My head pounds from slamming against a hard floor. I groan softly, and my eyes flutter open.
I’d managed to fall into a rough sleep while inside the cart, and I am almost afraid to see where I am.
A voice comes from nearby, and I try to twist to see who it is, only to realize that I cannot. My muscles are stiff and painful from the trip, and even trying to move my head is too painful.
The voice comes again, and this time I can make out words. “Are you awake, child?”
I nod slightly, gritting my teeth against the stiff pain.
“Do you know where you are?”
I shake my head.
“Poor boy,” the voice is a woman’s. “You are in the home of Kalleck Vallerus.”
I blink, once, twice. I can see nothing but a hard, stone floor, and then a wall. I think hard, trying to remember if I’d ever heard that name. Eventually, I give up.
“Vallerus. A noble?” I guess eventually. No commoner would have a name like that.
The woman laughs. “Yes. He once was. Kalleck Vallerus had a… falling out with the Queen a few years back. He has since lost favor with her. Little remains of his former wealth. He intends to change that. And he also intends to dispose of the Queen. All with your help.”
I close my eyes. No tears come- I have nothing left. I am a shell now. A hollow, broken shell. It hurts, but I ignore it. I am too exhausted to feel.
Face it, Kane. You’re just a piece on the board, waiting to be used. Someone as brilliant as you? No one is going to let you hide away. The rumors will start again. You’ll always be hounded. You can’t trust anybody. They all will betray you for one reason or another. You’re just profit, Kane. Profit, and a pawn for larger players. That’s all you’ll ever be. I can hear Natalia’s harsh, cruel voice in my head. It hurts to think that she is right. I cannot trust anyone. I was foolish and naive to think that these people would help me. But, as always, my lesson has been learned too late.
The woman sighs. “Oh Kane. You’re just a child. You must understand, that you could help us. You hate the Queen. You could help us topple her on her high throne, and put an end to her and her Devias. You could help us. You do not have to be our prisoner.”
“You lied to me, imprisoned me, and now you expect me to help you?” I murmur, my tone becoming one of disbelief. “I’ve made enough mistakes to last a lifetime- but even I am not that stupid. You may make it look like kindness if you wish, but you simply seek to use me. It is always the same, no matter who does the talking. I have yet to meet anyone with ‘good intentions’ who wishes to use my mind and inventions for their own end.”
There is silence. Then the woman speaks. “You speak like a noble, child.”
“I was cursed with intelligence,” I reply. “There were… side effects.”
“Cursed?” the woman laughs. “Oh poor poor child. Your mind is envied by crafters and nobles alike. And yet you curse it. Why?”
“The most gifted are the most cursed.”
The woman laughs, a smooth, rich sound. “So you will not help us?”
“No,” I reply. “I will not be your pawn.”
She sighs regretfully. “So much potential, wasted on foolishness. Very well, boy. You have chosen your fate.”
I feel a soft hand against the side of my head, pushing it against the floor. A second later, her fingers begin to grow warm, almost unbearably so. I flinch and try to pull away, but she pushes down harder. Her hand nearly is burning now, and I shake, trying again to pull away.
“Oh, don’t struggle, Kane,” she mutters. “It’ll only hurt for a little longer. I’m sorry that this is necessary. But you just wouldn’t be good. You didn’t leave me any other choice.”
“What… what are you doing?!” I hiss.
She laughs. “It will be over soon. Just relax. The pain won’t last much longer.”
I grit my teeth. “What are you doing?!”
“This wouldn’t be necessary if you had agreed to cooperate,” she sighs. “So I’m taking what you won’t give me out of that pretty little head of yours.”
“How…?” My supersized brain provides the answer for me almost immediately. “An enchantress?”
Her laugh is cold and hard this time. “Yes. One of the few left alive. I am Lady Aliana Vallerus, highborn noble, enchantress, and future Queen.”
“A noble, associating with commoners?” I ask warily. “The men with you… they weren’t nobles.”
She lets out a soft, feminine sigh. “Commoners are like rodents. There are so many of them that it’s nearly impossible to recognize individual ones. If a noble was discovered, then it would be easy to trace them. But commoners? Not as easy. So they were our fail safe. Though we would have brought nobles if we’d realized there was going to be a Devia there that night. We could have captured her as well, if it hadn’t been unexpected.”
Instantly, Natalia springs forwards in my mind, and with the thought, all of the emotions that come with her. Anger. Bitterness. Hatred. Love. Awe. Admiration. Sadness. Longing. Each of them cuts as deep as a knife. I love her. I still do. I know that she is a monster, and yet I still want her. I cannot help what my traitorous heart feels, any more than I can help what she is.
I grit my teeth against the thoughts. If this enchantress is pulling them from my mind, she could find something to exploit. She will break me open if I give her the chance. I must fight back. But there is no fight left in me.
So I lie there, motionless, as her hand slowly cools. Then suddenly, there is a horrible sensation on my head, where her hand was touching. No. Not on it. Inside it. Like an awful slug is drawing its way through my brain. I shudder at it, and bring my bound hands up to my head, pressing them against my forehead. As the sensation grows, I grit my teeth, and let out a soft hsis. And it keeps growing stronger. Stronger and stronger- until it is almost unbearable. Finally, I cannot take it anymore. I claw frantically at my head, as if I can pull the object out by force. My nails dig in deep, and blood runs down my face, but I feel no pain. Only a frantic desperation to get this thing out of my head.
Finally, the thing digs in too deep. I let out a low, bestial scream as it plunges into the heart of my mind. Then the world goes black.