~~“Wake up.” A voice, soft and tickling my ear, made me jerk violently upwards.
Jody caught hold of my arm and rapidly twisted it into an armbar, using her entire weight to pin me to the floor and strain my elbow joint against its natural lines. The pain sharpened my mind, made me remember just where I was, who was with me. I tapped her knee, and she released her iron grip, letting me sit up and roll my shoulder in its socket a little. There was guilt in her eyes as I grinned at her.
“No need to apologise.” I got my feet under me and rolled over, starting to do push-ups, which was part of my morning routine, girl watching me or no girl watching me. “So you’re into jiu-jitsu as well as taekwondo? Or have they finally started updating their skill set?”
Jody frowned at me as I exercised. “You know martial arts?”
“I know of them. I mostly improvise… and you didn’t answer my question.”
“It’s Rhee TKD. I’ve picked up a couple of tricks along the way. Had to.” Jody tossed my jacket over my back as I touched 20, my arms burning like hell by now. “You ready to go?”
“Just about.” I finally finished my set, and then moved, pushing forwards off my feet, swinging them up and over my head, before landing easily on the ground and straightening up in one, fluid motion. “Which way are we headed?”
“Depends. You plan on walking there on your hands?”
I laughed at that as I scooped the coat up off the ground.
“Nah. Turns too many heads.”
Jody slipped out through the window, and I followed, vaulting out and walking with her over the dew-covered grass of the oval. The sun was just beginning to peek out through the buildings, and as we reached the hole in the fence and pulled ourselves under it, I finally decided to break the silence, try and find out more about the girl beside me.
“What’s it like? Being Marked?”
She gave me a long, sideways glance. “Why do you ask?”
I shrugged. “I’m curious. It’s different being a Soul, I guess…”
As she walked, Jody had a habit of spinning a small metal object in her hand. I didn’t notice it until I followed her gaze to her hands – her fingers danced, sending a small, round, polished shape arcing and rolling between her palms and the pads of her fingers.
“It’s a lot easier to give in,” she said finally. “It’s a lot easier to let what you want to do get in the way of what’s actually right. After a while, you’re just living purely for yourself most of the time – it makes you selfish.”
I caught a quavering note in her voice.
“So what’s your personal demon?” I asked softly.
She turned her head and looked at me. “Anger.”
I shook my head. “It’s not a sin.”
“When you let it govern your thoughts and actions, I think it counts.”
That was enough to make me go quiet. I knew what she was talking about. Just because I was a Soul, it didn’t me perfect, not by a long shot. There were times when everything just became too much and I wanted to watch the world burn – the Prophet, the people living carefree under his reign… and those who sat by and did nothing about it. Sometimes it was strong enough to make me want to lose control. If Jody’s anger was anything like my own… then whoever she decided to let loose on would be in all kinds of trouble. I’d seen firsthand just how lethal she was barehanded. Put a weapon in her hand…
I looked at her again to take my mind off the scenes that flashed to mind.
“How bad?” I kept my voice soft, personal.
“Not good,” she replied quietly.
I could barely believe I was hearing myself say this.
Jody nodded ever so slightly, her head down. She hadn’t pulled her hood up over her face, and although a curtain of dark brown hair half-hid her face, I could see the guilt and pain that made my heart clench. Tentatively, I reached out, taking a gentle hold of her wrist. I felt her muscle clench, but she let me pull her hand down to mine. Lacing my fingers with hers, I closed my eyes, muttered a quick prayer and then focused, letting my soul open. There was a brief glow of warmth, beginning from the centre of my chest, racing down through my shoulder, arm, and finally to my fingertips, where it transferred to her.
Jody froze, stopping short.
I stopped beside her, waiting to see her reaction.
I’d always been an Unbounded. My parents had made sure that I knew my limits, but they’d always encouraged me to memorise the prayers and the dedications, which made it infinitely easier to release the power that I carried with me. I heard tell of other Unbounded Souls, but they were creatures of legend, not real life. My own powers were limited. I couldn’t claim to be a brilliant warrior – I was honestly better at running away from a fight – but I could heal. Sometimes, in extreme stress or driven by others in pain, I’d healed them with a mere touch. George’s niece had been one, a couple of years ago. And he wasn’t the only one – I’d been through plenty of backstreets in Brisbane, juggling hiding and helping people. There were a lot of favours that people owed me. But none of it really mattered too much now. I just hoped that my gesture to Jody would be enough to pull her out of her thoughts, bring her mind into a better place, maybe…
She looked up at me. “What was that?”
I shrugged sheepishly. “Old family trick?”
“You’re an Unbounded?” Jody said, astonished.
I chuckled and tried to make light of it. “Impressed yet?”
Her fingers tightened around mine, and I couldn’t help but noticing just how warm she was. Rain started to fall, stinging drops of cold tapping at us, but neither of us noticed. Jody searched my eyes, and finally let go of my hand, shaking her head to herself.
“That was amazing…”
“Golly gosh, you only just met the guy and you’re already holding hands with him?”
The voice was laced with a strong European accent, probably somewhere from around Scandinavia, and as I looked up, I saw two guys approaching us. The first wore a dark hoodie and busted-up jeans, along with tattered Converse shoes and stubble that probably hadn’t seen a razor in weeks. Round, retro-style glasses sat in front of his eyes, a strange accessory but somehow suiting him. He couldn’t have been older than twenty. The guy behind him was a little younger, probably nineteen or so, with dark hair, green eyes and a smirk on his face. He wore a razor-sharp business suit, and shoes polished to such a shine that you could practically see your reflection in them.
The familiarity in his voice told me that Jody knew these people.
She rolled her eyes and then nodded at the hooded and suited guys.
“This is Andrew and Jacob. They’re the people that I’m supposed to take you to see.”
“So, you’ve finally done your job and brought us a Soul, eh?”
I didn’t like the mocking in Andrew’s voice.
“Yeah, she did.”
“Well, we’ll see about that…”
And then, darkness.
I woke up with a throbbing jaw, my arms chained behind my back to a chair of some description. Trying to call back my last moment of memory, I realised after a second that I’d been destroyed by a one-hit knockout shot – the stranger named Jacob had moved so insanely quick that I hadn’t had time to see it coming. Water cascaded down from above, soaking me constantly. The run of water felt vaguely like a shower, something I hadn’t seen in a few days. They’d stripped me down to the waist- my jeans were getting soaked, but my coat, hoodie and shirt were gone. I shook my head, trying to clear it, and then leaned back, catching a mouthful of water and swallowing. It was clear and clean and warm, not something that you always got in the city. The room I was imprisoned in was a round chamber, concrete painted black, with a grille under my chair and feet that sluiced away the water crashing down on top of me from above.
The waft of an excellent cigar made me look up.
Jacob appeared through an entrance, lighting up.
He didn’t really seem like the smoking type, but I didn’t complain.
A plume of smoke hovered around his head as he halted in front of me, slipping his lighter back into his pocket. He was still wearing his immaculate suit. I was surprised at that – did he really want to get it wet? – but he didn’t seem to care too much. He still stood back a good way from the makeshift shower, smoking and observing me.
“Good kick,” I managed finally.
“I know,” he said matter-of-factly. “You did a remarkable job of catching it with your face.”
“I’m sorry, I assumed that you were a friend. Wasn’t exactly prepared for it.”
“I have a feeling that you’re not going to be of very much use to us,” Jacob told me.
“You found a Mark on me yet?” I asked.
Jacob regarded me with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m a Soul. Like you. I can be of use.”
“I think not.”
I glared at him.
“Would you like me to tell you just how many resources we’ve had to expend keeping you alive for the last three years? Ever since you split off from your family, you’ve been running, leaving an extremely obvious trail through the people that you call favours in from. Under a little… persuasion, they’d be very happy to tell the authorities just who you are. You make a point of taking absurd kinds of paths over rooftops, balconies and through extremely public places in a manner that can only really be described as idiotic.” Jacob drew at his cigar again, breathing out a long trail of fragrant smoke. “Would you like me to go on?”
“Not particularly. Your voice kinda annoys me,” I told him.
“And yet I will anyway. Your bungling has endangered five of our operations, the others involving other Unbounded who are far superior to you in power and use. One begins to wonder why we would bother with such absurd risk-taking…”
“One does. One also wonders why one would refer to one in the third person.”
Jacob smiled. “Your attempts at wit are almost as amusing as your pathetic showboating.”
“You must really hate me,” I commented. “You risked getting your suit wet just to come here and try and cut my ego to shreds? If I’m so much of a liability, why didn’t you just let them kill me? Wouldn’t that be one less thing to worry about over your morning coffee?”
Jacob tapped ash from his cigar. “Perhaps. We have an unfortunate moral code that we are still required to run operations under. You were a liability, but lethal force was out of the question, so we decided to take you out of the equation entirely and place you here instead. I hope it’s to your liking… you’ll be here for the foreseeable future.”
Jacob turned smartly on his heel and walked out of the chamber.
And with him, any chances of hope at getting myself unchained.
Falling asleep proved just about impossible. I tried a couple of times, but the water splashing down my face and neck and shoulders didn’t allow for that. I was forced to wait, clenching my fists, hating the metal links that bound me to the chair. The damned thing was bolted to the floor, and I couldn’t move it an inch. My arms were cramping up, my legs and lower back were killing me from being stationary for so long… I grimaced, and finally heard something encouraging. A door scraping against the floor.
I looked up, and saw a figure slip in.
“Peter?” Jody’s voice, disbelieving…
“Hey,” I said by way of greeting. “Having a good day?”
“Jesus… I had no idea where you were…” She stepped into the light, pulling a hood backwards off her face. It was definitely her – those brown eyes of hers were impossible to forget. “Jacob told me that you were secure, but this is insane…”
Something clicked in the chains, and they loosened, letting my tortured wrists loose. I forced myself forwards, out of the chair, and landed on my hands and knees, a comforting, hard impact that shook my bones. I rolled over, stretching my legs and feeling cramps cannon through my muscles. I gritted my teeth against the pain… and a moment later, it faded, leaving me practically fine.
Jody crouched close beside me. “Are you OK?”
“Fine,” I said, even managing a smile. “How are you?”
“I’ve spent the last five hours looking for you, Pete.”
Her comfortable, easy use of my family’s nickname for me was cute. I hadn’t expected that, and it gave me something to smile about. She caught the motion and frowned at me, shaking her head. I pulled myself back up onto my feet, and then glanced around the chamber. The single steel chair was now empty, and the walls were dripping with moisture. The only light source beamed down from above with the water. Jody tugged at my bare arm, pulling me towards the exit, and I followed, wincing as my stretched calves settled. Jody pushed the door open, and I found myself in a concrete hallway, filthy and streaked with graffiti that was surprisingly skilful and meaningful. I took a moment to read it – a cross had been sprayed onto the concrete in fluorescent green, with the words We Still Believe inscribed under it. The sight made me grin.
Jody saw my smile and rapped the wall with a finger. “Other Souls.”
“Where are we?” I asked, glancing behind me.
“The subway tunnel maintenance shafts,” she told me. “It’s all automated since the Prophet’s people started building through here. So long as we don’t mess with the tech, they couldn’t care less what lives down here. I guess you could call it our base.”
The audacity of it made me grin. “And they never come looking for you down here?”
A familiar voice, not Jody’s, interrupted our conversation.
“We normally make a point of not leaving trails behind.”
I turned and saw the guy who’d called himself Andrew step into the same corridor behind us. His dress was slightly different – just jeans and a faded t-shirt that had been attacked by insignia from a band called Elvenking – and the strange European inflection in his voice had vanished completely. He frowned at Jody, who ignored him entirely, and then turned back to me, shaking his head as he looked me over.
“Jacob’s not going to be happy you’re out of there.”
“Is he ever really happy, though?” I asked. “Him?”
“You’ll make it easier on yourself if you go back,” Andrew told me, an cold edge suddenly touching his words. “I’d hate to have to drag you back down there again….”