The command echoed through JC’s entire body and jerked him back to consciousness with uncomfortable abruptness.
Firm, though not hard, surface underneath… but that was barely the beginning of what felt wrong. He sat up, or tried to: his wrists refused to separate from one another, and his ankles likewise; he felt completely off balance, weight and proportions distributed all wrong.
He could hear motion around him, and struggled to his knees so he could look. The light level was higher than before, still not quite daylight levels but enough to allow him to see clearly.
Six others were doing much the same. Six others who were, at least currently, women but, like the dark one in yellow he vaguely recalled seeing briefly before, all were inhumanly beautiful. Each wore close-fitting clothing, pants and a top though details were different, each in a unique colour that was mirrored in the colour of lips and nails and in most was shadowed over eyes as well; builds varied widely, as did the colours of long hair and flawless skin, no two alike. The parameters of beauty varied drastically by era and culture, but JC figured they could all have fit in perfectly in a late 80s rock video, and been the envy of everyone at the time, as far as he recalled what had been in fashion in high school. Except for the hair; there was a lot less volume of hair than he remembered, although considerable length. But of course all that needed was enough hairspray to increase the hole in the ozone layer.
And all looked as terrified and bewildered as he felt. The soft glow of the ceiling glittered on tear-tracks, body-language was overwhelmingly drawn in tight and he was sure at least a couple were trembling and at least a couple were near to outright crying.
Around each of his wrists, just above the joint proper, was a flat band of featureless smooth… well, something rather glassy, that was clearly visible only when the light caught it properly. Twist as he might, he could neither see nor feel any clasp or seam, nothing marking the gleaming surface at all. Via no mechanism he could detect, they refused to part from each other, though they were willing to roll along each other while he was trying to figure them out. They fit close against his skin, too tightly to slide off but not enough so to restrict circulation. He figured he could assume the same around his ankles.
Although the wrists and ankles in question, just like the long straight dark hair that was interfering and the much-too-full chest and all the rest, really didn’t feel like his.
A platinum blonde with skin the warm golden-brown of toffee, lean and athletic under violet clothing, hair pale as cream in a layered straight fall nearly to her elbows, fixed on something with a fierce intensity that drew not only JC but all the others to look in the same direction.
A woman leaned against the wall, arms crossed over her brightly-coloured cotton shirt; a wide elaborate golden cuff circled one wrist, incongruous with the faded blue jeans and the short-sleeved shirt. She was fairly fit, solidly built, and her tawny-brown hair showed signs of creeping grey. Compared to the rest of them, she looked very plain and very human. She regarded them with clinical interest.
“What the fuck is going on?” the platinum blonde demanded. Her voice was low for a woman, but definitely feminine in timbre despite that. “Who the fuck are you, where the fuck are we, and what the fuck have you done to me? To us, I bet.” There was rage there, but fear too. Something about that was oddly familiar…
“Enough,” the woman leaning against the wall said. “I will explain, but I can’t while you’re ranting. And really, is language like that necessary?”
That made the platinum blonde gather herself, expression darkening. “Is kidnapping necessary?”
“Be silent. Now.”
The blonde started to say something, but pain flashed across her face and her entire body convulsed; she grabbed for the gold collar with her bound hands, clawing at it. A second spasm, and a third.
JC and the other five captives could only watch in sympathetic horror. The jeans-clad woman looked… well, patient, really; she didn’t appear to be particularly enjoying it, nor did she look particularly disturbed, only like she was waiting.
“The pain stops when you stop trying to talk,” she said. “I’m sorry, I really have no desire to hurt you, but pain is how the collars work, and the collars are in place for your safety and ours. Cooperate with the collars and they won’t hurt you.”
JC distinctly remembered hands placing a golden band around his neck, and shivered. How could anyone be able to do this to them?
The platinum blonde sagged in place, head bowed, panting for breath, body shaking.
“There, see? Much better. Now I can explain without trying to be heard over you. In the interests of making sure we understand one another, the first thing you need to grasp is that those pretty cuffs you’re wearing aren’t jewellery any more than the collars are. The cuffs are literally made of magic. There are only two people who can remove them, and I have the master.” She tapped the wide intricately-decorated cuff on her wrist. “While I’m wearing this and you’re wearing those, I can do things like this.”
The glassy bands released each other abruptly, allowing wrists and ankles to part.
JC yelped, and wasn’t the only one to do so, when the glassy cuffs jerked his wrists back together, abruptly and with alarming strength; the bands on his ankles also snapped themselves forcibly together.
The fear reaction to the restraint got lost in a searing shock of pain that, he thought, started at the collar in the instant that he began to cry out and raced along his spine, spilling out to either side. The pain itself made him whimper, which triggered a new surge before the first had even faded. He choked down any further sound desperately, and after a few thudding heartbeats that felt like forever, the pain melted away. He could still feel muscles trembling, and something inside felt cold and sick. His cheeks felt wet—tears?
“I only need to demonstrate further levels on one of you,” she said. “And I think I already had a volunteer.”
The platinum blonde in violet grunted, obviously struggling not to make any further sound, as the cuffs extended tendrils up her arms, wrapping around them and dragging them more and more tightly together, until her elbows touched. The attempt at staying silent failed, though it took her longer than JC was sure he could have lasted, and even that small sound of pain had consequences—the blonde jerked violently, which couldn’t be a good thing when restrained like that. The creeping filaments kept going, and as they did, they linked themselves backwards, contracting as they spread, forcing her elbows to flex until her hands were right under her throat.
“If I were to do similar with your arms behind you,” the woman said with clinical detachment, “even your joints would have difficulty with it and eventually there would be damage.” The extended tendrils withdrew, flowing like water all the way back down to the wrist cuffs themselves, leaving the platinum blonde fighting to catch her breath.
“Point made?” the woman said. “Just nodding will be fine.”
Shivering, JC nodded, and saw the others doing the same.
“Very good. It would really be better for everyone concerned if we can just do things the easy way. I’m a reasonably nice person, and I don’t like to hurt anyone more than absolutely unavoidable. My partners are less nice, and don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get what they want. They, for example, wouldn’t bother explaining anything to you. I, however, prefer to make sure you understand what’s happening, because I think leaving you in ignorance is needlessly cruel and is more likely to lead to having to do things the hard way. Although, I suppose ultimately they’re right and it doesn’t matter whether you know or not, and you might decide to fight anyway.”
Oh, that didn’t sound good at all.
Right, like things weren’t already so terrifyingly bad that he was sure he was in shock and not processing it properly yet.
“Now. You aren’t human. You never have been, you and everyone else just thought you were. You all have fae genes, which thoroughly taint human ones on all levels. You are currently one step closer to the forms that reflect your individual true natures, which you will ultimately find more comfortable than pretending to be something you aren’t. You are probably going to find very quickly that you feel stronger and healthier, because while fae generally have restrictions that are connected to their nature, fae also tend to be consistently in physical health so excellent that humans can’t match it. My partners are hoping that at least a couple of you will turn out to be something interesting or useful. I know you don’t currently have any real understanding of what the fae are or what it means to have fae blood, but that will change—by first-hand experience if nothing else.”
She paused again to look them over, maybe making sure they were listening; with seven pairs of eyes fixed on her with absolute attention, she must have been satisfied that they were, since she continued.
“My name is Isabel, I’m what’s called a medium although any understanding you have of the term is wrong. I work with two wizards, Nestor and his student Phrixos, and you also don’t understand what a wizard is. Wizards are human men who devote their lives to the study of what is generally called magic, which is just another form of energy that has its own rules. Mediums are people of either sex who mediate between wizards, fae, and mundane humans in one way or another, using a variety of skills including some magic use. The one medium and two wizards on this island are the ultimate and only authority and power. Nestor and Phrixos are busy most of the time on wizard matters. I look after the day-to-day running of the island, which is approximately thirty-six square kilometres in a reality bubble connected to what you think of as the real world by a single doorway that only Nestor, Phrixos and I can open. There’s quite a lot of work to do, including looking after the gardens and doing the housework and cooking. We do have employees who have their own responsibilities, but there’s too much to do for them to keep up with it all. While we wait to see what kinds of fae you are, you’ll be helping them catch up. If you cooperate, you’ll have decent meals, a place to sleep, no punishment, a useful job to do, and you can stay together. You probably haven’t figured this out yet, but you do know each other, you’re all the same age and have lived in this area your entire lives.”
What? JC tore his gaze away from their captor to scan his fellow captives again. Odd hints of familiarity, but nothing he could identify—but then, if they’d been changed to anything like the degree he had, not so surprising. Nor was he the only one. The ivory-skinned one with wavy dark auburn hair looked particularly intent; then—his? her?—eyes widened, regarding the platinum blonde. Even white teeth caught a vividly aqua-blue lower lip, a mannerism that suddenly triggered recognition.
Theo. That’s Theo!
The gaze of the woman in brilliant blue who was Theo flickered around the group, and JC saw him swallow hard a couple of times. His eyes met JC’s for a heartbeat of shared fear, and JC was certain Theo recognized him.
But if that was Theo, who were the others?
Oh, that platinum blonde couldn’t possibly be dark-tanned, sunbleached-blonde Zach, even though the aggressive anger was about the only response he could imagine from Zach…
But what in hell was going on? Wizards? Not human… had she seriously called them fae?
“You do need to be aware that if you are persistently uncooperative, well… there are wizards who have devised experiments to run on fae to see what you can tolerate and what you’re vulnerable to. I really don’t think you want to experience that. Now. Normally you’ll all be sleeping right here together, but I think just for tonight it would be best for you to all have some time to reflect without distractions and get some rest so you’ll be able to start your new jobs in the morning. Thanks to my partners, there are temporarily seven identical rooms around the edge of this one. I’d like for each of you to go into a different one, please.” The tension on the glassy bands around JC’s ankles released abruptly, though not the ones on his wrists.
The slim woman in rosy-pink, long hair a light ash brown and skin a light olive, tried to say something, but… her?… whole body jerked in pain, tearing free a small whimper.
There was something eerily familiar about the perfected facial lines under the new streaks of tears.
Oh my god, that’s Suzi. Though it was a miracle he’d recognized her, since she should have been a good head shorter and considerably more solidly built—Rottweiler, not Doberman, Levi had said affectionately before—with her hair a darker brown.
Eyes on the floor, Suzi got to her feet and turned towards the nearest door in the featureless walls around them.
Theo, Zach, Suzi… who were the other three?
Suzi probably had the right idea, there was no point in resisting right now. This woman had power over them that just shouldn’t be possible but was all too real. She hadn’t added a specific threat with the request, but then, there was a clearly implied or else at the end, and the consequences were probably going to be unpleasant and impossible to fight.
JC got up, deeply unsettled by the change in his balance, a supple strength that just wasn’t his own. No glasses, but he could see perfectly well.
One wall of three was curved, and along it were doors, seven of them. Eyes low, he crossed the floor to one other than Suzi’s.
He heard an ominous, though unsurprising, snap as the door closed behind him. His wrists came apart just as suddenly.
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