I’m not sure what I was more in shock about- the fact that Kyle was here now, or that Elle had just kissed me. I settled on the latter. I couldn’t believe what had just happened- it went against everything I’d ever told myself, that Elle would hate me eventually, that any relationship I thought we had was just in my head. But this counteracted all that.
I could barely think. I could barely breathe. All I could think about was how much I wanted her to kiss me again- and how ridiculous that was.
I turned to look at Kyle, somehow keeping a straight face. “I believe you’re interrupting. I might have to strangle you, especially if she was about to kiss me again.”
Kyle laughed. “So it’s the red-head, is it? Should have known. She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
“She’s gorgeous, not just pretty,” I corrected, making a point of not looking at Elle’s face as I said this. I didn’t want to see how she was taking this conversation. “What is it that you’re here for.” I tried to keep my tone calm, but I imagined that Tara had probably found something she wanted me to do for her.
“Well, you’ve got a smooth tongue with girls, don’t you Finn? Now come on, co-mutant. Tara’s got something special for you and she told me to remind you how much is at stake. She said you’d get that. I’m sure she threatened your sweet little girlfriend with one thing or another.”
Elle made a soft sound behind me, but I gestured for her to be quiet.
“Oh come on Finn. You’re working with us now, and you’re definitely a mutant. That’s something we all know for sure. Deal with it.”
“Kyle,” I sighed, “if you think I’m working with you because of my own choices, then you’re wrong.” I stood up and walked over to him, wincing as he put his arm around my shoulders, a little tighter than I thought was necessary.
“You’ll get used to it,” Kyle replied, grinning. “Brothers forever, Finn.”
You told me we were not brothers anymore. What are you trying to tell me now.
“You think I’m going to be Tara’s puppet forever?” I said quietly.
“Yes, I do,” Kyle replied. “With her little threat, she’s ensured you can’t ever escape from her. No matter where you go, she’ll always have a grip on you. Sorry Finn- but if anyone’s a puppet now, it’s you. And Tara holds the strings.”
I sighed, letting my head drop. I refused to look back at either Annella or Kallisto. I didn’t want to see their expressions, or their reactions.
Kyle worked his space magic, taking us up to the surface, into the hut’s room, where Tara was waiting. She smirked with delight.
“Well, if it isn’t my particular little puppet. I’m so glad we reached an agreement, Finn.”
“Save the talk,” I replied.
Tara shook her head, a smirk crossing her face. “Finn, you really need to stop being so hostile. Remember, we’re friends, working together now. whether you like it or not.”
“Most things in my life seem to be whether I like it or not,” I commented. “Just skip the pretenses, Tara. We’re not friends. It’s no secret that I hate you, and you hate everybody- unless they’re a puppet to you. Why do you even bother.”
She shrugged. “Someone’s irritable today. You can always go back on our little deal- and I’ll keep my promise to you. It’s your choice.”
“You know full well I can’t go back on it,” I replied, glaring at her. Just like Tara to make this be about my choice- while it really was hers.
“Exactly,” Tara grinned. “So we’re working together. And I recall our agreement was that you’d do what I said. I can always choose to interpret that however I want.”
“I might listen to your instructions, and do what you tell me to, but I won’t enjoy it. I might be a puppet, but I’m not a total puppet,” I muttered. I let my head drop slightly, my messy blond hair falling over my face. Tara took that as submission I suppose, which is kind of a contradiction of what I’d just said.
“Well, at least you’re used to it,” she said, sounding way too pleased with herself. “Now, down to business. That’s what you want, am I right?”
“That’s not exactly what I said,” I pointed out. “I said that I wanted you to stop pretending, acting as if we’re friends. But by all means, tell me what form of torture you’ve come up with this time. I’m sure it will be as creative as it will be horrible.”
“You and your dramatics,” Tara rolled her eyes. “This will be perfect for you. Before Koran was destroyed, there was a lab where they made their weapons. Rumor has it that they were designing another weapon. A larger, greater, more powerful super weapon. There has to be some traces left- information, even a whole weapon, maybe. I want you to find it.”
“Why me?” I raised my eyebrows. “Why not Kyle?”
“Because you can’t double cross me.”
I shook my head. I hadn’t expected something this hard- or dangerous. “Tara, that place is flooded with nuclear and radioactive toxins. The very air around that lab has got to be deadly. The place is also probably half flooded. Going in there and finding what you’re looking for- there are good chances that it would kill me.”
Tara shrugged. “Well, you’re the puppet, Finn. You have to do what I say. Unless you want your little Elle to pay for it, that is. Besides, you’re a mutant. You’re used to the radioactivity.”
“So is Kyle.”
“Yes, but Kyle has never actually been in contact with the radioactive stuff. You have. And not only are you alive, you somehow managed not to become horrible mutated or insane. And then there’s the matter of your magic. All in all, the radioactivity is part of you. It shouldn’t hurt that much.”
“That much,” I shook my head. “You’re insane, Tara, if you think anything in that lab will be of any use to you.”
“Well that’s why I’m sending you, not going myself. If there’s nothing, it’s your life I’m risking, not mine.”
I sighed, my mind instantly striking another problem. I knew where the lab was- anyone raised in Koran would. We had been warned to stay far away from it. The entire area was populated by deadly creatures, mutated by radioactivity. Even worse- the crazed. The mutants that everybody learned about. The ones who not only ended up physically deformed, but also lost their minds. There were a thousand things that could go wrong with this plan. But what choice was there? I tried to imagine Elle, my Elle, trying to fight her way through the city, and trying to survive both the radioactive dangers and the mutant creatures. That solidified my decision. Whatever happened, I couldn’t let her get hurt. Her and Kalla both.
“Fine,” I said quietly. “Kyle, can you get me to the border?”
“Course, brother,” he grinned. “I’ll be waiting for you when you come back.”
Naturally, entering the city was easy. I cast an illusion around myself to camouflage me against my surroundings, kind of like a chameleon. It used less energy than making myself invisible, and the crazed wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyways.
First, I reached the outer rings of the city. These would be the rings populated by the massive creatures that had survived the radioactive poison that filled the air.
The city was strangely quiet. I made it halfway through the first ring without finding any creatures.
And then I turned a corner, and ran into the first.
This poor thing had to have been somebody’s dog. Its skin was covered in red boils. Its mouth was full of jagged teeth, and its eyes had a fractured and demented look to it. What little fur it had left was matted and covered in blood. One ear had been torn half off.
I froze, waiting for it to pass, and praying that my illusions would hold. It sniffed around me, then, apparently satisfied, kept going.
As soon as it was gone, I let out a soft breath of relief and kept going.
There were more encounters, of course. Each one was equally terrifying- being so close to the monsters that I could reach out and touch them.
Finally, I made it to the wall.
The wall was the access point to the inner rings of the city- the place where the crazed lived. I hesitated, trying to calm my breathing.
I’d always been terrified of the crazed. They were the ones who’d come into too close contact with the radioactive sludge, and had been changed horribly, the changes often causing horrible insanity. When I’d heard the story, I had panicked, sure I was going to become one. There was one secret about my birth that I had never told anybody- except Kyle. Who had told Tara.
I had been born a halfborn. There hadn’t been a drop of magic in me. All children were tested at birth. If they came up positive, chances were very very good that they had magic. If they tested negative, then they were completely devoid of magic. I had tested negative.
Of course, being from an important and rich family, my parents hadn’t been able to accept that. It was the greatest blow for my mother, who was sure that it was her fault. She was the one who was willing to go to… drastic measures, to make sure her son had magic. So she brought me to Koran, and dunked me in the radioactive sludge. And then left me, promising to come back if I survived.
It was a terrible secret, one that made me wonder how crazed I really was. For all I knew, I could become one of them.
I forced myself to breathe, before searching for an entrance. A moment later, I found a hole in the wall, and quickly slipped through.
The city beyond the wall was in no better repair than the rest of the city. Even from here, I could see the crazed moving about, some shuffling with slow steps, some crawling like insects, and others lying still, probably dead. Everywhere there was the stench of blood.
I started forwards, shivering. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the crazed, or this horrible city. But it was this or see Elle hurt.
I kept going.
A few times, the crazed would come close. Once, I had nearly run headlong into one of them. There were countless times when I’d pass two crazeds fighting, or a group of them, tearing at each other with claws and with fingernails, leaving deep bloody gouges on each other, before breaking apart. Sometimes the conflicts would only stop when one of them was dead.
I shuddered violently, wanting nothing more than to get out of here. If I didn’t have illusions up around me, they’d tear me apart like a whole bunch of piranhas.
And then, the lab was in view.
The lab was dark and creepy looking. Broken glass was everywhere. All the windows were dark and ominous looking. All in all, it was the most unsafe looking place I’d ever seen.
I circled it, looking for an entrance. I found one, and froze.
It was the one spot without broken glass- a tube wide enough for me to slide through- which didn’t have to be that wide. But it was small.
Claustrophobia. I’d been diagnosed with that when I was a kid. I thought it had gone away, but apparently not. The thought of entering that small space made me want to scream and run in the opposite direction. But again, It wasn’t something I could choose.
I climbed into the tube, only holding onto the sides for a brief second before letting go.
The instant I slid into it I wanted to scream. I nearly did, but managed to stay silent. I could feel my entire body shaking with panic. I was trapped, and I was sure I was going to die.
Then, the tube opened up, dumping me onto the ground. I lay there for a minute, relieved that I was even alive. I let myself breathe, trying to breathe as evenly as possible. I might have stayed there forever, if a drop of burning liquid hadn’t hit me on the arm.
I winced, pulling away. Another drop fell from the cieling and I looked up. A dark black liquid was dripping in a steady stream. Where the drops had hit my arm, the skin was already turning red and irritated.
I turned to look out at the lab. It was large, and utterly and totally destroyed. But if there was a superweapon in here…
I started into the lab, dodging the drops as best I could.
It didn’t take me long to find where the suerpweapon must have been. It was strange, but I almost felt a pull directing me that way.
It was sitting in a small pool of the poisonous water. It didn’t look luck much, just a small metal orb, but I wasn’t fooled. That thing practically had its own gravitational pull powerwise. I picked it up, careful not to touch the liquid.
The orb began to glow, and my head exploded.
Not literally, but someone might has well have hit me with a club and split my skull open. The air around me was glowing pure white- or maybe that was just my dying hallucination. The orb grew white-hot, glowing like the sun. My energy drained, and I collapsed, gasping for air.
And then it was over. My breath came in ragged gulps, and I felt weak. I pushed myself onto my knees, turning to see what had happened.
The orb now glowed brightly. I stared at it in utter shock. I reached for it, hesitating before tentatively touching it. Then I picked it up. Nothing happened.
I tried to cast an illusion, and to my surprise, it flickered weakly.
Magic. It has to feed off magic.
One thing was clear- I didn’t want Tara to have this. But I had to bring it to her. Hopefully, she’d never figure out how to use it.
I barely made it back through the city to where Kyle was waiting. He studied me, looking first to the orb, then to my arms, covered in small red marks from the drops from the lab.
“You look terrible.”
“What do you expect?” I muttered bitterly. “Tara tried to kill me.”
He reached for the orb, but I caught his wrist. “Kyle, you don’t want to hold this. I almost died getting it, so be careful.”
Kyle withdrew his hand, nodding. “Okay. Whatever you say.”
He used his space-magic to get us back. Tara was waiting, sitting down where she always was. I slammed the orb down next to her, making her jump.
“Happy now?” I snapped.
“You go into all that trouble and come back with this?” she raised her eyebrows.
“Take it,” I replied. “That thing almost killed me. I hope you’re happy with yourself.”
She shrugged, then nodded to Kyle.
“Take him back to his girlfriends then.”
Kyle didn’t say anything. I glanced over and I saw he was looking at Tara strangely, not like he usually did. Then he took my arm and we were back in the prison.
“Finn!” Elle exclaimed as soon as she saw me. She got up from where she’d been sitting, but Kallisto made it there first. She pushed me aside, turning to glare at Kyle.
“You’re still siding with Tara?” she said quietly. “After she did this to him?”
Kyle hesitated. “I don’t know,” he muttered suddenly.
“Finn is your brother, you idiot!” she snapped. “You’re just going to watch him suffer?”
Kyle might have been about to say something else. But he didn’t get the chance. Kallisto put her hands on the sides of his head, pulling him close to her, and kissed him.
It only lasted a second, but Kyle looked like he’d been punched. “Whoa…”
Kallisto smirked at him. “Are you helping us or not, sweetheart.”
“Yeah…” he replied, eyes half-glazed.
I turned to look at Kallisto, sending her a silent message. How…? Why…?
She whispered the response. “I figured that would get his attention.”
“Obviously!” I whispered back.
Kallisto turned to smirk at Kyle again. “Now, you were getting us out of here, right?”