I didn’t like it, but I had to finally admit I had no idea how to escape this place. The Isolation Unit we were stuck in was some kind of hut made of bright green reeds that vibrated with a low-level hum. Every time I approached the sides of the chamber, the reeds increased their vibration, which didn’t reassure me.
But I kept that to myself.
I had failed Gabby and Tony. Where was that power in my chest when I needed it?
“That bitch blondie, wants to kill me,” Tony said as he paced ten steps across and back, for the umpteenth time.
“You mean the one with the white-blonde hair?”
“Yeah, that one.” Tony flapped his hand at me. “Point is we’ve gotta escape.”
“Keep your voice down, would you?” I’d been trying to ignore him since we’d been thrust into this stagnant room that had a minty sweet smell.
That should be a refreshing scent, but it wasn’t. Or maybe I was just suspicious of everything from flowers to children.
And why shouldn’t I be? I was trapped in a hut constructed of a plant that I should be able to rip to shreds given what I’d done to that killer vine earlier. But my energy had abandoned me when we needed it most. The power humming in these walls keyed my senses that any attack might have deadly consequences. No mercy anywhere in this place. When Callan marched us here, not an ounce of sympathy had flickered in his eyes. He’d lifted his hand and an opening had appeared just long enough for me, Gabby and Tony to walk through, then the doorway disappeared.
No windows, no door.
No clue how to get free, or help Gabby.
I walked over to where she sat cross-legged, huddled in the center of the floor, her teeth clenched in pain. She rocked back and forth, cupping first one wrist then the other in her lap. Sweat beaded across her forehead.
“Any better?” I asked, concerned about the deepening raw welts ringing her wrists. Red streaks had started running up her arms in jagged lines that indicated infection. Had it started earlier, when I’d noticed pink on her wrists after the killer flower had strapped her wrist to Tony? Or had the dull-red vines used for constraint done this?
“I don’t think I can use ‘better’ to describe the pain.” Gabby spoke between her chattering teeth and tried to grit out a smile. “More like somewhere between having your appendix cut out without anesthesia and being burned to death.”
All of our wrists were unbound now. My wrists and Tony’s showed no skin reaction like hers. We had to get her out of here, back to the school where someone could help her.
“I’m not stayin’ here,” Tony continued babbling and pacing. “These guys are serious whack jobs.”
“We’ll figure a way out of here as soon as we can,” I said, hoping to shut him up.
Nope. Tony pounded over to where I knelt next to Gabby, but kept his focus only on me. “‘As soon as we can’ is fine for you two. I’m on death row.”
Fighting the urge to snap at him, I asked Gabby. “Let me see your arms.”
She lifted her chin, indecision playing hard through her flushed face.
I understood her hesitation. She shielded her secret gift by avoiding touch. I offered quietly, “You can trust me when I say I’ll not judge you or share anything about your gift.”
After the things she’d seen me do today, she must have decided I was telling her the truth, because air wheezed out of her with relief.
I braced myself to touch her skin, prepared for any image or sensation when I gently scooped her arm in my hand. Fragmented images scattered through my mind, mixed with her burning pain and fear of dying. What I picked up came in pieces, meaning she could hide her thoughts somewhat, but not very well while her body fought an infection.
The red lines continued to crawl up her arms, raging hot as if acid etched deep into her skin.
I detected an odor of something building that my mind labeled as gangrene, but this didn’t fit with the vision of rotting flesh that followed the name. I didn’t have time to question what I knew or how much I knew, but I was sure these streaks could kill her if we didn’t stop the strange infection.
“We’ll be okay,” I reassured Gabby and released her arm before she could catch the desperation in my mind.
“Of course you two will be fine,” Tony continued ranting from where he’d paced to the other side of the room again. “Meanwhile I’ll be sacrificed to the god of Loony Land. Or the goddess. But you don’t care, which figures. Won’t be the first time I’m thrown under the bus. The last time was by people I thought were friends.”
I understood Tony’s fear of being put to death, especially for something he hadn’t done. He should realize I wouldn’t let this bunch harm him or Gabby without a fight, regardless of my sporadic superpower, but I didn’t have the patience to figure out what Tony meant by a bus. I buried my need to strike at something out of frustration and told him, “No one is going to die. It’s probably just a scare tactic.” At least, I hoped so. “Put your mouth to some use for once. See if you can get us some health aid here.”
“You mean medical attention?”
I shot him a look that had him backing up.
“You don’t get it. They don’t care if any of us lives or dies.” Tony stomped back over and drew in a deep breath as if ready to unleash a snarl, but stopped and whistled between his teeth on the next exhale. “Whoa, babe,” he said, bending over to examine Gabby’s arm more closely, really seeing her this time. “Daa-yum. That’s bad.”
“Not helping, Tony,” I snapped. “Need medicine.”
“No problem. I’m on it.” Tony spun around and got within a foot of the wall and yelled, “Hey, a-holes, you hear me?”
Diplomatic, Tony was not, but loud he was.
Someone should respond. I had clearly been hearing noises on the other side of the reeds since we’d been deposited here. Mostly kid voices that sounded as though they were in a play area.
Laughable to think children played in this place.
Tony balled his fist and smacked it on the wall, only to earn a quick blast of energy zapping him. He jerked his hand back, yelping. “You sorry-sack-of-skunk-crap! Man, that stings.”
“Try your feet?” I suggested. “The soles might insulate you from the shock.”
“Why don’t you try, Xena?” Tony demanded, still shaking his hand, no humor anywhere in his voice. “Instead of givin’ orders. Do somethin’.”
“Fine.” I stood and approached the nearest wall, giving it a solid thwack with my sneaker-covered foot. That earned me a small tingle, but nothing like the static power that had surged when I’d hovered my palm near the reeds earlier. I raised my voice and shouted, “You? Out there. We need medical assistance. Now!”
“And food,” Tony called from the other side of the cramped room before mumbling, “Who asks for ‘medical assistance’? This isn’t a five-star hotel.” Then he put more force in his voice again. “More water, too.”
But nothing happened.
Except the voices had quieted.
I thought back on Zilya’s reaction to Gabby. The blonde who acted like a queen had expected Gabby to know what she’d been talking about with houses. Zilya and Mathias had taken issue mostly with Tony, and maybe me, but not Gabby. That gave me an idea. I raised my voice. “Tell Mathias the Gabby girl needs help. She could be dying.”
I looked over at Gabby quickly and mouthed the words, Not true.
Gabby, being the astute person she was, offered a tight, small nod.
I wished there hadn’t been some truth in my claim. That she didn’t look as if she could get sicker, and die, if we didn’t get help.
Tony and I kept the shouting up, sometimes one at a time, sometimes both together, until our voices sounded hoarse, our throats raw.
In fact, even the scurrying noises around the chamber had diminished.
So maybe we were making some progress. But not much and not soon enough if the pain lines on Gabby’s face were any indication. Sweat glistened everywhere. Blotchy pink patches covered her death-white skin.
Tony opened his mouth for another blast, but I waved him off. “Save your energy. We have to find another way.”
Gabby glanced at me, her voice fighting to sound strong, but coming out thin. “What about what you did to the attack-vine earlier?”
I’d hoped that wouldn’t come up for discussion again.
Tony glanced at me, his expression confused. “Yeah, how’d that vine just die?”
I crossed the room to squat by Gabby again, buying myself a few minutes. Gabby and Tony wanted answers. So did I, but I didn’t have any. I finally offered what I could. “Let’s say I didn’t do anything consciously.”
“So what? You were knocked out and somethin’ happened?” Tony demanded, looking for a scientific answer he could wrap his head around.
“No, more like a thought.”
“A get-us-out-of-this-mess thought?” Tony’s tone made it clear he labeled that answer as woo-woo.
Too bad it was the truth, or as close to the truth as I could manage.
Gabby managed a weak smile of reassurance. “Whatever you did, you saved our lives, Rayen. Thanks.”
“She also managed to get us stuck here in the first place if her touch–as you pointed out–is doing these things.” The stress of worrying about his life had brought back the abrasive Tony. He glared at me as if I’d planned the trip through the computer. “That crazy girl wants me dead and if that happens I let people down. If you don’t get us out of this hell-hole, I’m so going to kick somebody’s ass.”
Tony had a moment when I thought he’d say yes, but he shook his head. “I don’t hit girls, but I wouldn’t mind going a round with that Callan.”
He gained a bit of respect from me for his personal code, but did Tony really think he could match up with Callan? He’d earn my appreciation if he’d just shut his broken trap. My body ached from toe to head. I had no idea who I was or how I’d ended up in this mess. And I was tired to the bone, mostly of taking grief all day. “I’d take care threatening Callan.”
Tony scoffed at me. “Where I come from we’d eat a pretty boy like him for lunch.”
When I didn’t reply, Tony taunted, “What’s the matter, Xena? No come back?”
Out of ideas and patience, I stood up, ready to give Tony the target he’d been wanting.
The changes in my stance should have warned him I had no tolerance for aggression right now, but he just kept on pushing me. “How’d you even end up in Suarez’s class to begin with anyhow? That ain’t a class for the short bus kids...or criminals.”
Whatever a bus was sounded even more insulting this time.
Ready to silence that mouth, I took one step forward then stopped. I suddenly sensed another presence inside the hut.
What the . . .?
The old man I’d seen back when I’d first opened my eyes in the desert took a filmy shape beside Gabby. Sitting with legs crossed, he hovered a foot above the ground again, speaking in that gravelly voice. “A warrior fights to defend others and for honor. A child strikes out in anger. There is no place for a child on this journey.”
Easy for you to say. But as long as Ghost Man was back, I could use more information.
“Who am I?” I asked before the vision could vanish again. I might not make it back to the school to learn what had been discovered about my family. But here was a chance. Maybe my only one.
Tony stopped jawing and for a blessed moment went silent.
Gabby paused in rocking to look up at me with curiosity swimming through her mismatched eyes. She glanced next to her at the empty spot where I stared then back at me and whispered, “You okay, Rayen?”
Neither she nor Tony seemed able to see the old man.
How could I answer that when I questioned my sanity at the moment? I kept my eyes on the filmy figure. “Answer me.”
The ghost with the weathered face had been staring off into the distance. His gaze shifted to meet mine. “You know what you need to know for now.”
Fury boiled up my throat. “Who. Am. I? Either tell me or stay away from me you old goat.”
Tony whistled behind him. “She’s gone completely off the reservation, Gabby.”
“Just shut up, would you,” Gabby snapped, sounding weaker than before.
I glanced away from the vision long enough to check on her. When I looked back up the old one was gone. Fine. Like I need one more animal in this zoo?
“So now you’re talking to invisible friends, Xena?”
Clenching my hands into tight knots of frustration, I stepped toward Tony, determined to shut that yapping trap.
Tony’s eyes widened in surprised. His hands curled in reaction and he came up on his toes, prepared to defend himself. “You gonna use your super juice on me?”
“Cut it out,” Gabby grumbled. “We need to work together, not fight amongst ourselves. Doing that plays into their hands.”
I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to do something to burn off the frustration churning my insides.
The old man’s voice whispered in my mind. Are you a warrior or a child?
I stopped in the middle of the hut, but couldn’t say if it was out of deference to Gabby or the old man’s taunts. “She’s right. If we allow them to divide us they’ll win.”
Gabby groaned and bent over.
I dropped down next to her. “What’s happening?”
“I can’t close my hands. My arms feel like...the muscles are hardening.”
Tony squatted on the other side of her and carefully lifted hair from her neck then hissed and pointed to gain my attention without speaking.
Leaning closer, I saw what he was trying to keep Gabby from knowing. The red lines were climbing up and around her neck. If the muscles in her neck hardened, she wouldn’t be able to breathe.