“Finally, they bring me a pretty one,” Oaks said, grinning down at Natalie. He was tall and thick like an oak tree, but instead of bark, his massive trunk was wrapped in a rubber apron. “I was getting tired of those homely boys. This one, I can have some fun with.” He stroked Natalie’s cheek with his gloved hand. She jerked her head away.
“This is the last one in the dungeons,” said the guard who had dragged her in—not kicking and screaming, but quiet and calm, ready to accept her part in the suffering her friends had endured. “If you don’t get it from her, I guess you’ll have to start all over with the first one again.”
“Oh, I’ll get it from her.” Oaks was practically drooling when he said that. “I can tell by lookin’ at her, she wants to talk to me. Ain’t that right, Beauty?” His hand reached for her cheek again.
Oaks hand froze in midair. “Duchess.” He peered back toward the doorway, into a face that looked anything but royal.
“And don’t look so surprised. You know, it’s against protocol for you to interrogate a female.”
“With all due respect, Duchess, protocol don’t mean much down here.”
“Obviously, it does, because the princess summoned me down here on my day off to do the interrogation.”
She took a step toward the girl and Oaks threw himself in front of Natalie, almost shielding her from the Duchess’ view. “No. Not necessary! I’ve done all the other interrogations. I-I know the questions to ask. It’s only fitting that I get to do this one too. I want to.”
“You’ve done all the interrogations and got nothing to show for it. Step aside, Oaks.”
“No! Th-that’s not true. They’re ready, now. They’re almost ready to break. I won’t let you come in and steal the credit for—”
“Mr. Oaks!” The Duchess bellowed and the giant man couldn’t help but flinch. “We are here to perform a service for the princess. Not to satisfy our own personal desires. Now, step aside immediately and let me perform my duties. Or you’ll answer to her Highness.”
Oaks stepped away and peeled off his rubber apron. As he slinked out the door, the Duchess added, “The princess wants you to report to the arena and assist with preparations for the executions.”
At the word “execution,” Oaks looked back and grinned.
“I figured you’d be happy,” the Duchess said then turned her attention to Natalie.
The funk of her breath assaulted Natalie’s nostrils before the woman even opened her mouth. She smiled, revealing her rotted teeth. “Hello dear. My name’s Duchess.”
Natalie looked past the blackened teeth to the pock marks on her face and stringy, prematurely, gray hair. “No offense. But you don’t look like a duchess.”
“It’s just a nickname. I’m the Duchess of the dungeons. It’s my home you and your friends been staying at these past few days.”
“Thank you for having us.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. They didn’t drag me in here on my day off to serve you milk and cookies. I came to get results.”
“Well, I’m sorry that you wasted your time. I don’t have anything to offer you.”
“If you didn’t, you’d be dead already.”
Natalie wasn’t moved. The guards had been threatening death since they arrived. And the only thing all those threats did was convince Natalie that they were not actually going to die.
The Duchess could tell by the smug look of the pretty girl’s face, she was not afraid. She had performed dozens of interrogations and, every once in a while, she came across one who thought she had nothing to fear. Until the Duchess gave her a reason to be afraid.
She turned a dial on the wall and a low hum filled the room. From a tiny tray, the Duchess picked up a black rubber disk and held it up to Natalie’s mouth. Instinctively, Natalie sealed her lips and turned her head away. “Trust me, hon. You’re gonna want this. Otherwise, you’ll bite your tongue clean off when I sting ya.”
Sting me? Natalie remembered when Teal limped back to his cell. There was a burnt smell that followed him. He described the sensation of burning hot acid shooting through his body, as if all of his organs were being boiled. That’s what it felt like when he got stung. Electrocuted. Somehow, he had survived it. She would too.
Natalie opened her mouth and nearly gagged on the hard rubber mouth guard that had been crammed into her mouth. The Duchess hummed a little tune and she slipped on her rubber gloves. “Now, I’m not gonna lie, it’s gonna hurt. And it’s gonna leave scars on this pretty skin of yours. So, don’t feel like you gotta prove anything, here. It’s just us girls. Or you can tell me what I wanna know and save yourself a whole lot of sufferin.”
Natalie glared back at her, defiantly.
“No?” The Duchess held up the red cable clamp close to Natalie’s face and the hairs on her body stood at attention. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
For a moment, Natalie blacked out. She thought she had blacked out, but the searing pain from the jolt of electricity had caused her to slam her head against the back of the chair. Fire. Her body felt like it was on fire and her heart nearly exploded in her chest. When the surge of pain stopped, Natalie’s throat went dry and ached, from the strain of her muted scream. How was she going to get through this? How could she take another acid-like sting and not tell all of her secrets? All of the training, the mental techniques from the Academy, all of it had been blasted out of her brain with the first jolt.
Just give into it, Nat, she told herself. Let it take you, let it kill you. Then the Duchess loses. Just let go.
Astrid woke with a start. The effect of Edgar’s tranquilizer had been the deepest sleep for Astrid, accompanied by wave after wave of bizarre dreams and nightmares. Since there were no windows in her tiny room, she had no sense of day or night. The only reason she knew it might be nighttime was because, Silver, who was supposed to be keeping watch over her, was sound asleep. So much for her bold escape plan. All it earned Astrid was a sleeping guard, now camped inside of her room, and a very sore arm from the injection—oh, and it earned her yet another reason to despise Chance. To hate herself for being gullible enough to ever believe he loved her.
But she wouldn’t give up. Astrid had resolved to keep plotting her escape, until she was free, or die trying—whichever came first. And yet every time she pieced together a half-way plausible plan of escape, Astrid found her sucked back into deep sleep by the tranquilizer. This time, she was not greeted by another dream, nor nightmare, it was a memory.
Five years old and wailing uncontrollably. It was back in the days when Astrid had no voice. Back before she drank from the healing spring, so the only thing that came out of her mouth when she cried was a muted moan that seemed to carry on forever. Her mommy would never let her cry that long, neither would Nanny Uma. This was the rare day when both women were away from the palace. Nanny Uma on a scheduled holiday. Queen Madelyne, off somewhere planning some sort of a birthday surprise for her girls.
When it was clear that no one else was going to silence the girl, King Cal had no other choice but to handle it himself.
“Astrid, stop…Stop...” Cal stepped into the princesses’ bedroom and surveyed the scene. Vega was sitting on her bed, flipping through a picture book, completed unaffected by her sister’s groaning. Astrid—the source of the commotion—sitting on the floor, holding her blue teddy bear. “Stop it, Astrid.” He never knew what to do with her when she was worked up like this, afraid to even touch her because she seemed so fragile to him.
Cal turned Vega. “What’s the matter with her.”
Vega shrugged. “What isn’t the matter with her?”
“That’s no help, Vega.” He sighed and turned his attention back to Astrid. “Enough of this, young lady! Only babies cry. And you are not a baby. I need you to be a big girl and tell me what’s wrong.”
Like a loyal subject, Astrid obeyed her father the king. She willed herself to stop crying. Took a deep breath to regain control. Next, she formed both hands into little fists, tucked her thumbs up between her index and middle fingers, and the twisted her hands back and forth. TOY.
The king looked confused.
More earnestly, she took her two fists and put them side by side then yanked her fists apart like she was breaking something. BROKEN.
When the king looked even more lost, Astrid sighed in frustration. The only one more frustrated was the king. “You know don’t I don’t know sign language...Vega, what’s she saying?”
“How should I know?”
“You’re taking lessons, aren’t you?”
“Sometimes. But they’re so boring, Daddy?”
“Still, you need to learn to communicate with your sister. It’s important to—”
In the time it took for the king and Vega to debate the importance of Vega learning sign language, Astrid had grabbed a crayon from her desk, wrote a note, and handed it to her father:
She wrote in surprisingly neat handwriting for a five-year-old. Then plopped Blue Bear to his lap.
“Toy broken,” the king read out loud. He examined Blue Bear and saw now that his button eyes were missing. “Who broke your toy?”
This may have been news to the king, but for weeks Astrid had been aware of a serial toy killer—her toys—roaming the palace. A Toy Troll, Queen Madelyne had named it. They didn’t know who was responsible—though Astrid had her suspicions. Her suspicions were confirmed today, after lunch, when she walked into her room and caught the culprit, plucking the button eyes right out off of Blue Bear’s plush fur. Astrid pointed an angry finger and the king’s eyes followed it in the direction of Vega.
Not an ounce of guilt in her expression. “It’s not my fault.”
“Then whose fault is it?”
“The people who keep buying us the same toys. Just because we’re twins, doesn’t mean our toys need to be identical. How am I supposed to tell Astrid’s toys from mine?”
“Okay…but why break the toy?”
Vega shrugged and said, “Because!” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Astrid is deficient. Her toys should be deficient too. That way we’ll know which toys are hers and which toys are mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
To Astrid’s horror, her father seemed to be accepting this ridiculous explanation. No way. She couldn’t allow it. She grabbed the king’s hand and dragged him to a corner of the room, to a cardboard box full of broken toys. Dolls with missing limbs, stuffed dogs with the stuffing pulled out. A tiny wooden horse on three legs.
“You broke all of her toys?”
“No…Not all of them,” Vega said sweetly, “Just the ones that were like mine.”
That wasn’t the outrageous part. The true outrage, the king still hadn’t noticed. Astrid pointed, emphatically, to the side of the box. Written in big clunky letters, Vega’s handwriting: F-A-S-I-L-I-T-E-E.
The king tried to sound it out. “Fas-il-i—”
“Facility, daddy. The box is a facility. That’s where broken things go, right?”
“Yes, Vega…Yes, they do. But you shouldn’t have broken your sister’s toys.”
“I was only trying to—”
“I know, I know…” He patted her on the head. “And Astrid, your sister made a mistake, so you—”
Astrid didn’t want to hear it. She went back to her desk and wrote: ON PURPOSE!
King Cal was tickled by this. He paid no attention to the message, but for the first time, in a long time, he paid attention to the messenger. “This is amazing. I had no idea you could write so well, Astrid. Vega can you write like this too?”
“Why should I, Daddy? I can speak.”
He nodded, barely paying attention to what Vega said. He was too busy marveling at Astrid. “Write something else for me, Astrid.”
Astrid grinned and carefully wrote out the words: I LOVE YOU, DADDY
And she put a little heart at the end of it.
She heard the king gasp. Caught off guard by these words so clearly expressed by Astrid. It’s not like she never signed them to him before. Plenty of times. But it was if those words never resonated with him. Not like seeing them written by her, right before his eyes. In response, the king did something that caught Astrid off guard.
He hugged her. King Cal put his burly arms around her and said softly, “I love you too.”
Astrid sank into his arms, getting lost in the strength of them and the sandalwood notes of his cologne. The only thing that could pull them out of this moment, the sound of Vega sobbing.
Never to be outdone, Vega turned her own display of waterworks.
“Vega. What is it, my love? Why are you crying?”
“I-I’m sorry, daddy. I didn’t mean to make Astrid sad. I thought I was helping.”
“Of course, you were, princess. And Astrid understands. Don’t you, Astrid?”
What else could she do, but nod in agreement.
“See? Astrid forgives you.”
By then, Vega had worked herself up to near hyperventilation and said between gasps for air, “…but…do…you…forgive…me…Daddy?”
“Forgive you?” He held open his arm and Vega raced right in. “My future queen never needs my forgiveness.”
He started out holding both girls, but Vega managed to slowly squeeze Astrid out of his arms. Astrid could have hung in there longer, but thought it would be silly to get into a shoving match with her sister just to stay in her father’s arms. She scooted out of the way and went back to her crayons, drawing pictures of her and Daddy dancing together. Meanwhile, Vega looked up at the king and said, “Dance with me, Daddy.”
At once, the king scooped her up and led Vega in the fanciest of all waltzes. While being spun around by her father, Vega took a quick peek at her sister, trying so hard to look like drawing a picture could be anywhere near as fun as the real thing. And just to make sure Astrid knew where the real fun was, Vega sang a beautiful melody, in perfect harmony with her father’s waltz.
It didn’t matter to Astrid. She remembered falling to sleep that night with a smile on her face. She beamed at being so close to her father and hearing him tell her that he loved her. She knew that he loved her. Her mother was always telling her how much her father really, really loved her, even though he wasn’t the best at showing it. But it was something special to actually hear him say it.
Even better, when Astrid woke the next morning, she found Blue Bear tucked in the bed beside her. His button eyes had been restored.
Astrid sat up to find her mother picking broken toys out of the cardboard facility box.
“Good morning, Astrid,” Queen Madelyne said, cheerfully. Her voice had stirred up Vega too. “Good morning, Vega.”
“Morning, Mommy.” Vega said as she yawned.
Astrid could hardly contain her excitement. She signed, “Blue Bear is all better!”
“Yes, love. Blue Bear is all better. I had Nanny Uma give him magical eyes, this time.”
“Magical!” That made Vega sit up. “What makes them magical?”
Madelyne walked over and sat on the edge of Vega’s bed. “Oh well…If he spots that Toy Troll bothering Astrid’s toys again, he has the ability to put that troll in time out.”
And magically, Astrid’s toys were bothered no more.
Why am I thinking about this? Astrid wondered to herself, as she laid on that mattress. Even now, after her memory had been restored, she hadn’t thought about the Toy Troll, or Blue Bear. Blue Bear, whom she had left with Uncle Russ before leaving for the Never Mind.
Why am I thinking about this? In the darkness of this tiny room, in the bowels of the palace, that memory was a light. A warm moment, that Astrid clung to as hope. Confirmation that if she could just get to her father, if she could somehow get word to him, that little spark of love he had displayed that day, so many years ago, would take over. And she would be saved.
All she had to do was figure out a way to let her father know. To get word past this guard, past Edgar, past Chance, and then past Vega.
"Maybe I could find a way to climb…” The tranquilizer pulled her back into another round of sleep before Astrid could finish that thought.
Alone in the forest, it was easy to forget the mission. To let one’s mind wander into happier times, climbing trees or playing hide-and-go-seek. These trees were made for happier times. But there was no time for happy thoughts. Quiet, secluded, with only the rustle of leaves to keep him company, Chance never lost sight of his objective. Now that he was able to separate himself from the other soldiers and get lost deep in the woods, he was able to focus.
When he first returned to Oceali, it took a moment for Chance to get over the devastation. He left under cover of darkness the last time, so he didn’t really get a chance to take in how much the island had changed. A few strategically placed bombs and a paradise had been transformed into a war zone.
This was Vega’s work, he thought to himself, as soon as he stepped off of the helicopter. Vega’s work. Heavy-handed and over the top. If he had been in charge—which he clearly hadn’t been—but if he had been, he would have taken a stealthier approach. Keep the island under surveillance. Identify the weak points then ease in through the openings. Keeps casualties to a minimum and leaves more to salvage once the invasion is complete. There wasn’t much to salvage here.
Half of the Academy’s campus was still intact, just deserted. The rest of it was a charred ruin. After leaving the helicopter, Chance found himself up in the room where they had held him, chained to a bed. The place where he got to know a different version of a girl he had known so well. He took a seat on the same bed where he once charmed Astrid, wooing her until she couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Chance was really good at that. His instructor back in cadet school told him that he was “gifted at making people believe whatever he wanted them to believe,” and it had certainly come in handy this time.
Sitting on the bed, Chance looked out the window and took in the scene. He had spent countless days staring out of this window, watching the kids come and go in and out of colorful buildings. Laughing and carefree. Oblivious to the enemy watching from the window; and the danger that would soon drop out of the sky and blow their happy little world to pieces. Now, there were no kids and hardly any buildings.
“No wonder they couldn’t find any healing waters,” Chance chuckled to himself. “They’ve blown the whole island apart.” He had almost forgotten that the chapel was right across from his window. The only thing left of it was a crumble of stucco, wood, and terracotta tiles.
A thought passed through Chance’s mind. “That’s where I always go for answers.” He remembered Astrid saying those words to him about the chapel.
“It couldn’t be that easy,” he muttered to himself.
The place where Astrid went for answers. The place intended for spiritual healing. Could it also be the source of the Never Mind’s physical healing too? Did they actually build the chapel on top of the healing spring?
He laughed out loud. “No wonder they can’t find it.” It was buried under a ton of rubble. And it was no surprise that Vega couldn’t find it. He suspected that she hadn’t set foot inside of a chapel since her mother died.
This had to be it. It was so out there, so public, so hidden in plain sight, that this had to be where the healing waters were stored. Chance was sure of it. The next question was: How to retrieve them? The answer was simple. He couldn’t. Not in time for the king’s deadline. Which was why Chance found himself presently roaming deep in the forest. He saw only one option and there was very short window to make it happen.
As he walked, he called. The Daughtry Boy’s call. Two hands cupped to his mouth, Chance made the sound of a loon. A sound that bounced off the trees and echoed back to his ears. He had been at it for hours. Taking a few steps, doing the call then waiting for a response. Nothing. The sun was starting to set. They would be looking for him to return soon. He kept calling.
It was starting to sink in that he was wasting precious time. It was the longest of longshots, anyway, that he would get a response. And even if he did get a response, would it be the response he had been looking for?
He kept calling.
Out there all alone, with no one knowing where he was, Chance was well aware that someone from the Underground could shoot him dead and it would be months before anyone ever found him—what was left of him.
He called again. Then pulled out his flashed light. It was getting too dark to see with his natural eye. He’d have to turn around soon. His tracking ability was strong, but even Chance would have a hard time finding his way back through an unfamiliar forest, overly thick with vegetation, in the dark.
He called again.
And then came the response.
The same loon call, fainter and higher pitched, like it came from a boy.
Chance turned and shined his flashlight around until it landed on a pair of big, round eyes, staring back at him from behind a bush.
“Hey there, little Byrd,” Chance whispered. He took a step toward Alfred, who took a step back. “How are you? You hungry? I brought you some cookies.” Chance dipped into his pocket and pulled out a little bag of cookies. He offered them to Alfred, but the boy was frozen. “It’s okay, Al. It’s just me. You’re safe.” Chance could tell by the look on Alfred’s face, he wasn’t so sure that he was safe. Not with Chance. “I see. You don’t trust me anymore.”
Alfred shook his head.
Chance approached, slowly. “Your friends must have told you that I hurt Astrid. That I brought all of this misery to the island.”
That set Alfred off, launching himself into an angry tirade through sign language. Chance had no idea what he was saying.
“Hold on, Al. I don’t understand. Wait…Stop!” Standing right in front of him, Chance knelt down to look him in the eyes. “I get that you’re angry, but there’s no time for that now. Astrid’s in danger.”
That got Alfred’s attention.
He signed something else that Chance couldn’t understand, but he tried respond anyway. “Yes. Astrid. She’s alive, for now. But not for long unless you help me.”
Alfred nodded emphatically: Yes of course. Anything for Astrid.
“I need you to bring me some healing water.”
Alfred’s eyes darkened and he stepped back again. He shook his head.
“It’s not for me, little Byrd. It’s for Astrid.”
Alfred shook his head even more emphatically.
Chance’s radio sprang to life and Alfred jumped. “Kane. Check in.”
At the sound of the enemy’s voice over the radio, Alfred tried to run but Chance grabbed him and covered his mouth, out of reflex, as he momentarily forgot that the boy couldn’t speak.
“Check in, Kane.”
“It’s Kane. I’m on the southwest side, about to head in now.” He turned his attention back to Alfred. “Listen, little Byrd, I’ve gotta go. I can’t force you. All I can do is say it again, Astrid needs your help. I know you don’t trust this uniform, but I need you to trust me. Trust this...” He pointed to the Daughtry Boy symbol tattooed on his arm. Identical to the one seared into Alfred’s arm. “Daughtry Boys stick together.”
She was still there. Somehow, Natalie hadn’t figured out how to let go. She didn’t need to let go, just hold on. As bad as it was when the pain seared through her, Natalie realized that, as soon as the sting ended, the pain did too. She just had to endure the eternity of the eight seconds or so of electricity coursing through her body. Then the pain would cease. And for all of her tough talk, it was clear to Natalie that the Duchess didn’t have that stinger on a kill setting. She had endured the last three zaps by pretending, with each one, that’s what it would feel like to kiss Owen. Each time the clamp came into contact with her skin, she imagined her lips coming into contact with Owen’s lips, sending a surge of energy through her and leaving her breathless.
It was a childish, schoolgirl solution, but she was technically still a schoolgirl and it was working for her.
The Duchess was surprised. She hadn’t expected Natalie to last through one sting—and certainly not three. They could only give five stings before the worn out old electric box started smoking. She took a break while she thought of her next approach. “Ya know, we’re not cruel down here,” she announced, between sips of water. “That’s why the princess sent me instead of leaving you in the hands of the big dumb Oak. We females have to look out for each other, right?”
Natalie grunted something, so the Duchess pulled the mouth guard out of her mouth so she could speak.
Natalie’s words were faint, barely audible.
“Speak up, girlie, I can’t hear ya.”
Natalie strained to raise her voice and the Duchess caught the tail end of, “…up comes the sun and dries up all the rain and the itsy-bitsy spider…”
The Duchess laughed, a dry, hacking, coughing laugh. “Now that’s funny. I’ve heard a lot of things, but I can honestly say, I ain’t never heard that one before. I gotta be honest with you, girlie. I didn’t think you were that tough. A pretty girl like you. I thought you’d fold after the first sting…But you impressed me.”
She held a cup of water to Natalie’s mouth and she lapped it up like a thirsty dog. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a shame to kill you.”
Natalie kept drinking, still unmoved by all the talk of killing. The water wasn’t cool and sweet like home, but it was wet, and her throat had become excruciatingly dry.
“Did they tell you? Two days. They’re getting everything ready now. Quick and painless. One shot to the head and it’s over. Well, I guess the painful part would be watching your friends die.”
Natalie stopped drinking.
“Didn’t know about that part either, huh? They make you sit there and watch as, one by one, your friends stand in front of the firing squad. That won’t be pretty.”
Natalie finally spoke up. “…At least they’ll be free,” though her voice was painfully horse.
“No, they’ll be dead. Now, is that little secret worth all that misery?”
It was, wasn’t it? Whatever this water was that the princess was so hot to get her hands on, it must have been priceless. For Highness to carry on this big secret right under her father’s nose. Risking the death penalty for all of them if they got caught, it must have been far more valuable than all the suffering in the world.
That’s when the Duchess realized, she was using the wrong currency against Natalie. This girl wasn’t moved by her own pain or suffering. The Duchess was learning that about these kids from the Never Mind. So, what did move her? She took a seat and studied Natalie more closely. What was it that would get her attention? The thing that the Duchess couldn’t get away from was her beauty. Perfect mouth, perfect nose. Perfectly tousled hair. Even matted with sweat from torture, not a single strand was out of place. A wave of hatred rose up in the Duchess.
She had known girls like this one, as a child. These girls always looked down on her like she was a deficient, when her only deficiency was that she hadn’t been born with the genes for perfect teeth and perfect hair. That’s who this girl was, strapped to the chair before her. Pretty and popular. The kind of girl who never had to lift a heavy object or kill a bug by herself. Who would never cry alone because there would always be some fool tripping over himself to offer his shoulder to cry on. That’s probably why she wasn’t fazed right now. She was expecting someone to come riding in to rescue her, once again. The pretty girl, riding off into the sunset, with her gorgeous mane of hair waving in the wind.
A sudden gleam hit the Duchess’ eye, as she smiled down at Natalie. “How about a makeover, girlie?”