Shadow Bound – Rachel Vincent

If you live in the dark long enough, you start to forget what light looks like. What it feels like. You may remember it in an academic sense. Illumination. A possible source of heat. But after a while those abstract memories are all you have left, and they’re worth less than the memory of water to a man dying of thirst. I didn’t know how long I’d been in the dark. Long enough for most of the pain to fade into dull aches, though the latest batch of bruises would still have been visible, if anything had been visible. Long enough that I couldn’t remember what shade of gray the walls were. Long enough that when the light came on without warning, it blinded me, even through my closed eyelids. I’d lost all sense of time. I didn’t know when I’d last showered, or eaten, or needed the toilet in the corner of my cell. I didn’t know when I’d last heard a human voice, but I remembered the last voice I’d heard, and I knew what the sudden light meant. Light meant a visitor. And visitors meant pain.

The door creaked open, and my pulse leaped painfully—fear like a bolt of lightning straight to my heart. I clung to that one erratic heartbeat, riding the flow of adrenaline because I hadn’t felt anything but the ache of my own wounds in days. If not for the pain, I couldn’t have sworn I was still alive. “Kori Daniels, rise and shine.” Milligan was on duty, which meant it was daytime—outside, anyway. In the basement, it was always night. There were no exterior windows, and no light until someone flipped a switch. The dark and I used to be friends. No, lovers. When I was alone, I walked around naked just to feel it on my skin, cool and calm, and more intimate than any hand that had ever touched me.

The dark was alive, and it was seductive. We used to slide in and out of one another, the shadows and I, always touching, caressing. Sometimes I couldn’t tell where the dark ended and I began, and at some point I’d decided that division didn’t really exist. I was the dark, and the dark was me. But the darkness in the basement was different. It was false. Broken. Weakened by infrared lights I couldn’t see, but I could feel blazing down on me. Caging me. Draining me.

The shadows were dead, and touching them was like touching the stiff limbs of a lover’s corpse. “Kori,” Milligan said again, and I struggled to focus on him. On my own name. The guard shift change had become the ticking of my mental clock—the only method I had of measuring time. But my clock skipped beats. Hell, sometimes it skipped entire days. If there was a pattern to the granting of meals, and showers, and company, I hadn’t figured it out. They came when they came. But mostly, they didn’t. I didn’t sit up when Milligan came in.

I didn’t even open my eyes, because I didn’t have to. I hadn’t sworn an oath to him, and I hadn’t been ordered to obey him, so participation was at my discretion. And I wasn’t feeling very discretionary. I rolled onto my stomach on my mattress, eyes still squeezed shut, trying not to imagine how I must look after all this time. Skinny, bruised, tangled and dirty. Clad only in the same underwear I’d been wearing for days, at least, because humiliation was a large part of my sentence and I hadn’t been granted the privilege of real clothing. My period hadn’t come, which meant I wasn’t imagining not being fed regularly, and water came rarely enough that I’d decided I wasn’t being kept alive, so much as I was being slowly killed. I’d been a bad, bad girl. “Kori, did you hear me?” Milligan asked. I’d had no problem with him on the outside.

He’d respected me. At least, he’d respected the fact that the boss valued me. Milligan had never gotten grabby and he’d only leered when he thought I wasn’t looking. That was practically chivalry, on the west side of the city. Now, I hated him. Milligan hadn’t put me in the basement, in that rotten fucking cell of a room. But he’d kept me there, and that was enough. If I got the chance—if I ever got out and regained my strength—I’d put a bullet in him. I’d have to, just to show Jake Tower that I was down, but not out. Beaten, but not broken.

Milligan would be expecting it, just like I would, in his position. The door creaked open wider and I buried my face in the crook of my arm, nose pressed into the dirty mattress, braced for whatever would come. Prepared to turn myself off and make the world go away. That was the only way to survive in the basement. Convince yourself that whatever they do to you doesn’t matter. And really, it doesn’t. How can it, if you can’t stop it and no one else wants to? So I dug down deep, to a place where there was no pain and no thought. Not my happy place. Thinking of a happy place—any happy place—only reminded me that I wasn’t really there. That I never would be again.

I went to my empty place. “Tower’s on his way,” Milligan said. “I think you’re getting out.” My heart leaped into my throat, but I didn’t move. Surely I’d only heard what I wanted to hear. If I wasn’t careful, I sometimes imagined things, and there’s nothing more dangerous in the dark than unwarranted hope. “Kori?” he said, and that time my eyes opened. “You’re getting out today.” I sat up slowly, blinking furiously in the light, wincing over the residual pain from the gunshot wound in my shoulder. I’d heard him, but it took forever for the words to sink in, and even once they had, I didn’t let myself believe it.

It could be a trick. Jonah Tower—Jake’s brother—had told me I was getting out before, but he only said it so he could watch me suffer when I realized it wasn’t true. “If you’re lying, I’ll fucking kill you,” I croaked, my mouth and throat so dry my tongue felt like it had corners. “I’m not—” Milligan glanced down a hallway I couldn’t see as a set of firm, even footsteps echoed toward us. “Here he comes.” I swallowed a sob. I’d expected to die alone in this false dark. In these dead shadows. Milligan stepped back, and Jake Tower replaced him in the doorway, a steel-spined symbol of power and authority in his white button-up shirt and suit jacket, sans tie. I hated myself for how relieved I was to see him, when he was the one who’d locked me up.

I hated his clean clothes, and combed hair, and tanned skin. I hated the apple wood smoke clinging to his clothes from the grill, making my stomach rumble and cramp. I hated the slight flush in his cheeks that told me he’d had two glasses of red wine with his steak—never more, never less, because Tower was in control. Of everything. Always. Jake Tower was the heart of the Tower syndicate. We—the initiates—were the lifeblood of the organization, but Tower was the pump that kept us flowing through the veins and arteries of this living machine. He pushed the buttons and pulled the strings, and we belonged to him, all of us, bound into service, sealed in flesh, by blood and by name. We lived and died according to his will. And we obeyed because obedience was a physical mandate.

Even when our minds resisted, our bodies complied, helpless in the face of a direct order. But I’d found a loophole. I’d disobeyed the spirit of an order, if not the order itself, and as punishment, Tower had thrown open the gates of hell and shoved me inside. He’d locked me up and given Jonah free rein, and for all I knew, Jake had forgotten I even existed until… Until what? Until he needed me. Why else would he be here? Why else had he let me live, if my current state could even be called living? Tower’s nose wrinkled—I didn’t smell good—then he closed the door at his back and sat on the edge of the bare foam mattress covering the raised concrete slab that was my bed. He grabbed my chin and tilted my face toward the light, studying me. I knew what he saw, though there was no mirror in my cell. Bruises. Dark circles and sharp cheek bones. Split lips.

And the damage didn’t end with my face. I looked like hell and I felt worse. Tower looked…satisfied. “Does it hurt?” “You fucking know it hurts.” Everywhere. That was the whole point. With my existence reduced to fear, and pain, and dead shadows, surely I would never even consider another betrayal. “The lights?” I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. “Your idea?” Jonah wasn’t smart enough to think of something like that. Tower’s lips curled up in a small smile, like he’d just remembered some distant childhood pleasure.

“An irony I hope you fully appreciate. Absolute, inescapable darkness for the shadowwalker. Imprisoned by the source of your own abilities. How did that feel?” I am a Traveler. A shadow-walker. I can step into a shadow in one room, then out of a shadow anywhere else I want to go, within my range. I can see better in the dark than most people. Sometimes I can look into one shadow and see through another one, somewhere else, like looking through a periscope, or one of those paper-towel-roll telescopes we used to play with as kids. But the basement darkness was anemic, thanks to a grid of infrared lights, too high up for me to reach. So while my cell looked absolutely, claustrophobically dark to the naked eye, that darkness was too shallow for me to travel through.

The shadows were dead. I was trapped in the element that had always been my ally. My escape. How did that make me feel? Like I’d been betrayed by my own body. Like I was lost to the rest of the world. Like I no longer existed at all, which would have been easy to believe, if not for the pain anchoring me to the reality of my own miserable existence. But I wasn’t going to tell Tower that. “It sucked, on ice. Happy?” He said nothing. Whatever he wanted to tell me would come on his terms, and making me wait for it was just another way of making me suffer.

“Why?” I demanded, pissed off that my voice was as weak as the rest of me. “Why didn’t you just kill me?” He’d killed others for far less than what I’d done. “You needed to pay for your crimes, and others needed to know you were paying.” He said it like he might explain that grass is green, as if it should have been obvious, and the emptiness in his voice was the scariest thing I’d ever heard. “You told them?” “You were an object lesson, Korinne. I showed them.” He glanced at the slab of one-way glass in the top half of the interior wall, and my blood froze in my veins. I started to shake, and I couldn’t stop. “You let them watch?” He’d invited an audience to see me beaten, and broken, and humiliated, and… I closed my eyes against this new layer of humiliation. “Only those who needed to see.

” “Kenley?” No. Please no. I didn’t want her touched by this. I didn’t want her to know. If Tower was void of human emotion, Kenley was made of it, and she couldn’t defend herself. That was my job. Tower shook his head. “Your sister only knows that you’re alive. She’s anxious to see you.” I exhaled slowly and blinked back tears that would never fall, using them as fuel for the rage burning deep in my gut.

Fury that would have no outlet for four more years. Anger that would fester and burn as I planned for the day when I’d be the one throwing punches and spilling blood. Jake Tower would pay. Jonah would pay. Milligan and the other guards would pay. Everyone who’d watched would fucking pay. I would listen to them beg while they bled out on the floor. But I’d have to survive to get revenge, and to survive, I’d have to play Jake’s game. It was always his game, always his rules, and the only cards he dealt me were penitence and obedience. So I would play the shit out of penitence and obedience—anything to get out of the basement—and keep the cards I’d dealt myself up my sleeve.

Until it was my turn to deal. “I have an assignment for you, Korinne,” Jake said. “A chance to redeem yourself.” I said nothing, because nothing was required, but my pulse raced so fast I had to lean against the wall to steady myself. Milligan was right. I was getting out of the basement. “Ian Holt.” “Who?” I licked my lips, but my tongue was too dry to wet them, and now that I knew I was getting out, I found it hard to concentrate on the details, rather than the promise of regular meals, and showers, and relative freedom. “He’s a Blinder of extraordinary skill.” “You want him killed?” I’d never heard of him, which meant he wasn’t ours.

And if he could be used against us, he was a target. “I want him whole. Preferably unharmed.” “Another acquisition?” In the weeks before I was locked up, I’d done quite a few of them, collecting whoever Tower wanted for his pet project. “Only as a last resort. I want him on staff. Willingly.” Because forced bindings were never as strong as those entered into freely. “Holt hasn’t signed with anyone yet. In fact, he managed to stay completely off the radar until two days ago, when the JumboTron at an NHL hockey game caught him darkening the entire arena during a riot on the ice.

” “How do you know it wasn’t just a power outage?” “Because he blinded the arena from the outside in, starting at the perimeter and moving toward the ice from all sides equally. The general public thinks he’s just some idiot who saw the first lights go out before the camera did and pretended to be doing a magic trick. But I know what I saw, and I’m not the only one. Now that he’s been exposed, everyone wants him. I’ve officially extended an invitation, and he’s agreed to come to town as my guest and hear our pitch. You will be his liaison. You will show him the advantages of joining the Tower syndicate and make sure that he signs with us, or with no one.” “I’m not a fucking recruiter, Jake.” I’d been part of Tower’s personal security team. I’d killed for him.

I’d kidnapped for him. I’d done other things I desperately wished I could forget, but recruiting was a specialized skill—one I didn’t have. “I’m a soldier, and you need a salesman.” “You are whatever I say you are, and when Ian Holt gets here, you will be his recruiter. You will be his girlfriend, his best friend, his therapist, his mother, or his dog trainer, if need be. You will do whatever it takes to put a chain link on his arm.” For emphasis, Tower glanced at the two black interlocking chain links tattooed on my own arm—the flesh-and-blood binding tying me to him until my term was up. “Whatever it takes, Korinne. Do you understand?” I understood. “You want me to fuck him.

” And if I refused—if I refused anything Jake told me to do—resistance pain from violating my oath to him would shut my organs down one at a time until I died screaming. “I want you to give him whatever he wants. And if he wants you, then yes, you will bed him, and you better be the best he’s ever had, because if he refuses my mark, you will have to bring him in by force so I can drain him. And if that happens, I will kill you, and your sister will pay for your failure as you’ve paid for your latest mistake. She will serve out the years remaining on her contract in this room, under the same conditions.” My blood ran cold, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. “No one touches Kenley. You swore it when I signed on.” My little sister would be untouchable, in exchange for my service. “And you swore that you would guard my life and my interests with your own.

” Tower unbuttoned his shirt slowly, and I knew what he was going to do even before he pulled back the left half of the material to show me the fresh pink scar. “Your key card let the enemy into my house. Into my home, where my wife and children sleep. Your gun faltered where it should have fired, and I was shot in my own home, by my greatest enemy.” “I didn’t mean—” “You failed,” Tower insisted. “You broke your word, and I have no reason to keep mine. If Ian Holt does not sign with me voluntarily by the end of his visit, I will have you executed, and your sister will pay the pound of flesh you still owe.” Nausea rolled over me, and if I’d had anything to vomit, it would have landed in his lap. “You have two weeks to get back in shape and make yourself presentable. This is your last chance, Korinne.

Save yourself. Protect your sister. Get me Ian Holt.” * * * After Tower left, the lights stayed on, and I had several minutes to see the emaciated ruin my body had become. And to think. And to hate Jake Tower like I’d never hated anyone in my life. Then the door opened again, and my sister stepped into the room, a younger, softer reflection of the woman I’d been until Tower locked me up. Kenley gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth, then she spoke from behind it. “What did you bastards do to her?” Milligan stood behind her, staring at the floor.

“I never touched her. I just work here.” “Where the hell are her clothes?” Milligan shrugged. “This is how he sent her. You’ve got fifteen minutes to get her cleaned up.” He backed out of the room and shut the door. Kenley crossed the small space and set a canvas bag on the floor, then dropped onto her knees in front of me, brushing hair back from my forehead. “How long?” I asked, staring at the mattress while she dug in her bag. She pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to me. “Almost six weeks,” she said, and I could hear the sob in her voice, though she tried to hold it back.

“I’m fine.” I cracked the top on the bottle, scared by how much effort that took, then unscrewed the lid. I’d gulped half of it before I remembered I should go slow. “You’re not fine. I thought you were dead. Jake kept saying you were alive, but he wouldn’t let me see you. I was sure he was lying, just to keep me working.” Tears formed in her eyes and when she blinked, they rolled down her cheeks. “No. Don’t cry, Kenni,” I whispered, because they were listening.

They were always listening, and they were probably watching through the one-way glass. I licked the moisture from my lips. “Don’t ever let those steel-hearted sons of bitches see you cry. If they know you can be broken, they’ll fuckin’ break you just for sport.” Like they’d tried to break me. She nodded, jaw clenched against sobs she was visibly choking back. I opened my mouth to tell her it would be okay. I would make it okay. But then my stomach revolted, and I lurched for the toilet. I retched hard enough to wrench my injured shoulder, and the water came up.

It was too much, too fast. I should have known better. I’d been sipping half handfuls of clean water from the back of the toilet tank since the bottles had stopped coming, but that was different from gulping half a bottle, ice-cold. Kenley pulled my hair from my face and I sat up, wiping my mouth with the back of one bare arm. My stomach was still pitching, but there was nothing left to lose. “No one knew where you were.” She handed me the bottle again, and I rinsed my mouth, then spit into the toilet, thinking about how wrong she was. Some people knew where I was. Some of them had seen me, through the one-way glass. “Tower was shot, and you were shot, then he woke up and you disappeared.

What happened, Kori? No one knows what really happened.” What happened? I’d been buried in the basement, at the mercy of the monsters. But that wasn’t what she was asking. “Liv said she needed my help, so I went. But it was a trap. They were waiting for me. They took my key and used it to break in.” I was the breach in security that got one of our men killed, two more shot, and Tower’s prize blood donor—my murdered friend Noelle’s only daughter— taken. “Ruben Cavazos shot us both.” I ran my fingers over the dirty bandage on my shoulder.

I should have run, regardless of the risk. I would have run, if not for Kenley. I couldn’t leave her alone with Tower. Alone in the syndicate. My sister and I were a package deal, from start to finish. “You’re lucky he didn’t have you killed,” she said, but I shook my head. “He can’t. He still needs me.” I had no clue why I had to be the one to recruit Ian Holt, but if Jake didn’t need me, I would be dead. “Let’s get you cleaned up.

” She stood and headed for the canvas bag, but her shoulders were shaking and it took me a minute to realize why. “Kenley, this isn’t your fault.” I used the edge of the toilet to push myself to my feet. “Of course it’s my fault.” She dug in the bag and pulled out a bottle of shampoo, then crossed the room toward the narrow, curtainless shower stall in one corner. “I sealed the binding between you and Liv, so you have to do what she asks. Because of me.” Kenley was a Binder. A scary-good Binder. She was so good Jake hid her from the world, to protect her and every contract she’d ever sealed for him.

He kept her under twenty-four-hour guard, and he threatened me to control her, just like he threatened her to control me. “It wasn’t like that this time,” I insisted, as she turned on the shower—it only worked when they wanted it to. “Liv didn’t officially ask and I wasn’t compelled. I went to help her on my own.” Because it was the right thing to do. I was sure of that, even after everything that had come since. “It’s my fault you’re here in the first place, Kori.” Kenley aimed the shower spray at the opposite wall, then turned to look at me, arms crossed over her chest, and I sighed. I’d never been able to effectively argue with that one. But again, I had to try.

“I make my own decisions. We came into the syndicate together, and we’ll leave together.” Or not at all. “Four years,” I whispered leaning with my forehead against her shoulder, while stray droplets of water sprayed us both. “We can do four more years, right?” She nodded, but she looked far from sure. I’d been shot, starved, abused and locked in the dark for almost six weeks, but she was the one I worried about. Kenley was fragile, so I had to be strong enough for both of us. And Jake knew it. He knew what cards we held—what mattered to us—so he always won the game. “Let me see your shoulder.

” Kenley blinked away more tears, and I leaned against the wall for balance while she peeled medical tape and gauze from my gunshot wound. I’d done my best to keep it clean, and I’d taken all the antibiotics Jonah had brought in the first couple of weeks, back when I was being fed and showered regularly, because he was the bulk of my punishment. But then Jake had figured out that his brother wasn’t enough to break me, and that’s when the darkness and isolation had dropped into place around me. “It could be worse.” Kenley wadded up the bandage and dropped it on the floor. “The stitches have dissolved and it’s only a little red.” Which kind of figured, because the rest of me was black and blue. “Get cleaned up. He’s sending an escort for us in a few minutes,” she said, while I stepped out of my underwear and dropped my grimy bra on the floor. Kenley kicked them into the opposite corner, then stuck one hand under the water and grimaced.

“They could at least make it warm.” But they wouldn’t. The basement cells weren’t built for comfort. They were built for isolation and torture. They were built for hour after hour of darkness and silence, because when you can’t see anything and you can’t hear anything, you have no choice but to think about what you did, and how you would never, ever do it again. But here’s the thing. I would do it all over again, if I had the chance. I would take the gunshot wound, and the silence, and the darkness, and the worst Jonah could throw at me, if it meant sending Noelle’s kid back home where she belonged. I stepped into the shower and gasped as freezing water poured over my face and body. I let it soak my hair, then I opened my mouth and drank just a little, one hand propped on the tile wall for balance, because I hadn’t eaten in days, and the room was starting to spin.

While I washed my hair slowly, shocked wide-awake by the cold water, my sister pounded on the one-way glass. “She’s gonna need something clean to wear. Actual clothes, this time! And a towel!”

.

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