Three days. Three days go by. He doesn’t show up. I do as they want, trying not to care, but that never works. The anxiety of what might have happened to Jaxson eats me alive. Added to the other things I’m trying to keep locked up, I reach a breaking point, wanting nothing more than to curl in a ball and die, but I have to shove through it.
The third day, I eat breakfast alone, as usual, but I watch the other teens, allowing myself for the first time to notice their expressions while they talk, their demeanor. None of them appear to be displeased with being here ever. They must have come from very strict or very hard lives to not care about being in a place like this.
After my breakfast is gone, I make my way to the lesson room, wondering what I’m going to be teaching today. When I reach the threshold, I finally realize what they want from me, the lab equipment telling me all I need to know.
They don’t want me training these teens; they can do that just fine on their own. Having me kill for them would be a perk, using Cadmar’s prized daughter all for themselves. But this, this finally makes some amount of sense, and it makes every cell in my body protest when I step inside and the agent gestures me to the front of the room.
“Today, Payton will be teaching you the specific methods for extracting and concentrating each poison. This will be our objective for the next few weeks. Payton.” She nods to me, officially handing the class over.
The fear of the torture I’m about to endure is nothing compared to the fear of what they could do with Cadmar’s formulas. My only reprieve is the fact that I only know a fraction of what they want. Even though I helped design most of the poisons, Cadmar did the extracting, the portioning, and the testing for getting the exact amounts we needed.
Every eye in the room is trained on me standing right inside the doorway. I could keep pretending that I don’t care, don’t feel, but it’s a lie. Why I still have nightmares of a dead man twitching on top of me. I will always feel. I will never forget. If I give them this, even the small amount I know, I would have every life taken with it added to the hundred deaths that are already on my hands.
The agent barks my name again. I shake my head and take a step back, bracing myself for the pain. She smirks right when it rips through me. I double over but don’t let myself yell out.
I can survive this. I can get through this.
When the pain subsides, the agent’s clean black shoes invade my vision. I glare up at her before righting myself. “We’re waiting, Ms. Morros.” She points to the front table.
I can’t. I won’t.
Her emotionless eyes make me wonder how much torture she went through, how many lives she’s taken. But I still hold her dead gaze and shake my head. “No.” Only the one word and the pain pummels through me again and again.
My knees slam to the floor; I’m on all fours in front of these monsters, pain ripping me apart from the inside. Large hands grip under my armpits while the pain continues, never ceasing as they lift me from the ground and drag me. I can’t even fight them, the pain so overwhelming. I think I start screaming, my body thrashing, but they tighten their grip and continue dragging.
They halt in front of the wall, part of it shifting and sliding aside. The pain stops when they cross the threshold, my body going limp in their hands. I’m surprised they’re able to keep a hold on me with the amount of sweat coating my skin. They drop me in front of someone, letting me crumple to the ground. The effort it takes to look up has even more sweat pouring out and tears pricking at my eyes.
Of course, it’s Helquest, sneering down his nose at me. At least he isn’t smiling. We’re in a smaller white room, a large screen on the wall next to us. The two agents who dragged me leave the room, the door sealing shut behind them. Helquest remains silent while I drag myself to my knees to look up at him after scanning the room. I’m happy for the lack of torture devices, but then, there’s one already in me. The ominous blank screen has the hairs on the back of my neck rising.
I’m finally able to stand, which is when Helquest opens his mouth. “You’ve gotten a taste of how difficult things can be for you here.” He paces in front of me. “I didn’t want things to come to this, but you have given me no choice.” He gestures toward the screen and it turns on.
The world stops moving. Or I stop living. The sight on the screen, the redhead writhing on the polished white floor, the horrible, horrible shrieking that fills the room, has my knees crashing back to the floor. Vomit pours from my mouth, my breakfast pooling on the white floor, the same as the floor on the screen. I heave and heave while she continues screaming.
“All you had to do was comply,” he talks over the screeching.
I need answers. I need to know why she’s wrapped in Cadmar’s leather jacket, how they got her, where Cadmar, Kadence, and Conner are. There’s no way any of them would let this happen. No way.
Where are they?They can’t be…. No!
Helquest watches me while I force the heaving to stop, force myself to think. “What you just felt, that was only a fraction of what she’s experiencing.” He pauses and she vomits while still thrashing. My entire body vibrates with the need to save her, the need to gouge his eyes out. Every scream, every twitch of her body is filed away as he goes on. “I will be very, very clear with you, Payton. I want the information you have. I want everything you know. You will comply if you do not want your sister to die.”
“Stop. Please, please stop!” I beg in a croak, groveling in my own vomit. “I’ll do anything. I’ll give you whatever you want. Just let her go. Let her go. Stop hurting her.” I can’t keep my game face. I can’t pretend I don’t care. She’s everything. What they’re doing to her, the sounds of pain coming from her, it will destroy her.
The screen goes black. “Wait! Did they stop?” I look up at him, meet his dead gaze. Everything in me screams for me to attack him, to snap his neck and be done with it.
But Reiley. They have Reiley.
“We’ll keep her until we get what we want. This is your last chance, Payton. We will no longer be lenient.” As if they had been so far. But they had. They were easy on me at the beginning, slowly leading into the torture, as if luring me into this awful trap. “You will spend the rest of the day in your cell,” he goes on. “Tomorrow is a new day. Think of it as a blessing.”
“I want to see her,” I demand, standing again. My knees, wet with throw-up, wobble beneath me.
He smirks. “You think I would hold her in the same facility?”
“Turn the screen back on, then. Let me see that she’s okay!”
“She is okay. You will have to take my word for it.”
But how? How can I trust this monster? This evil man who has my sweet, innocent Reiley. And yet, I can’t question him. I can’t risk her.
Another smirk. He knows he’s won. I hold back my snarl.
“What will you do with her after I’ve complied, after I’ve given you what you want?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
With that, the door slides open and two agents enter, coming straight for me. Kicking and screaming, demanding answers would be useless and probably cause more harm to my sister. I can’t do any of that when the agents haul me off, the door closing behind us on Helquest before they drag my limp body to my cell. There’s nothing left for me to do, no more fight in me.
Once back in my cell, I curl into a ball in the corner of the room. Weeping for my sister can’t be helped; the entire facility can watch me mourn my sister’s pain for all I care. The sight of Cadmar’s jacket wrapped around her is what kept me from questioning whether it was really her. Why she had his jacket on, why she wasn’t with the others, how she ended up here—all questions I need answers to, but I won’t get them. Any chances of escaping are nil now. There’s no way I could leave without knowing where she is and be beyond a doubt that I can get her out, too. We’re royally screwed.
They have Reiley.
They have her and they’re torturing her.
Where are the others?
They can’t be…. I won’t accept that anything happened to them. They have to be safe. But I thought Reiley was safe and that isn’t so.
Dear God,what happened?
Maybe if I do what he wants, he’ll let me see her. I have to see her. I have to tell her it will be okay. We’ll be okay.
Why he doesn’t have some scientists doing this for him is beyond me. He has to have all the resources in the world and yet, he’s using me. There has to be a reason he wants the information from me. If I’m the only way he can get it, then Cadmar must have destroyed all of it, which means he didn’t want our formulas and creations in their hands. But I’m going to give them what I know, which, in all actuality, is probably a lot less than what Helquest realizes.
They bring my last two meals of the day, but I can’t touch them. Sleep never comes. The image of Reiley, every detail of it, is fried in my brain. It’s all I see.
I’m brought fresh clothes the next morning and taken to the dining hall for breakfast. My usual table is empty, so that’s where I sit. A tray of food is set before me, and then someone sits in front of me. I meet his glacial gaze and do a double take. He appears completely unscathed. No bruises, no new scars; everything appears normal, except for the dark circles under his eyes. I’ll admit, the second I saw Reiley on that screen, all thoughts of him skipped my mind.
Before he can say anything, I look back down at my food. The sight and scent of it make my stomach ache, but I force myself to take a bite. I can’t waste another thought on this person. Not when they have my sister. Not when her life is on the line.
“What happened?” The sound of his voice—like being dragged across sandpaper, like he yelled for a long long time—has my gaze snapping to his. His gaze, those icy eyes, seem hardened, almost all light gone. He wears no smirk, no playful amusement, as if they tried torturing it out of him.
Should I be asking him the same question?
My gut ties itself in a million knots.
I can’t. I can’t care what happened to him.
After a head shake, I go back to my food. Based on what I’ve been through so far, I can imagine the horrors he endured. But I still know nothing about him, about where he came from, how long he’s been here, how he seemed to know me at the beginning. It’s better this way, not knowing so much.
“I think I’ll go for a run,” he states, pulling me from my thoughts.
My gaze automatically finds his. His smirk and wink have no playfulness, no amusement. “If you get bored, you could join me. I find it to be a good place to clear my head.”
My questioning look is ignored when he stands and exits the cafeteria without a backward glance. Was that some subliminal message? Is the track somewhere we could talk that we wouldn’t be heard? The idea of getting some of this crap off my chest and maybe getting some answers is too good to be true. What if it’s a trap? I never did find out why he’s warmed up to me, why he approached me to begin with. Maybe this is their way of getting more information, more of my weaknesses out of me. It couldn’t hurt to let him talk though, get some information from him. And if they can actually hear on the track, then he’ll be the one who gets disciplined.
I shove away from the table and make a beeline for the rec room, as if my answers are a beacon leading me to Jaxson. He’s already making his way around the far end of the track, so I wait for him to get a bit closer before joining him, matching his long stride easily.
The silence stretches between us. He may have actually just wanted to run, which I find I’m content with. We come around the curve closest to the exit and then hit the straight along the outer wall.
“They can’t hear as well along this wall,” he breathes next to me, just above a whisper, but the break in silence startles me. I give a small nod, keeping my pace even. “What happened?” he repeats.
I think better of shaking my head, as I’m not inclined to answer any of his questions until I get some from him. “That first day, you looked at me like you knew me, and then you sat by me and tried helping me. Why?” I breathe evenly, trying to move my mouth as little as possible.
He doesn’t get to answer because we’re already hitting the curve. We get all the way back around, my heart pounding with every stride, but not from exertion. I’m ready for some answers.
“He’s never given a personal tour before,” he whispers, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand. “Not many had even seen him, but then he waltzes through one day with you. Most everyone played it cool. But I know him, knew him before here. He does nothing without an agenda. I was intrigued at first. Then you snapped at me and I decided I kind of like you.”
It takes everything in me not to turn and look at his face, his expression, to understand what he meant by that. There has to be another way to do this.
“Question for question,” he says when I say nothing. “What happened?”
I give the smallest amount of information I can. “I realized what they want from me and I refused… again. They tortured me, then showed me footage of someone very important to me being tortured. I will not fight any longer. They have the one thing that will force me to cooperate.”
I cut off when we hit the bend. That’s when something he said hits me. He knew Helquest before here. But how? What does that mean? Helquest does nothing without a purpose. This seems like something very intimate to know about someone. What else does Jaxson know? How did he know the exact place they can’t hear very well? It can’t be coincidence. I was right before; I need to let him keep talking and keep up my nonanswers.
“How do you know so much? Where were you those three days?” I demand, but force my voice not to rise.
“The first is a long story. Too long for this not to become suspicious. And the second…. They have… specific methods to keep each of us in line.”
“If that’s all you’ll give me, this conversation is over.” I let him trail ahead of me while I slow to a walk to cool down. That was my shortest run in days, but I can’t keep going.
This is a joke. But did I think he’d give me the key to leave this place? He was giving the same nonanswers I was, which infuriates me. The need to know more about him is overwhelming. I should let it be, should forget him. Reiley is my concern, the only person I can focus on.
He stops only a few yards ahead and turns to face me, approaching until we’re inches from each other. “I was brought here against my will by an uncle who doesn’t give a damn about me. My dad is in prison and my mom left the second I took my first breath. And for good reason.” Pausing, he breathes deeply, his throat bobbing all the while my heart races.
This has to be against the rules or whatever. How would I know if they hurt Reiley again? And this is exactly what I didn’t need, because I care. I care that his mom took off, that his uncle put him here.
“I realize you don’t trust me, but you must know, most of the people here don’t actually want to be. We all had shit lives. I won’t sob to you about the horrors of my childhood, but if you need to hear it to trust me more, I’ll tell you. I don’t know why I care about you, but I do. And I know they have something big planned for you. I will help you in any way I can.” His fists clench and unclench at his sides.
This makes me want to help him, too, and maybe even throw my arms around him and take comfort in his. Super irrational, Payton. The lack of physical touch aside from the severe beating I got almost three weeks ago makes my heart ache. I went most of my life without any physical affection, but once I experienced it, I never wanted to give that up. Maybe I should just be thankful for what I got? I wish Conner were here, to lean on, to hold me, to tell me I’m strong enough to get through this. But he isn’t here and Reiley is, so I have to be strong, even without his support.
Jaxson’s crystal blue gaze stays locked on mine while I work this out. There still isn’t anything for me to say. “You can’t help me,” I breathe. “I will not do anything to jeopardize my…. To put anyone in danger. They can do what they will to me, but no one else will suffer because of me.”
“Who do they have?” he presses, moving even closer.
I can only shake my head. There’s no way he can help me with this, and there’s no way I can help him. My hands up, I back away, still shaking my head. “We have to get to the lesson,” I tell him, remembering my priorities, why I need to cooperate.
When I turn to leave, he grabs my elbow to stop me. It takes all my willpower to not look back and meet his disarming gaze. “There are no lessons today.” What? I don’t ask why, but his warm hand remains. “It’s a Sunday. The only day we have off.” His tone is filled with amusement, but I still don’t turn to him.
“What’s the day?” I find myself asking without my permission. The thought that it’s a Sunday and a lot more time than I realized has gone by forced it out of me.
The warmth of his grasp leaves my arm when he says, “April second.”
The sharp inhale can’t be helped. Before he can stop me, before I let myself turn and throw myself in his arms for comfort I would take from anyone at this point, I sprint for the exit. Every other person training stops to stare at the freak running away. I don’t care if I look a lunatic. Jaxson yells after me, but I’m already leaving the room, running for my quarters as if I can find sanctuary there. What a joke. But it’s all I have to escape the reality my life now is.
The date shouldn’t mean so much. It didn’t before, not until Cadmar offered me freedom, offered an escape from this life. Then I went and made a shit mess of everything. A little under two weeks. In a little under two weeks I will be eighteen. It will still mean nothing, especially while I’m here. I could’ve had an actual celebration with Conner. With how caring he is, I’m certain we would’ve done something special for me. Maybe I would’ve gotten a new tattoo.
I shake the thought from my mind. I haven’t even looked at my tattoo since I woke up in here. It was a symbol of some form of freedom, something I decided for myself, but now it’s just a mockery of something I’ll never have. A good wallow is in store after this sad realization, but it has to wait until I get to my quarters.
I round the corner to the hall of my room but stop dead. My regular hencher stands alert right where my door should be. My stomach clenches into a million knots. So much for a good wallow.
“Come with me, Ms. Morros,” he says when I reach him, before turning and heading down the opposite end of the hallway.
Deep breath in, steady breath out.
Stay calm, Payton. It could be nothing.
We walk for only a few minutes before coming to an open door. He stops at the threshold and motions for me to enter. That same familiar scent of vegetation and wet soil hits me when I round the corner and am met by a lab so similar to home, my knees wobble. The walls are lined with shelves of plants and cages of animals and insects, and tables with equipment and computers.
This is happening.
Helquest stands in the middle of it all, looking like he’s won the lottery. For the first time, I wonder what he’s getting out of this. “Payton!” he exclaims, holding his hands out. “Come in! Get familiar with the equipment.”
It’s the hardest chore I’ve ever endured, getting my feet to move into the room. The familiarity, the setting of it looks so much like the castle, I can almost imagine Cadmar working at the table with me. God, I miss him. He would know what to do. He would do whatever it took to keep this from them. But I can’t. I have to keep Reiley alive. I hope he’ll understand, wherever he is.
While I pretend to be interested in a wolfsbane plant, Helquest moves closer to me. All my instincts scream for me to bolt. “Your first assignment is approaching. I’ll need everything prepared by then. You’ll have help from some other agents here. I’ll be having everyone do mandatory physical training every day before breakfast, which you will attend, and then you will come straight here after breakfast and get to work. That will be your schedule every day, until your first assignment on the fifteenth.”
Again, I suck in a sharp breath. This evil bastard. All my control is focused on not turning on him and ripping his arms from their sockets. The smirk on his damn face tells me he knows the battle I’m waging right now.
“It’s a very special day for you, I know.” His smile takes up his whole face. “Consider this my gift to you. I want everything complete by then.”
Even with my rolling stomach, I dig down deep for my argument. “There’s absolutely no way it can be done.” I shake my head, going toe-to-toe with this demon of a man. “These things take a very long time. It can’t just happen overnight because you want it to be so.”
His face goes blank. “You should watch what you say, Payton. Or did you already forget who I have?”
My fists curl at my sides. “I want to see her. I will not start until I see her.”
“You’re in no position to make demands.” Anger rolls through me when he turns to leave the room, glancing back at me with that lifeless stare. “You do this and then you can see her. I suggest you get to work.”
The door seals me in when he exits the room, leaving me on the verge of hyperventilating. This cannot be my reality.