious as to who was in her cell. The soft voice instructed her to lie down, then moved her around a bit. "Ok, please keep still. I can only just reach you, and I don't want to hurt you." The odd comment was followed by a rustle of movement, and a couple of muffled gasps of pain. Then she felt something that felt worryingly like a sharp claw slide behind the back of the blindfold, pulling as it cut into, then through it.
Manx blinked a couple of times in the harsh glare coming from the ceiling lights, then focussed on the girl in front of her. Interestingly, she didn't look entirely human. The curling horns were a dead giveaway, and her odd eye colour made the conclusion fairly obvious. Mutant. Now, what was a mutant doing chained up in a cell in this place? She didn't recognise her from any of the recent briefing notices, and she was fairly recognisable. So newly manifested? That still didn't explain what she was doing here. The girl was even more heavily bound than she was, the heavy metal cuffs wrapped around her wrists being deeply inscribed in occult symbols. Of course, if she was a mutant, then looks could be very deceptive regarding her power level. The girl looked back at her, and she noted her gaunt and haggard appearance, as well as the marks of burns scattered across her skin. Hardly difficult, as apart from her bindings she was stark naked. She noted as well her obvious good looks, despite the harshness of the conditions. Likely an exemplar then. She wondered how the girl had cut her blindfold off, then realised that there were short claws on her fingers and toes.
"Thank you. I'm Manx, and you are...?"
The girl smiled very slightly. "Rob. Manx..." she looked thoughtful. "I think I've heard of you, aren't you with the Order of Albion or something?"
"Yes, I'm with the Order." A frown creased her brow. "Rob - that's an odd name for a girl, is it short for something?"
The girls response was a twisted, and rather bitter, smile on her cracked lips. "Not exactly, no." She leaned back a bit, then stiffened, a hiss of pain escaping her lips. Manx frowned. "What's wrong?"
Rob moved slightly, obviously trying to get into a more comfortable position. "Sorry about that, my backs in a bit of a mess." She turned as much as she could, and Manx barely managed to stifle a curse as she saw what had been done to her. The once-smooth skin of the girl's back was covered in long deep welts and scars, and it looked like pieces of her flesh had been ripped out. It obviously hadn't been treated, dried blood crusted the worse of the damage, and a number of the scars were weeping sores. Then Rob turned her back again. "I'm afraid they've been trying to persuade me to work for them, and when I refused..." she started to shrug, then stopped abruptly as pain flickered across her face.
Manx tried to think of something to say, but really couldn't bring anything to mind that wasn't so banal it would have been offensive. So instead she leaned back against the cold stone. "Maybe you'd better tell me what's been going on?"
"Why not?" The tone was more than somewhat bitter, which Manx ignored, given the circumstances.
"It all started when I had to work late..."