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HE DREAMED he was stretched wide on a rack, his arms and legs pulling free of their sockets. He screamed, but could not move.
His back ached; he could not feel his hips or butt. His head throbbed like it had been hit repeatedly with a hammer.
He couldn't seem to be able to pull himself to full consciousness, as though something was holding him under. He fought against it, and had some success: he could sense the light of day above him as he struggled, could sense it getting closer and closer ... But then that thing, whatever it was, would press down on him and force him back under, where he'd lose himself again and pass back into unconsciousness. He could sense that pressure poking into his mind like an ice pick, and he fought it. But it could not poke through, as it clearly wanted to, and when he was submerged again it could not try at all, as though his mind was too far under to reach and jab at. He got the sense that whatever was trying to harm him was incompetent at it, but desperate, like its life depended on getting through. He'd come out of it in even more pain than before, hazy and confused, and try to go back.
Was he dead? Had he been judged for his life and was now being tortured for all eternity in Damnation? That's what it felt like.
He made one last push for light, and, fitfully shaking his head, opened his eyes.
He blinked, focusing ...
Light … yellow light—an oil lamp. It hung on a wall past cold black bars and lit only a small volume of the space he was in. The rest was cast in shadow.
He tried to move and found he couldn't. He looked up left, right. His wrists were bound to chains above his head.
Wall … wooden … damp. He was sitting against it. He gazed down and discovered he had a beard, one long enough to itch his chest when his chin dropped. He still wore his dead (fake) Emasculatem.
It smelled faintly of death in here, of cold metal and rot.
He was still naked, as he had been those last terrifying moments aboard his singleship.
His legs …
His ankles were bound as well, and spread wide. But his legs ... weren't broken, weren't shattered.
They'd healed somehow while he was unconscious.
It was apparent he had been out a long time.
Where was he?
The last thing he remembered was being on the back of a gigantic Keeper. He was trying to reach the mainmast of his tipped ship. His legs and ankles were broken; he was trying to get to the sails when the monster shifted during its battle with another, mutant Keeper, sending the Selaki careening towards him.
That was it. He couldn't remember more than that, try as he might.
Now he was here—wherever "here" was.
Bootsteps and muffled voices sounded out above him.
He could also feel the entire structure he was in rock back and forth very gently, as though riding calm seas.
"Shit,” he murmured. “Shit.”
Somehow he'd survived the titanic battle between the Keepers. He'd survived—only to be captured by the Imperials.
He wasn't hungry, and his thirst wasn't so urgent that he noticed it immediately. He'd been fed, then, while he was unconscious. Which meant the Imperials had at least one Healer aboard, one skilled enough to get him to eat and drink while he was out. Which meant they wanted him alive and healthy.
He stared at his unbroken legs, spread wide and bound by heavy chains. He gazed at the inert Emasculatem against his chest, barely visible at the very bottom of his sight. He looked up, above him.
The chains were part of an elaborate construction, a crisscrossing mishmash of more chains and wooden rigging and pulleys. He located the end of another chain, one with a big grip. It hung in the gloom near the ceiling, ominously.
Torture? Was he going to be tortured?
Then why Heal him?
In the gloom to the left, beyond the bars of his particular cell, he spied more cells, more bars. They appeared unoccupied. As far as he could tell they didn't come with the elaborate rigging found in his.
To the right was bare floor; along that wall hung various tools. There was a cast iron stove, black, complete with a silver metal soot stack to funnel smoke out. The stove appeared unused, cold.
He considered the hopelessness of his situation.
He thought of the Selaki. The Imperials would have boarded her and searched her thoroughly. (He guessed that the sea paper and other damning effects were safe; the Selaki had many impossible-to-find storage spaces deliberately built into her.) Once that task was complete, they'd destroy her.
Or—they would try to.
He swore under his breath.
He still didn't know why his captors had Healed him. But why they had kept him alive was no longer in doubt.
The Imperial sailor descended stairs that led down from the open hatch to Anurag's far left some hours later. He held a wooden bowl in one hand and keys in the other. He opened the cell and squatted between his legs.
The bowl was half full of thick gruel or something similar.
"Open your mouth," ordered the sailor in Gyssian, dead eyes staring.
Anurag kept his mouth closed. A tense minute passed as the men stared at each other.
The soldier stood, bowl in hand, and exited the cell, locking it behind him and marching back up the stairs a moment later. The hatch swung closed with a loud boom!
Here it comes, thought Anurag.
He thought of Transforming as a means of escape, but immediately vetoed the notion. It might get him out of the chains, but he couldn't be sure. Even if it worked, then what? He'd still be locked in this cell, and there was no guarantee that his Transformed self wouldn't be seriously injured. This was, after all, a relatively small, confined space, and his shark Transform was quite large.
His shoulders were in agony, as were his upper hips, back, and legs. Hunger competed now with pain for his attention, and his parched throat and swollen tongue yearned for water.
To distract himself he thought of home, and his mother, and Orion.
More than anything else in the world, he was fighting for them. Despite the prickly relationship he had with his mom, one that had always been so since he could remember, he loved her very deeply. The source of the prickliness was easy to trace, easy to see. It was because they were so much alike in their stubbornness, in their concentrated willfulness. She had given him her headstrong worldview, and Anurag had taken it and made it his own. The many battles that ensued were inevitable.
And Orion ... Anurag smiled as his nephew's face came into his mind's eye. Orion. A great, great kid, he thought. Honest. True. Full of life and mischief and wide-eyed adventure. He too was stubborn and willful, but he possessed traits neither his grandmother nor he had ever mastered: that of gentle courteousness and affability. Orion didn't get his way by brute force. He got his way with a brilliant, disarming smile and by somehow getting you to think that what you want is what he wants, even though moments before you were quite opposed to it.
Anurag's smile faded.
Life and mischief and wide-eyed adventure: qualities the Imperium loathed and systematically eradicated.
He thought of Brinkley and Tal, then of Dohbdy and the Poets. The Imperium would investigate the slaughter of their own, and then they’d send soldiers into the mountains on a quest for answers and bloody vengeance. They'd bring a new demon with them, one they would unleash into those valleys and upon the Poets themselves, should any be found.
Dohbdy's ueto had a sprig of Antarctic Cottonwood. They were probably invisible now to anyone who wasn't part of their small tribe. But what of the rest of the Poets? There were tens of thousands in the mountains north of Anthtree, and they were all in mortal danger. Like it or not, the woman Elder was right. He had imperiled them even more than they already were. The only thing the Poets as a whole had on their side at this point was time: it would take at least three months for new Tracluse to arrive in Anthtree.
He thought of demons killing demons, and wondered how that could happen. It seemed incredible to him, impossible.
He thought of the Selaki again. He reasoned that Imperials were aboard her right now, and were following the Gourei and La Argentina (Cunoc). They had to be.
They'll moor his ship in some big port in Neptonius or August, and the Imperium will take it apart, plank by plank. Or they'll give it their very best. And in so doing they'll likely discover a secret (secrets!) that he swore to protect with his life.
He wondered which ship he was on.
He'll find out soon enough, he thought.
Some hours later the hatch swung open again. Down the stairs came a Dreamcatcher and a sailor. The sailor was holding a bullwhip.
The Dreamcatcher glided to the outside corner of the cell and inserted a key into a padlock, one Anurag hadn't noticed. The cell didn't open as it had earlier, a door swinging open, but slid open, the entire front of it. The bar assembly was on a track. The Dreamcatcher pushed the bars open, which rattled and clanged noisily, while the sailor, whip in hand, stood motionless by the oil lamp.
The Dreamcatcher loomed over Anurag, came to a stop between his legs.
—Your vessel,— it asked in an emotionless male Voice. —Why can't we destroy it?—
The life lessons of his headstrong mother ...
He spat to his side and growled in the Coastal Tongue: "I don't fill my mouth with Gyssian shit."
Speaking a foreign language within earshot of an Imperial representative or military officer was punishable by (of course) death.
The Dreamcatcher stood still for a few seconds more, coldly contemplating him.
It backed out of the cell. It motioned the sailor to come forward.
The sailor reached for the ominous-looking handle hanging near the ceiling and tugged downward. The assembly instantly came to life with a loud clanging and grinding of flywheels and chains. Anurag found himself rising off his butt, his arms spreading wide, his legs spreading wider. The motion by itself was torture, and he couldn't keep the bellow of pain from tearing out of his throat.
The sailor locked the assembly—Anurag couldn't see how that was achieved—then let the end of the whip, a mishmashed ball of rusty nails, drop to the floor.
He gave the whip a quick underhand, and the end of it flew off the floor and bit into Anurag’s hanging testicles.
The scream that pealed from the back of his throat didn't seem real. Neither did the pain. He gawked down: his genitals were spouting blood. He looked up in time to see the sailor crack the whip again. The end snapped into his face, into his right eye, blinding him instantly.
And so it went. He passed into shock: he abstractedly heard himself shrieking and thrashing, the thick chains rattling; he watched with a deathly detached interest with his one good eye as the bullwhip tore whole chunks of his person from him. The whip eventually found the good eye, and then he was completely blind.
He thought he would pass out from the pain. But, horribly, he didn't. When the torture finally stopped he hung there less a man than ragged, torn flesh over a large pool of his own blood, groaning incoherently. He could not hear himself: the whip had tagged both of his ears … but he could feel the vibration of pain resound through his chest and die at the ends of his exposed and frayed nerves.
There was a sudden release, and he felt himself splash down on his ass against the cold wall.
Sometime later someone touched his forehead. He felt relief flood through him, from his head down to his toes. It was such a powerful, profound sense of allayment that he could not keep himself from crying out in joy. At its bottom was unconsciousness. He fell into it as off a cliff.
His own breathing woke him. He was snorting and gasping for air. He couldn't help his chin from falling into his chest, which cut off his windpipe.
He looked around.
He could just make out the outline of his toes. He glanced at his legs, at his genitals, then at his chest. All Healed. Only the thinnest of scars remained to mark the torture.
Eyesight ... hearing ... Healed.
Despair threatened to crush him. He closed his eyes.
Torture the prisoner, then Heal him.
This could go on forever.
And he was powerless to stop it.
He wasn't hungry. Nor was he thirsty.
Take care of the prisoner. Then bring him within an inch of death. Repeat. It won't be long before he tells us anything we want to know, before he goes insane with fear.
Then we'll kill him.
So this was how he was going to spend his last days.
He couldn't keep the tears from welling up, couldn't keep himself from blubbering a hopeless prayer, over and over again:
"Please, no. Not like this ... not like this ... I'm not ready ... please, I'm not ready ..."
He glared at the chains about his wrists and ankles.
He thought again about Transforming.
"Active ..." he hissed, "... active aecxal claim. Active ... active ... too close ... way too close ..."
Eyes clenched, he recited his training:
"Distance ... and ... and acceleration and ... and ... mass—mass!—voids an active aecxal claim. Distance. Acceleration. Goddamnit! And mass! God-DAMNIT!"
He growled and shook against his constraints.
"Distance! Distance! I need distance! AAAARGH!"
But distance was the one thing he did not have in this cell.
He recited the formula:
"Two thirds by the inverse square of the ... the ... distance ... distance! ... Two thirds ... inverse square ... critical values dependent on mass of Transformed self ... and acceleration ... vector ... vector ... the vector ... GODDAMNIT!"
His shark mass ... would it overwhelm the locks?
The cell was very well designed. Its bars were solid and thick. The locks wouldn't have been an afterthought.
Even so, how could he find the room to achieve the necessary acceleration? And even if he broke free, what then? What could he achieve against a thousand Tracluse and a hundred demons?
"Son of a bitch! AAAAAAARGH!"
He couldn't keep panic from bubbling up in his chest, into his neck, then to his forehead, where it nested like a swarm of shimmer wasps. He couldn't keep from trembling and sweating, or the nausea that washed through him in random, sickly waves.
There was no escape.
He saw—felt, more like—dawn break. He heard the increasingly frequent noises of Tracluse above him. He heard muffled orders being shouted, and he could feel the ship come alive around him.
Sometime later a sailor descended the stairs and relit the oil lamp. He carried no whip. He turned and departed without looking at him. The hatch swung closed moments later.
He couldn't help the thought: It's coming again soon.
He knew that's what his torturers wanted him to think.
He knew they wanted him to feel the terror of anticipation, and he felt helpless to fight it.
But fight it he did. He fought against the chains spreading him wide. He snarled and spat like a trapped animal. He wanted to bellow his defiance, but knew that's what they wanted. They wanted to hear him yell, because that would be a sure sign that he was defeated, that fear owned him, his will, his spirit.
It took everything in him to keep from doing so. He bit down until his chin quavered, his teeth bared, his eyes screwed shut. Sweat poured out of him. He pissed himself, and it was then that he noticed that the floor was spotlessly clean of the blood he had spilled earlier, as though it was going to be inspected later. Shortly after he discovered the grating of the circular drain between his spread feet.
Someone had put serious thought into the design and construction of this contraption.
How many others had met their ends here?
He forced his breaths over and against blind panic: In! two, three, four, five! ... Out! two, three, four, five! ... He kept his mouth closed and his growls as quiet as he could.
Black rage mixed with a furious thirst for enemy blood. He imagined himself feasting on perverted Imperial meat, and to hell with the consequences. They no longer mattered. He knew now how to cure himself afterward.
In! two, three, four, five! ... Out! two, three, four, five! ...
What was probably an hour later the hatch opened, and the Dreamcatcher and sailor descended. The bullwhip was coiled neatly about the sailor's forearm, the rusty ball of nails at its end hanging prominently. Glaring at it, Anurag realized then it wasn't rusty.
It was dried blood.
After unlocking the cell, the Dreamcatcher moved aside, and the sailor came forward and pulled down on the handle, raising him once again off the floor, spread and prone.
—Why can't we destroy your vessel?— demanded the monster over his cries.
Anurag snorted and spat, hitting the bright-red beast dead-on in its lightless eye.
—Do not let him go unconscious,— the Dreamcatcher ordered the sailor, who appeared eager to get to work. —I will return momentarily with the Healer.—
The Dreamcatcher marched up the stairs and out of sight.
The sailor approached menacingly. He raised the ball of blood-encrusted nails to Anurag’s nose.
"You won't last," he snarled in Gyssian, dead eyes staring. "No one does. Soon you will be crazy. Healed and crazy. Tell us what we want to know right now and I'll drop this whip and come back with my sword. It'll be quick. Just a quick cut here—"
He grabbed him by his hair, pulling his head back, and dragged the ball across his Adam's apple, cutting his windpipe open. He was suddenly sucking air through his gushing neck—
—"and it'll all be over."
What Anurag remembered of the following hours would be pushed to the very back of his mind, lodged there forever as a reminder of why he chose to be a warrior for a kingdom of right and light.
The sailor showed no restraint as he had the first time. He whipped wildly, angrily, joyfully, his blood-spattered smile gruesome, his laughs and taunts echoing through the half-light of the prison. The Dreamcatcher, standing impassively to the side, would occasionally order him to stop, and the Healer, a tall, dark sailor with long, bony fingers, would Heal him, at least enough to keep him alive, where the sailor would then resume his whipping. Anurag would lose his eyesight, his hearing, the flesh of his cheeks, only to have them return, fresh nerves waiting. He'd have his throat cut, or see his genitals thrashed from his person, only to watch them grow back, or feel hot blood stop spurting from under his chin. Once or twice the end of the whip would get stuck in his ribs, and the torturer, yanking with both hands, would pull a rib free. The Healer would work quickly then to keep him alive. Those injuries took time to Heal, and he hung there like a side of beef, head down, drooling.
He was jibbering without thought now, without awareness that he was, as though the nails had punctured the treasure chest of his deepest secrets, which now came spilling out of him, garbled and out of order, mixed and precious.
He remembered yelling his name near the end as a final defense to a world that willingly lived and breathed and died under Imperial rule:
"I am Anurag de Bouchard! ANURAG DE BOUCHARD!"
The whipping stopped.
The assembly released, and he fell and hit the wall.
The Healer touched him.Unconsciousness like a warm, welcoming, fathomless whirlpool waited, and he tripped headlong into it.