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Blood Ladders, Book 1
(Cut for potentially distressing content.)
I jerked away and nothing happened. I tried to spread my fingers, but they remained fixed. They were no longer my hands, but someone else’s, holding me in place. I stared up at them, choking on bile. My body had betrayed me before, but it had never felt alien to me until this moment.
“I want to feed first,” the second elf said.
“This isn’t feeding,” the first said. “We need to test him for her, see if he’s worth keeping.”
“We can test him while we eat,” the second said. “Let me go first.”
“Just don’t drain him,” the first said finally.
The second laughed and cast a cold shadow against my back as he approached me from behind. His hands settled on the undersides of my stretched and aching arms, thumbs caressing the trembling muscle. His palms glided down to my chest and even through the vest I sensed the burn of his presence. I flinched, but there was no escaping the stroking. I had never been touched so intimately and with so little regard for my own desires. Up to my elbows, down again over my chest, my ribs. Up. Down. I ground my teeth and fought the nausea. It would end. It had to. And yet he continued, on and on, until the urge to vomit almost overwhelmed me.
“Stop playing with it and eat,” the first said, bored.
The second laughed… and on the next pass his hands ripped me open and spilled something vital and he gathered it and gathered it and it was like being flayed of a skin I didn’t even know I had and I screamed, oh how I screamed—
“How is it?”
“Not much, but it refills quickly. Mmm. Very quickly.”
“Blood from a stone.”
Laughter, like the harsh cries of carrion birds. And still the violation went on, stripping me until I wept.
I was not surprised when the demons came.
“Better than being eaten alive, O Prince?” one of them asked, licking my ear. I could not twitch away, so consumed was I by the madness of what they did to me, for now they were both at my body, stroking, cutting, hurting.
“Make it stop,” I whispered. “Oh God. Kill them. Kill me. Something. Anything.”
“We obey the commands of the Prince,” the demon said with a mocking grin… and then he dragged his claws up my spine and I convulsed. And then again. The pain woke and found invaders in its demesne and it roared defiance, devouring me to forbid me from them. Mine, it hissed in the voices of demons. MINE, MINE FOREVER.
Yes, I thought—screamed—no, yes ANYTHING STOP—
“Did we overdo it?”
“Not sure. What a mess. You clean up.”
“You were the one who pushed it too far.”
“He still producing?”
“Stupid. Get a human in here to clean it up.”
“Fine, fine.” A pause. “He alive?”
“Breathing…” A hand brushed my face, traced my cheekbone. “Mmm, still full even after all that. You have to take it slowly, but it never seems to end.”
I discovered then that I had never hated anyone in my life… because in that moment, I hated the elves, hated them and wanted nothing more than to feel them die beneath my hands.
“She’ll be pleased. We can replace the one we just used up.”
I tried to rise so I could get my hands around their throats, but I couldn’t find my arms. I couldn’t find my body even, until one of them nudged my ribs with the tip of a sandal. “Let’s go tell her, then.”
And there they left me, like an unfinished meal they’d lost interest in, spilled on the floor in all my helplessness and hatred. I thought of Kelu’s curled lip and flattened ears and understood at last. A collar around the throat or a mark stained on the skin, it didn’t matter. These creatures treated us all the same. I struggled to rise and found I couldn’t… they had… done something to me, something indescribable. Just making the attempt brought tears to my eyes and I wept them past my gritted teeth and clenched jaw. I hated crying. I hated crying for pain even more. And I hated my body for not only betraying me, but for apparently having some new and special way of being violated that I’d never even imagined.
Before I could gather myself, the door opened again for a human, another man. He did not meet my eyes, nor move with any confidence or energy. He looked much as I’d felt… or as I would if the elves did what they’d done to me over and over. Past cowed and well into exanimate. He shifted me to one side and applied himself to mopping the floor; had I vomited? I didn’t remember. I hadn’t eaten in so long it hadn’t mattered much. I watched in dismay as the man finished cleaning… and approached me. He looped my arm over his shoulder and heaved me up without so much as a by-your-leave and dragged me out the door.
“I should very much like to escape,” I told him conversationally. He did not reply.
“Or to kill my captors,” I offered.
“Do you even speak?” I asked. I switched to Lit, though by now my native language felt ungainly. “Or do you prefer a civilized tongue?”
That made him flick his eyes toward mine, but there was nothing in them. No approval, no curiosity, no censure. Nothing.
He brought me to a room off a narrow, poorly lit hallway; no, calling it a room dignified it too much. It was a closet, just large enough for the thin bunk. The man dropped me there, ungently.
“You can’t possibly be leaving me here,” I said.
He shut the door on me. Closing it revealed two bowls. One was empty; one had water.
“No,” I murmured, stunned.
The door remained shut. The bowls did not vanish. The room remained tiny and crude, with its too-thin bunk and scratchy sheets.
“No,” I said. I was not trapped. I was not a prisoner. I was not doomed to become a drudge who bowed his head to the will of his masters, the masters who abused and stole his essence whenever they pleased.
I was not going to become a human Kelu.
I was NOT!
I threw myself against the door and struck it with my fists and my entire world was a NO screamed through my aching body and raw throat and bleeding soul. But I had the fortitude only for that one sad attempt. I was nothing but pain, a ruin of limbs and broken grace crumpled at the threshold of a lifetime of slavery. The demons crawled over my skin and licked at my invisible wounds and their mocking laughter blocked my hearing. I closed my eyes and managed to curl into an awkward ball, hiding my face against my knees.
I breathed. Breathed through suffering and agony, through the sense of helplessness. Breathed through terror. And when I came out the other side, I found the door opening, the sliver of light falling across my cheek sharp as a cut.
“Morgan,” Kelu hissed.
I squinted past the tear-stiffened skin around my eyes.
“Are you awake?” she asked in Lit.
“Yesss,” I managed, hoarse.
“Can you walk?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said. The effort of talking woke stabbing pains in my throat.
“I’m getting you out of here,” she whispered.
I looked at her. “Why?”
“Because,” she hissed, “I hate them, and doing anything that hurts them pleases me.”
I knew the source of her vitriol now, felt it seething in me. But something nagged me about her motivations anyway. Why me? Why didn’t she choose some other way to hurt them? “I’m sure there’s an easier way.”
She shrugged. “You’re the one that occurred to me. Besides, we dragged you into this, we should get you out.”
“I’m having trouble imagining you professing to altruism on the behalf of an elf in human’s skin,” I said.
Kelu sighed. “I don’t have time to argue with you. The truth is that Almond thinks you’re the prince, and she believes it so much she never once recanted even while they were punishing her. So… yes. I am breaking you out of your cell and smuggling you out of here. Maybe you are the prince. Maybe if I free you, you’ll turn the whole Archipelago upside-down. But even if you don’t, it’ll upset Amoret and that makes me happy. So are you coming or not?”
What about Almond?” I asked.
“She’s somewhere,” Kelu said.
The image of Almond bearing some hideous torture because of me was more than I could stand. “We have to take her with us.”
Kelu scowled at me. “We don’t have much time.”
“Then we should get moving,” I said, forcing my recalcitrant body to its knees.
“No, no,” she said, irritated. “Stay here. If you want her to come, I’ll get her alone. They’ll notice you limping after me.”
“Fine,” I said. “But don’t come back without her.”
She sighed and shut the door on me.
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