New York Times bestselling author Rachel Vincent loves good chocolate, comfortable jeans, and serial commas. She\u2019s older than she looks and younger than she feels, but is convinced that for every day she spends writing, one more day will be added to her lifespan. Now absorbed in the dark, tangled loyalties of her UNBOUND world, as well as the travails of a teenage banshee in her SOUL SCREAMERS world, Rachel can be found online at www.rachelvincent.com or urbanfantasy.blogspot.com.
If you live in the dark long enough, you start to forget what light looks like. What it feels like. You may remember it in an academic sense. Illumination. A possible source of heat. But after a while those abstract memories are all you have left, and they're worth less than the memory of water to a man dying of thirst.
I didn't know how long I'd been in the dark. Long enough for most of the pain to fade into dull aches, though the latest batch of bruises would still have been visible, if anything had been visible. Long enough that I couldn't remember what shade of gray the walls were. Long enough that when the light came on without warning, it blinded me, even through my closed eyelids.
I'd lost all sense of time. I didn't know when I'd last showered, or eaten, or needed the toilet in the corner of my cell. I didn't know when I'd last heard a human voice, but I remembered the last voice I'd heard, and I knew what the sudden light meant.
Light meant a visitor.
And visitors meant pain.
The door creaked open, and my pulse leaped painfullyfear like a bolt of lightning straight to my heart. I clung to that one erratic heartbeat, riding the flow of adrenaline because I hadn't felt anything but the ache of my own wounds in days.
If not for the pain, I couldn't have sworn I was still alive.
"Kori Daniels, rise and shine." Milligan was on duty, which meant it was daytimeoutside, anyway. In the basement, it was always night. There were no exterior windows, and no light until someone flipped a switch.
The dark and I used to be friends. No, lovers. When I was alone, I walked around naked just to feel it on my skin, cool and calm, and more intimate than any hand that had ever touched me. The dark was alive, and it was seductive. We used to slide in and out of one another, the shadows and I, always touching, caressing. Sometimes I couldn't tell where the dark ended and I began, and at some point I'd decided that division didn't really exist. I was the dark, and the dark was me.
But the darkness in the basement was different. It was false. Broken. Weakened by infrared lights I couldn't see, but I could feel blazing down on me. Caging me. Draining me. The shadows were dead, and touching them was like touching the stiff limbs of a lover's corpse.
"Kori," Milligan said again, and I struggled to focus on him. On my own name.
The guard shift change had become the ticking of my mental clockthe only method I had of measuring time. But my clock skipped beats. Hell, sometimes it skipped entire days. If there was a pattern to the granting of meals, and showers, and company, I hadn't figured it out. They came when they came. But mostly, they didn't.
I didn't sit up when Milligan came in. I didn't even open my eyes, because I didn't have to. I hadn't sworn an oath to him, and I hadn't been ordered to obey him, so participation was at my discretion. And I wasn't feeling very discretionary.
I rolled onto my stomach on my mattress, eyes still squeezed shut, trying not to imagine how I must look after all this time. Skinny, bruised, tangled and dirty. Clad only in the same underwear I'd been wearing for days, at least, because humiliation was a large part of my sentence and I hadn't been granted the privilege of real clothing. My period hadn't come, which meant I wasn't imagining not being fed regularly, and water came rarely enough that I'd decided I wasn't being kept alive, so much as I was being slowly killed.
I'd been a bad, bad girl.
"Kori, did you hear me?" Milligan asked.
I'd had no problem with him on the outside. He'd respected me. At least, he'd respected the fact that the boss valued me. Milligan had never gotten grabby and he'd only leered when he thought I wasn't looking. That was practically chivalry, on the west side of the city.
Now, I hated him. Milligan hadn't put me in the basement, in that rotten fucking cell of a room. But he'd kept me there, and that was enough. If I got the chanceif I ever got out and regained my strengthI'd put a bullet in him. I'd have to, just to show Jake Tower that I was down, but not out. Beaten, but not broken.
Milligan would be expecting it, just like I would, in his position.
The door creaked open wider and I buried my face in the crook of my arm, nose pressed into the dirty mattress, braced for whatever would come. Prepared to turn myself off and make the world go away. That was the only way to survive in the basement. Convince yourself that whatever they do to you doesn't matter. And really, it doesn't. How can it, if you can't stop it and no one else wants to? So I dug down deep, to a place where there was no pain and no thought. Not my happy place. Thinking of a happy placeany happy placeonly reminded me that I wasn't really there. That I never would be again. I went to my empty place.
"Tower's on his way," Milligan said. "I think you're getting out."
My heart leaped into my throat, but I didn't move. Surely I'd only heard what I wanted to hear. If I wasn't careful, I sometimes imagined things, and there's nothing more dangerous in the dark than unwarranted hope.
"Kori?" he said, and that time my eyes opened. "You're getting out today."
I sat up slowly, blinking furiously in the light, wincing over the residual pain from the gunshot wound in my shoulder. I'd heard him, but it took forever for the words to sink in, and even once they had, I didn't let myself believe it. It could be a trick. Jonah TowerJake's brotherhad told me I was getting out before, but he only said it so he could watch me suffer when I realized it wasn't true.
"If you're lying, I'll fucking kill you," I croaked, my mouth and throat so dry my tongue felt like it had corners.
"I'm not" Milligan glanced down a hallway I couldn't see as a set of firm, even footsteps echoed toward us. "Here he comes."
I swallowed a sob. I'd expected to die alone in this false dark. In these dead shadows.
Milligan stepped back, and Jake Tower replaced him in the doorway, a steel-spined symbol of power and authority in his white button-up shirt and suit jacket, sans tie. I hated myself for how relieved I was to see him, when he was the one who'd locked me up. I hated his clean clothes, and combed hair, and tanned skin. I hated the apple wood smoke clinging to his clothes from the grill, making my stomach rumble and cramp. I hated the slight flush in his cheeks that told me he'd had two glasses of red wine with his steaknever more, never less, because Tower was in control. Of everything. Always.
Jake Tower was the heart of the Tower syndicate. Wethe initiateswere the lifeblood of the organization, but Tower was the pump that kept us flowing through the veins and arteries of this living machine. He pushed the buttons and pulled the strings, and we belonged to him, all of us, bound into service, sealed in flesh, by blood and by name. We lived and died according to his will. And we obeyed because obedience was a physical mandate. Even when our minds resisted, our bodies complied, helpless in the face of a direct order.
But I'd found a loophole. I'd disobeyed the spirit of an order, if not the order itself, and as punishment, Tower had thrown open the gates of hell and shoved me inside. He'd locked me up and given Jonah free rein, and for all I knew, Jake had forgotten I even existed until
Until he needed me. Why else would he be here? Why else had he let me live, if my current state could even be called living?
Tower's nose wrinkledI didn't smell goodthen he closed the door at his back and sat on the edge of the bare foam mattress covering the raised concrete slab that was my bed. He grabbed my chin and tilted my face toward the light, studying me. I knew what he saw, though there was no mirror in my cell. Bruises. Dark circles and sharp cheek bones. Split lips. And the damage didn't end with my face. I looked like hell and I felt worse.
Tower looked.satisfied. "Does it hurt?"
"You fucking know it hurts." Everywhere. That was the whole point. With my existence reduced to fear, and pain, and dead shadows, surely I would never even consider another betrayal. "The lights?" I didn't want to ask, but I had to know. "Your idea?" Jonah wasn't smart enough to think of something like that.
Tower's lips curled up in a small smile, like he'd just remembered some distant childhood pleasure. "An irony I hope you fully appreciate. Absolute, inescapable darkness for the shadow-walker. Imprisoned by the source of your own abilities. How did that feel?"
I am a Traveler. A shadow-walker. I can step into a shadow in one room, then out of a shadow anywhere else I want to go, within my range. I can see better in the dark than most people. Sometimes I can look into one shadow and see through another one, somewhere else, like looking through a periscope, or one of those paper-towel-roll telescopes we used to play with as kids.
But the basement darkness was anemic, thanks to a grid of infrared lights, too high up for me to reach. So while my cell looked absolutely, claustrophobically dark to the naked eye, that darkness was too shallow for me to travel through. The shadows were dead. I was trapped in the element that had always been my ally. My escape.
How did that make me feel?
Like I'd been betrayed by my own body. Like I was lost to the rest of the world. Like I no longer existed at all, which would have been easy to believe, if not for the pain anchoring me to the reality of my own miserable existence. But I wasn't going to tell Tower that.
"It sucked, on ice. Happy?"
He said nothing. Whatever he wanted to tell me would come on his terms, and making me wait for it was just another way of making me suffer.
"Why?" I demanded, pissed off that my voice was as weak as the rest of me. "Why didn't you just kill me?" He'd killed others for far less than what I'd done.
"You needed to pay for your crimes, and others needed to know you were paying." He said it like he might explain that grass is green, as if it should have been obvious, and the emptiness in his voice was the scariest thing I'd ever heard.
"You told them?"
"You were an object lesson, Korinne. I showed them." He glanced at the slab of one-way glass in the top half of the interior wall, and my blood froze in my veins. I started to shake, and I couldn't stop.
"You let them watch?" He'd invited an audience to see me beaten, and broken, and humiliated, and I closed my eyes against this new layer of humiliation.
"Only those who needed to see."
"Kenley?" No. Please no. I didn't want her touched by this. I didn't want her to know. If Tower was void of human emotion, Kenley was made of it, and she couldn't defend herself. That was my job.
Tower shook his head. "Your sister only knows that you're alive. She's anxious to see you."
I exhaled slowly and blinked back tears that would never fall, using them as fuel for the rage burning deep in my gut. Fury that would have no outlet for four more years. Anger that would fester and burn as I planned for the day when I'd be the one throwing punches and spilling blood. Jake Tower would pay. Jonah would pay. Milligan and the other guards would pay. Everyone who'd watched would fucking pay.
I would listen to them beg while they bled out on the floor.
But I'd have to survive to get revenge, and to survive, I'd have to play Jake's game. It was always his game, always his rules, and the only cards he dealt me were penitence and obedience. So I would play the shit out of penitence and obedienceanything to get out of the basementand keep the cards I'd dealt myself up my sleeve. Until it was my turn to deal.
"I have an assignment for you, Korinne," Jake said. "A chance to redeem yourself."
I said nothing, because nothing was required, but my pulse raced so fast I had to lean against the wall to steady myself. Milligan was right. I was getting out of the basement.
"Who?" I licked my lips, but my tongue was too dry to wet them, and now that I knew I was getting out, I found it hard to concentrate on the details, rather than the promise of regular meals, and showers, and relative freedom.
"He's a Blinder of extraordinary skill."
"You want him killed?" I'd never heard of him, which meant he wasn't ours. And if he could be used against us, he was a target.