If you’re still reading this, you know the drill: blood, torture, pain, etc. It ain’t Disney.
She huddled back down, a sob wrenching her. The pain was unbelievable–and getting worse as outraged nerve endings shrilled their febrile protest around the already-swelling wound. Hot, pounding throbs began to rise excruciatingly up her arm.
But even in the midst of that agony, a tiny detached part of her mind offered a flicker of hope. This wasn’t the sort of torture that could be dragged out indefinitely. Maybe half an hour, forty-five minutes tops…and then she’d have bled to death and her secrets would be safe forever. She only had to hold out for that long.
The squalling, throbbing agony that used to be her right hand made thirty minutes sound like an eternity.
“I’ve told you the truth,” she choked out bitterly. “My grandfathers are dead. My powers aren’t working anyway! Why don’t you believe me?”
“Because…” He leaned in, his left hand grabbing her up by the hair. His face filled her field of vision, lips pulled back in a vicious snarl, “…I *heard* you. You talked to this man! You spoke of Usi. Where are they? Who are they? Tell me now. ANSWER ME!”
She was limp in his grasp, weak with pain and dismay. “Please…I–I don’t–”
His eyes blazed, as the blade in his right hand removed her left index finger.
“AAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIGGGGHHHHHHHH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” The screams tore at her throat, but she barely even knew she was shrieking. All of her attention was consumed by the searing pain blossoming in her left hand, adding its fiery agony to the throbbing torment in her right. It left no room for thought or reason, nothing but the overpowering desire for it to cease. The mere possibility that he might bring that blade down again, take another finger, ignite a new fire in one of her maimed and raging hands, was too much to bear. Half-crazed with pain and dread, she started to tell Mardmor what he wanted to know….
…and came up against Falco’s failsafe in her mind: a solid barrier, impervious to pain or coercion.
She’d actually forgotten. But now a flash of memory came to her — had it only been that morning? It seemed like a lifetime ago. “A mental barrier that will prevent you from being…compelled to share this information,” her mentor had offered, and she’d accepted without a second thought.
Even through the overwhelming physical anguish that was consuming her now, the full import of that sank in. She could *choose* to betray Falco’s secrets, but they could never be wrested from her against her will. She would have to consciously decide that telling Mardmor was the right thing to do.
And that was never going to happen, no matter how many pieces he cut her into.
Despair and relief mingled sharply with the agonizing torment her captor had inflicted, breaking the last fragile threads of her self-control. Helpless in the Goblin King’s merciless grasp, she closed her eyes and let the sobs come freely. She was beginning to feel the first tell-tale lightheadedness of blood loss; it was only a matter of time now. The burden of fear that she might break down and betray Falco’s confidences had been lifted from her. There was nothing left for her to do now but try to endure the pain until death set her free.
It went on. And on. And on.
Until finally, she was slumped in the chair, head bowed and not a finger left on either hand. Through the process Mardmor had burned her wounds to slow the bleeding.
She was chilled, shuddering, battling shock.
But she never talked. She never gave it up. Her choice. Her choice.
In fury, Mardmor flipped the cartful of bloody knives. It exploded against the far wall. The Goblin King exited the room, leaving a worn and abused girl to attempt to gather herself.
The only sound in the room — a ragged, beaten sound — was Casey’s wet, near hysterical breathing.
Tears, blood, and terror were her companions. Well, those and the reanimated severed head of a vampire she aided in the rescue of the night before.
She flinched, then vaguely recognized Houseman’s voice. It was a distant, unimportant sound; not real enough to draw her focused concentration from the one question on what was left of her mind.
The Head’s voice was tentative, “Casey, we can get out of this…”
The words echoed her own crippled thoughts.
I can get out of this. I can just…go.
The question is, can he follow? Is he out of range now?
Is that even a place he can go at all…?
After everything I just went through, would I be leading him to his answers?
She didn’t know.
There was no way to know without trying.
Someone just said something…what…?
Oh, yes. Houseman’s remains were speaking to her. Something about getting out of this.
It felt like too much effort to reply. But then, it felt like too much effort to keep breathing, and her body seemed to be handling that chore with damnable regularity. “I’m listening,” she mumbled quietly without looking up. Her throat was raw from screaming; the words came out as a hoarse croak.
“Look at me, girl.” His voice was soft, but commanding. “Look at me, and tell me what you see.”
For a long moment she didn’t show any sign of having heard him.
Then, with a painful slowness, as if every movement brought fresh torment, she straightened and turned her head to look at him. She saw a severed head resting on the spike. His chin was soaked in her blood.
“I see a dead man,” she said distantly, “denied his rest and clinging to the delusion that he still has a say in what happens to him.”
The Head frowned.
The night had not been kind to Casey. She wasn’t feeling particularly kind herself at the moment. Looking at the blood on Houseman’s face and her own drained fingers and thumbs littered about him, she did manage to resist a bitter impulse to ask him if he’d enjoyed the snack.
Then, because it occurred to her that his request may have been an actual plea for information, she added bluntly, “I see a vampire’s severed head impaled on a Necromancer’s spike.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, mouth pressed in a grimace, horror forcing his lower lip to tremble. It was a long moment before Houseman’s strained voice said, “I… thought so. I achieved some clarity. And remembered… Remembered the axe.”
His eyes were dark, cold with hatred, frigid with hellish rage.
“This Mardmor thinks I’m done,” Houseman’s voice was ice. “I can’t do a damned thing for me. But I can help you.”
He focused on her right wrist. She could feel invisible fingers tugging at the band there…
She stared blankly at Houseman, then slowly lowered her gaze to the restraint.
The Head strained… and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere…
Comprehension filtered slowly into her battered mind.
It hurt to move. It even hurt to hope. But Casey gathered what was left of her strength and pulled with all her trembling might against the band holding her right arm.
The strap of metal shuddered under Houseman’s intense concentration, but even with Casey’s assistance it failed to give.
“Dammit!” Houseman surrendered, his eyes bloodshoot and bleary. “I… I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” His face softened, looking upon the abused girl across from him. “Oh, Casey… I am so sorry.”
She didn’t reply. As painful as the reawakening of hope had been, it had stirred something back to life that Mardmor had nearly succeeded in crushing out of her. This new sensation demanded her full attention.
Unexpectedly, she realized that she wasn’t quite ready to die yet after all.
For the first time since her powers had been blocked, she found herself with the time and opportunity to test the exact nature of the muffling effect. She knew that there was at least one ability that Mardmor hadn’t been aware of, and so hadn’t thought to interfere with. She wasn’t ready to risk using that one just yet, but there might be others…or, just maybe, his presence is required to maintain the blockage?
Just as she was attempting to summon enough mental focus to budge the wrist restraint herself, it hit her.
“Casey, you’re an idiot,” she muttered under her breath, even as fresh hope leapt up unbidden in her. “Talk about going at things the hard way.”
She turned to look over at the remains again. “Mr. Houseman, there’s something on my head. I don’t know what it is, but I can feel something there.” Or I used to be able to, before my hands became the sum total of my sensory experience. “Can you lift it off?”
“I… I’ll try.” He focused on a point just above her eyes…
Suddenly, a silver band flung off her head, tumbling to the floor. At once, she felt her abilities return to her control.