The steel table at the center of the operating room would hold a body with the arms and legs spread wide. Lindsay knew it was waiting for him and pressed his bare feet to the floor to slow the inevitable. Technicians dragged him into the ring of fluorescent orange shapes painted on the concrete. Runes--they spoke, but not any language Lindsay knew. He only knew to be afraid of them, and of what waited for him inside the circle.
He screamed when the technicians tried to strap him to the table. He fought, fragile elbows and knees thrown like weapons. He screamed when they stripped him naked to apply the electrodes. His decaying teeth snapped on the air, ground against each other and splintered dentin. He knew what was coming. A broad-shouldered man in a crisp vanilla jumper jammed a black rubber gag in his mouth when he opened up to scream again.
"That's better, isn't it?" The man's hand covered his mouth and nose, cutting off his air. "You know they don't get good results when you make all that noise." The man straightened and patted his cheek, letting him breathe again. The air was cold, like steel and concrete, and it stank like rubber, choking him. With no other way to resist, Lindsay lay there and shook so hard with the cold that he couldn't struggle against his restraints anymore.
"Never learns, that one," the other tech noted, shaking his head. He was at the far side of the room, waking up the big computers lurking there, turning on the cameras.
The beetles on the ceiling came to life, flashing bright and turning their single eyes on Lindsay, moving so close that he could look up into one. His terrified and distorted face looked back at him as he stared up into the lens that was taking his picture out to where a hundred eyes and more would see him.
Father, can you see me? Of course he could. His father could see him. His mother could see him. Somewhere, beyond the lens and the wires, they were watching, waiting for him to be cured. That was why they'd brought him here. He clung to his certainty that when he was better, they'd come and take him home. The lonely life he'd once longed to leave seemed like a paradise now, and he wanted to go home. Lindsay reached for his magic, but it was hidden behind the drugs, like he'd never been magic at all. He was trapped here, in this body and in this place.
"Lindsay." It was a woman speaking. Her voice was soft and pretty and rich, like his mother's. She sounded gentle, but she could be so cruel. "This won't take long." She always said that. But what was time when he was in agony? "I need you to concentrate." One of the technicians slid a needle into his vein and pushed something into him. It burned cold and made his heart stagger.
Concentrate. He was shaking too hard to focus. His heartbeat sounded like thunder in his head. The usual drugs wore thin and the new serum ripped through him, laying him open. The real test hadn't started and he was already in pain.
"Can you hear me, Lindsay? We're going to start now." The computers hummed. The beat of his heart pinged and echoed off the bare concrete walls. Lindsay stared into the blackness beyond the rings of lights like halos all around him, trying to will himself out of his body. A door opened and the woman entered, her heels clicking sharply on the floor.
"You've been doing very well lately," she said. He couldn't see her--the lights around him were too bright. "Let's try this one more time." She put a velvet cloth on his chest. It was so warm and soft. He didn't know when he'd felt that last. The curtains at home, maybe, where he used to hide from the adults stalking the halls like specters. There was something heavy hidden in the cloth and she unwrapped it, spreading the velvet over him. So warm.
She fit something icy and heavy around his throat. He tried to gasp, but the gag made it hard to inhale. She closed the stone collar with a click and put the locking pin through with a tiny, silvery noise. There was a collar for his throat, a cuff for each wrist.
"You look like royalty," she said affectionately, when she was done. She took the warm velvet away from him and she put an icy hand on his forehead. "Only very special mages got to wear this, you know." When she leaned in, he could see her eyes, clear and glassy as common marbles. "Celare," she whispered. And then she was gone, clicking away from him. "Start the experiment."
Lindsay whimpered as the collar began to do its work, silencing and neutralizing his magic, the magic he had just started to feel once the drugs had been flushed from his system. Every time they brought him here, he was sure he wasn't going to scream, but he screamed anyway. He shook and writhed, trying to escape the artifacts locked around his neck and wrists. The gag didn't stop him from screaming, it only muffled his agony enough that he wouldn't interfere with the carefully calibrated machines that measured his power and his pain.
Time stopped, then disappeared completely. There was no time here, just magic filling him up from within, magic crawling under his skin, magic wailing to be free. The pain was worse than anything he'd known. The drugs and the hours in restraints never came close to this. He screamed through the gag and tried to rip his wrists and ankles free, over and over again, until they were hot and slick with his own blood. Fighting for breath between screams, he looked up into the eye of the camera and saw an alien staring back at him.
White, it was so white, and its eyes were wide and almost black. Like him, it was crying. But the alien wasn't crying tears, it was crying blood, blood that welled up in its eyes and ran down its colorless skin.
"The readings are maxing out, Dr. Moore," someone said in the distance. "Heart rate is over two hundred. The containment field is holding. Prepared for stage two--the guided experiment."
"Lindsay." The woman's voice was all around him, snapping like a whip. "Lindsay, I need you to listen to me. You're going to make an illusion of rain in the room. Do you hear me? Make it rain in the room."
He couldn't hear anything but his blood pounding in his ears, couldn't see anything but a haze of red. His body twisted with agony, and his stomach lurched. His magic, his magic that they had kept from him, his magic was filling him up and searing his bones and drowning his lungs and burning his brain. He slammed his head against the steel table over and over, trying to break his skull open, trying to let some of it out.
"Are you sure about this?"
"He can hear me. He's ready. Regere."
There it was. The crack in the wall. Lindsay didn't understand the word, but his magic saw the gap in the restraints before the echo of the command had faded.
Rain. Let them have it. Let them have a flood. The ceiling cracked and water crashed in, sweeping the equipment across the floor. The lights in the halos overhead exploded one by one, going out in blinding showers of light and glass.
"Holy shit! We've got to get him out of here." One of the technicians flung himself against the rushing water to unlock Lindsay's restraints.
"Don't touch him. It's not real," the woman snapped over the intercom, her voice edged with hysteria. "You were told what to expect."
"Help me! He's going to drown." Lindsay's feet were loose and the man fought to undo his wrists and the strap over his waist. Water crashed against them and sent the gurney spinning as it sucked the technician under.
"Open the doors," the other man was screaming, throwing himself against the locked doors at the far end of the room. There was the sound of the locks clicking open, slowly, too slowly.
Lindsay curled up on his side, clawing at the last restraint on his wrist. The waves crashed around him and he pushed the water out into the halls, pushed it up into the air ducts, washing everything clean.
"Get to him. Sedate him again," the woman was shouting in the background. "Celare," she said desperately. "Celare!"
The gap was closing, the collar was tightening again. Lindsay's magic seared his nerves as the collar forced it into his body. He spat out the gag, struggling for breath so he could scream, so he could end everything, end the pain.
"No!" The word ripped up from his gut, tore free of his spine, and exploded out of his skin. The collar blew apart in a hail of shrapnel. The cuffs followed a moment later, shredding his skin with stone flechettes.
And then, instead of nothing, he could feel everything. He was everything. Tied to nothing, bound by nothing, he was a hundred minds at once--a thousand, even. He breathed a thousand breaths a second, spoke a thousand tongues, laughed, cried, smiled, frowned, opened his eyes, closed his eyes, saw through every eye. Every soul was under his skin.
"Stop!" he screamed, trying to make the torment end. He saw the face of every person who had caused his pain, clenched his will around their hearts and minds, and ended them all. Curling up on his side, clinging to himself, trying to hold himself in his own skin, he vomited blood and bile. "No more," he whispered with his ruined voice, between sobs. But there was nothing to answer him, only silence.
When Lindsay opened his eyes, the techs were lying on the floor, the dry floor. It was as though nothing had happened but that they had gone mad, clawing to escape, soiled themselves, and died. There was silence from the observation room above. The camera lens was black and unmoving. Lindsay's own blood-streaked, tear-stained face stared back at him, and he realized what he'd done.
All dead. He got his wrist loose and slipped off the gurney. There were no alarms ringing, no voices, no footfalls. No one was coming. He fell to his knees. His legs wouldn't hold him up, so he crawled through the open laboratory door and out into the hall. He dragged a white coat from one of the bodies in the hall to cover himself.
At the stairwell, he used the railing to pull himself to his feet. Surely, someone would notice soon. They would search for him, and they would find him. He tried to hide himself with an illusion, but pain made the world go dark. Clinging to the railing, he pulled himself up again with almost nothing but the force of his will.
Up one flight of stairs, then two, he had no idea where his strength came from. He stumbled over a pair of bodies wound together in the dark stairwell, under the red exit light bathing everything in a bloody halo. The door opened when he fell against it, and he tumbled outside.
It was freezing outside and it was night. The snow fell in thick clots, nothing like feathers, and so fast he could hardly see through it. Falling down the stairs hurt, but it was a pain he understood. He clawed at the fender of a car until he got to his feet. One staggering step at a time, he stumbled into the dark. The snow covered up his footprints.
Even the guard at the parking-lot exit was dead, slumped over his open cash register. A man in a black car leaned back in his plush seat, arm extended, coins still in his palm, and snow was slowly shrouding his dead body. Lindsay crept past, clutching the white coat around his thin, cold flesh.
Lindsay staggered a block, maybe two, hidden by the snow, clinging to the shadows beside the buildings that lined the silent street. Distantly, he could hear sirens. They were coming. He tried to run, but only ended up on his hands and knees in the snow. If he couldn't run, he would have to hide. Getting to his feet, he took two steps and fell again. First, he would have to crawl.
He crawled in the snow and the muck, shoulder to the wall of a looming building, until an alley yawned open and he fell into it. The ground was littered with nameless fluids, with glass and twisted metal and rotting wood, refuse thrown out of sight and out of mind. He crept to the only open dumpster--a listing, rusting hulk--and, with the last of his strength, he pulled himself into it.
He slid between wet, folded cardboard boxes, his weight carrying him toward the bottom. As he slid, more trash slipped on top of him and the dumpster shifted, the lid falling shut with a crash. It was dark in here and not as cold as it was out in the wind and snow. Whether he wanted to get out or not, he was here to stay. He curled up in his new bed and tried to keep warm. He was so cold and tired and empty, a burnt-out husk. There, in the dark, he fell asleep and the cold slowly leached away the little bit of life he'd managed to preserve.
Dane had just leapt off the top of the subway at the 207th train yard, on his usual rounds of the city, when he smelled strange ozone. It had a different taste than the oil- and grime-saturated power of the subway line, a different smell than the burnt Bakelite reek from the transformers upwind. This had the touch of magic to it, nothing that came from the shifting of the sky or the machines of men. He crouched in the shadows and cast about for the source of the scent.
There was alcohol on the air, and unwashed flesh, a hint of rot. Dane grimaced as he located the mage who smelled of a little power and a great deal of sorrow. He was a bent thing, dragged down by his filthy overcoat and bags of cans. Dane paced the shadows, following him for a while, his long stride easily keeping up with the other man's shuffle.
They left the train yard and headed for the river, for the haven under the University Heights Bridge. Dane crouched on the cracked concrete wall that shored up the riverbank and watched him go. If he weren't so accustomed to seeing his people reduced to that, he might have spared a thought or two for anger or pity. Instead, he filed the scent and sight away under "harmless" and turned his face into the wind pulling at his long, dark hair.
"I'm listening," he whispered, a bit impatient. There weren't many places he could go that the wind wouldn't find him in time. He wondered what it wanted this time.
"I need you," said the wind, tangling in his wild hair and tickling at his ears. "Come."
Dane was already moving at the word need, his four-limbed feral gait carrying him faster than any human could run. He swung up to the rooftops to race across the top of the city, under the heavy clouds, and dropped down to lope through narrow alleys, staying to the shadows. At last, he swung over an iron fence and into the empty yard of an old hostel in a row of brownstones. The French doors of a third-floor room were standing open and the light poured out from within, but Dane could see no one on the balcony.
"Up," the wind urged, pulling at him. Dane went up the trellis, over the balcony, and up farther still to the roof, graceful and silent.
The old man was waiting for him, face turned into the wind, a thin black silhouette against the milky winter sky. The snow parted around him like a curtain pulled back, leaving his silver hair and black robe unmarked.
Now that Dane had arrived, the urgency faded, to be replaced by his usual temper. His voice scraped the silence like a rusty saw. "What is it, Cyrus?"
"Go to Washington." When Dane drew near enough to see him clearly, Cyrus's face was whiter than the New York snow. "The laboratories. You know the ones."
Dane's nose wrinkled, but he nodded slowly. "I know them." He wished he didn't. The one time he'd gone to scout them out, the smell had lingered in the back of his throat for more than a day. Vivian, the third member of their little cabal, had said it was psychosomatic. Dane disagreed. There was something about suffering and the fear it brought that didn't easily wash away.
"Take the car," Cyrus said, as Dane turned away. That was enough to make Dane stop. The wind swirled snow around them both, dragging Dane's long hair about, pulling tendrils to catch in his beard. "You will find a boy there, outside, if he lives." Cyrus's eyes were black stars in his pale face. He swayed from the effort of his magic working, drawing the winds whistling through the streets of Washington to whisper to him on the rooftops of New York City.
"I will," Dane promised, his voice dropping to a gentle rasp. He held out one huge hand to Cyrus, careful of his own claws. "After you come inside."
"The wind..." Cyrus began to protest faintly.
"Is about to knock you on your skinny old ass," Dane said bluntly. The argument was familiar and Cyrus's thin hand was already drifting into Dane's, fluttering like a snowflake. Dane closed his hand over it and guided Cyrus to the door on the roof that led into the house.
In Cyrus's room, which had once been an upstairs dining room complete with huge glass doors and beautiful balcony overlooking the old garden, Dane helped Cyrus out of his damp coat and settled him into a chair by the fireplace. The hearth was dark and full of ash, so Dane stacked wood to light it again, ignoring Cyrus for the moment.
"Time is of the essence." The old man sounded too tired for the words to have much effect.
"No use me getting the kid if I'm bringing him here to meet your frozen corpse," Dane said stolidly, working on lighting the fire. He was grinning behind the thick, wet curtain of his hair. His priorities and Cyrus's clashed more often than not, as Dane didn't feel the same urgency about following arcane visions that the aeromancer did. He enjoyed the conflict more than a little. The fire caught on twisted newspaper and dry twigs, and gnawed the wood.
"Dane." Cyrus's brittle voice cracked on his name.
"Cyrus." Dane rose and crossed the room to shut the balcony doors. The snow had already come in and streaked the wool rug with white. It was as cold as the rooftop in here.
"Stop enjoying yourself."
"Yes, Cyrus," Dane said insincerely.
"This is important." Cyrus thumped his fist on the arm of his chair, a small noise in the large room.
"So are you." Dane brought a wool blanket from the bed and tucked it over Cyrus's lap with careful movements. The scene was more than a little incongruous: the wild-haired, hulking feral caring for the slender, aging prophet. There was no one there to point it out, though. No one had been there for years. No one but Cyrus and Dane and sometimes Vivian, who was as alien as they were and just as inured to it.
The window by the bed was still open a crack. The wind whined and lapped at the crack before slipping in to find its master, rippling Cyrus's hair and tugging at his sleeves.
"Find him." Cyrus put one cold hand on Dane's wrist, gripping like a bird's talons. Tension flowed from him in slow waves, seeping under Dane's skin.
"Have I failed you yet?" Dane gently detached Cyrus's hand from his wrist and turned to go.
"Not yet," Cyrus admitted. When Dane looked back, he was huddled and small in the chair, cast into odd patterns of light and dark as the fire struggled to breathe. A twitch of Cyrus's hand and the air swirled around the flames, coaxing them higher.
"And I won't." Dane closed the door behind him. He was heading down the back stairs when he heard Cyrus's voice once more. It was soft and far behind him, inaudible to anyone but the wind and the fire in Cyrus's room, inaudible to anyone but a beast with ears that could catch the flutter of fear in a heartbeat at a hundred paces.
"Not for some days."
Dane stopped dead on the stairs for a moment, his mind caught on the words. And then the beast in him shook off all concern about tomorrow. All that mattered was now. He dug under his layers of ragged clothing and pulled out a chain with several keys on it, picking the one for the sleek, black Cadillac he would be driving tonight.