Charlie was in complete darkness, but he told himself that he was not afraid. He had not put up much of a fight when he was jumped by two men from the Pen gang on his way back from the Pit. He had long since learnt what to expect when Faulkner wanted something from him. Even if somebody heard him, he knew better than to expect anyone’s help in Penumbra. It was better not to resist. That lesson had been drilled into him early on. His only thought was that, if it had to happen, it was better they took him from off the streets. At least he was putting no one he cared about in danger. They had finally come to a halt. By now, Charlie was too exhausted to be frightened. There was a searing pain in his head. He did not know how far from the Karbher Quarter they had taken him. Judging by the way his legs shook beneath him, however, he was sure they must have brought him to an entirely different part of the city. After spending the whole day underground, all he wanted to do was go home and lose himself to sleep. But that was not likely to happen anytime soon.
Pinioned between the two men who had attacked him, hooded as though he were a witch in the custody of Hunters being prepared for interrogation, Charlie strained to hear something beyond the pounding of his own heart. He needed to listen for anything that could provide him with a clue about the place where they had brought him. Everything was still. The only sound he could hear was that of the wind as it rustled through the grass. He shivered, goosepimples prickling along the bare skin of his arms. Then, out of the silence, there came a bored, drawling voice. It was one he recognised instantly. ‘Boys, our guest of honour has arrived. Let’s give him a proper welcome, shall we?’ Charlie flinched as a long-fingered hand touched the rough material covering his face, settling against his jaw. Faulkner’s movements were gentle and leisurely, betraying none of the violence for which Charlie remembered him best.
Charlie attempted to shake off his captors, but they were prepared for him. He was kept firmly in place between them as the hood was removed from his head. ‘Long time, no see, Charlie,’ Faulkner said, his breath tickling Charlie’s ear. Already accustomed to the darkness, Charlie’s eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom. His chest tightened as he realised where he was, and who was gathered around him. They had brought him to the Skoto Gate section of the Witchtrap Wall. They were on the outskirts of Penumbra, at the foot of the Elysian mountains. The perfect place to cover up anything they wanted kept hidden. He was surrounded by Pen boys. The younger ones circled him like dogs, while the senior members flanked their leader, Jay Faulkner.
Most of them were eyeing Charlie like he was a fox they had finally managed to get cornered. They looked as though they would like nothing better than to tear him to shreds right there and then. It was only their leader holding them back, and Charlie knew it. ‘Why am I here, Faulkner?’ he asked, steeling himself. ‘I told you before. I’m out.’ Faulkner let out a soft laugh, looking mildly impressed. ‘Come on now, Charlie, what sort of reunion is this? It’s been a long time. By now you must be, what, sixteen?’ To someone who did not know him, Faulkner might have almost sounded friendly. But Charlie recognised the ghoulish smile curling his lips.
He knew what it meant. ‘You’ve forgotten your manners in the time you’ve been away from us, I see. Perhaps I should refresh your memory. This is how you greet an old friend …’ Charlie had a split second to brace himself against the wave of disgust that rose up from the pit of his stomach. His eyes never leaving Charlie’s face, Faulkner stepped forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Charlie’s body, enveloping him in a crushing embrace. Charlie closed his eyes and forced himself to keep breathing. When Faulkner released him, Charlie staggered backwards, his ribs aching. It was only the support of his captors, who were still standing on either side of him, that kept him on his feet. ‘You don’t look so good, Carroway.’ Marko, a boy around his own age who Charlie recognised from the Pit, smirked at him from behind Faulkner.
‘It’s cold out there on your own, I’d guess.’ ‘You got what we need, Carroway?’ Mikhail, Marko’s older cousin, asked. ‘You know how this works. You do the job, you get to walk out of here in one piece.’ ‘He brought these out with him.’ One of the men holding Charlie tossed Mikhail a pair of bolt cutters. Charlie recognised them as the ones he had lifted from the storage shed before they took him from the mine earlier that evening. ‘They’ll do the job.’ ‘Can I go, then?’ Charlie snapped, as Mikhail withdrew into the shadows by the Wall. Faulkner directed a curt nod to the men guarding Charlie.
They released him but did not move away. Charlie rubbed his arms where their fingers had dug into his skin, trying to get some feeling back into them. Faulkner had already closed the distance between them. ‘Aren’t you curious as to why we brought you out here tonight, Charlie?’ Charlie felt Faulkner’s eyes roving over his face before he crouched down, making to tie the lace of his sneakers. His fingers edged towards the flick knife he kept hidden in his sock. ‘Don’t insult me,’ Faulkner said, and Charlie froze. He looked up to see a lazy smile playing around Faulkner’s face, and a pistol aimed between his eyes. ‘You know I don’t trust you with blades anymore, Charlie. Get back on your feet – slowly.’ Charlie stiffened as Faulkner trailed the handgun along the side of his face, his fingers brushing Charlie’s skin.
A ringing in his ears, Charlie forced himself to concentrate on counting the railings in the Skoto Gate. ‘What d’you want from me?’ he asked, his teeth gritted. ‘I don’t suppose you hear much news from the underground these days,’ Faulkner drawled, a glint in his cool eyes, ‘what with all those paternal responsibilities of yours keeping you busy.’ Charlie heard the blood pounding furiously in his head, even above the laughter of the gang. With deliberate defiance, he raised his eyes to the scarred side of Faulkner’s otherwise handsome face, and let his gaze linger there. Faulkner did not fail to notice. With a click of his fingers, Charlie was forced to his knees on the grass. Out of nowhere, the thought crossed his mind that the kids would probably still be awake, waiting for him to get home. The force of the blow across his face from Faulkner’s gun sent his head snapping to the side. His fingers found the metal collar at his neck, and he drew his nails over the skin beneath it.
He was so used to the feel of the cold band at his throat that he barely noticed the press of it there anymore. But sometimes his skin would itch. As though, somewhere inside of him, something was burning. At those times, scratching at himself was his only way of seeking relief. ‘Get moving, Carroway.’ Marko hauled Charlie to his feet and shoved him forward. ‘You’ve got what you needed from me.’ Charlie shook Marko off, glaring at Faulkner. ‘I did what you told me to do. I’m on first shift at the Pit again tomorrow, so unless there’s something else you want from me, stop wasting my time and let me go home.
’ ‘Not happy being so close to the Witchtrap, Charlie?’ Faulkner said, making no attempt to hide the mocking laughter in his words. ‘You’re not in any danger here. You’re among friends, remember? No one’s going to hurt you.’ Charlie shivered as laughter rippled through the gang again. ‘What’re you doing here?’ ‘All you really need to know is that the rules have changed. We’ve got some new, powerful friends. There’s a special product on the market, and it’s in high demand up there.’ Frowning, Charlie followed the direction in which Faulkner had jerked his thumb. His eyes came to rest on the dark castle nestled high in the Elysian mountains. From his seat on the High Throne, this was where Nikolai Ignatiev, the Great Protector of Matya, ruled with an iron fist.
It was thanks to him that the witch covens were kept at bay, and the people of Penumbra kept safe. As his gaze returned to Faulkner’s face, Charlie noticed something that made him freeze. Something was moving down below them in the shadows near to the Skoto Gate. Charlie recoiled, drawing closer to Faulkner despite himself, as a wave of fear washed over him. Faulkner patted him between the shoulder blades before Charlie shrugged him off. ‘Still not a fan of the dark, I see, Charlie,’ Faulkner said softly, and Charlie shuddered. ‘Keep them quiet,’ Mikhail warned, approaching the things moving in the shadows. At the sound of muffled whimpering and crying, Charlie forced himself to move forward, even as his legs screamed at him to stay away. He peered into the darkness, his eyes narrowed, trying to make out what was going on. He watched as a group of Pen boys led a procession of figures up to the Skoto Gate.
He counted at least thirty people shuffling through the shadows. Dotted amongst the prisoners, adult women supported the elderly, and groups of small girls clustered around older ones. They were dressed in ragged clothes and carried nothing with them at all. Some of them looked frightened, others numb. But it was clear that they were all exhausted. Their clothes, hair and faces were caked with dirt and dried mud. Charlie noticed that there were no men amongst the group, and only a couple of young boys. He rounded on Faulkner. ‘Who are they? What are you doing with them?’ ‘This is where you come in, Charlie,’ Faulkner said, throwing one arm around Charlie’s neck and gripping his right shoulder tightly. Charlie winced, as pain lanced through the mass of scar tissue beneath Faulkner’s fingers.
‘I couldn’t leave you out. Honestly, I expected you to be grateful. I thought you might at least want a piece of the action.’ ‘I don’t want anything to do with this,’ Charlie said, staring ahead, his jaw clenched. Most of the prisoners kept their eyes downcast, but one little girl stared back at him, her eyes wide. Her cheeks were stained with tears. Slowly, Charlie reached out a hand to comfort her, but she drew away from him at once. He backed off with a murmured apology. ‘Reminding you of those brats of yours, Carroway?’ Marko sneered. Charlie kept his eyes fixed on the little girl long after she had looked away.
‘What are you planning to do with them?’ He turned to face Faulkner, his fists clenched. ‘Where are you taking them?’ ‘You need to consider your options carefully, Charlie,’ Faulkner said. He threw a glance over towards Mikhail and the other gang members positioned along the Wall. ‘Hurry up and get them through. We’ve got another shipment coming in soon. We can’t afford any hold-ups.’ Charlie smirked and crossed his arms. ‘There’s nothing for me to think about.’ Faulkner was smiling again. ‘Now, Charlie, don’t get any ideas about being a hero.
’ Charlie frowned back, his grip tightening around himself, but he did not move. ‘Carroway’s smarter than that,’ Mikhail said, his eyes on Charlie. ‘He remembers what happened the last time he stepped out of line.’ At Mikhail’s words, Charlie’s hand shot to the small of his back, his shoulders tense. He caught sight of Marko’s simpering face and forced himself to look anywhere else. He focused on steadying his breathing as he reminded himself of what he needed to do. He needed to stay out of trouble. He was responsible for more than just himself now. What he had was not quite a family, but it was the closest thing to one that he could ever hope to have. He took a step backwards, away from the group of prisoners, a tight knot in his stomach.
‘If Carroway’s so smart,’ Marko said, as Charlie started to grind his teeth, ‘how come he hasn’t realised he can make some money out of those three kids he keeps around him?’ ‘Maybe it’s because you’re so much smarter than I am,’ Charlie began, his voice trembling as a wash of icy rage surged through his body, ‘but I don’t think I get what you mean.’ He met Marko’s eyes and refused to look away. ‘You want to make it clearer for me?’ ‘I’ll make it crystal clear,’ Marko said, approaching him, his face alight and hungry. ‘You have three brats to sell. We know plenty of people out there who would be happy to buy. We’d get our share, of course, but you’d get a cut too.’ ‘How generous.’ ‘You should be thanking me.’ Marko’s voice was rising. ‘I’m giving you a way to get them off your hands and make something out of them while you’ve still got the chance.
’ ‘It’s as simple as that, is it?’ Charlie’s hands were shaking now. ‘Nothing’s sacred in Penumbra,’ Marko said. ‘Possession is nine tenths. We’ve had eyes on your place for months. You think you can protect them from us forever?’ Charlie leapt towards him, his face so close to Marko’s that they were almost nose to nose. But Mikhail forced his way between them before either of them could make another move. ‘Enough,’ he said, shoving Marko away. ‘You have a job to do. Get it done.’ Faulkner sighed, and pushed his coiffed, ash blonde hair out of his eyes.
‘I would take you back, you know,’ he said, turning to address Charlie as Mikhail and Marko returned to the Witchtrap Wall. ‘If you would only apologise to me for what you did … and make it right.’ Charlie forced himself to remain calm. ‘And how would you like me to make it right?’ ‘You know what I like.’ His eyes never leaving Charlie’s face, Faulkner’s arm snaked its way around Charlie’s body. The tips of his fingers found the raised words branded on the small of Charlie’s back and brushed over them, one letter at a time. ‘I still owe you for running out on me three years ago …’ ‘Don’t touch me,’ Charlie spat, his voice low, his skin crawling. ‘You’d like to hurt me, wouldn’t you?’ Faulkner whispered, his lips at Charlie’s ear. ‘Try it and see what happens next. Or … are you planning to run away from me again tonight?’ ‘I said don’t fucking touch me,’ Charlie snarled, shoving Faulkner off him.
Without a backwards glance, Charlie turned and headed towards the slums of the inner city. He was moving as fast as his legs would carry him without breaking into a run. He needed to put as much distance between himself and Faulkner as he could, as fast as he could. He untied his black sweatshirt from around his waist and pulled it on, feeling the immediate relief of having his skin covered. Shoving his balled-up fists into his pockets, Charlie kept his head down, concentrating on trying to force himself to stop shaking. Faulkner’s furious voice rang out behind him. ‘I own you, Charlie Carroway. Never forget that! You should spare a thought about what’s best for that little family of yours before you think about turning your back on me again.’ ‘Stay away from my family.’ Charlie refused to stop, or chance a look over his shoulder.
‘Or you’ll regret it.’ His shoulders hunched, his jaw set, Charlie made his way through the dark city streets of Penumbra, back to his family, and the home they shared in the Karbher Quarter. Once he had put a healthy amount of distance between himself and Faulkner and the Witchtrap Wall, some of the tension gradually started unknitting from his body. Slowly, he unclenched his fists. A thin sheen of rain was falling, the light of the moon making the uneven pavement glitter beneath his feet. Wisps of cloud drifted across the pitch-black sky. From overhead, the low rumble of helicopters somewhere in the distance sent Charlie further into the shadows. Pulling the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, he gritted his teeth, and waited until they had passed him by. The last thing he needed was to attract the attention of the military police. It was long past curfew, and he could not afford to get himself arrested.
Once the noise had faded away, he stepped out into the middle of the street again, scowling. With a sigh, he kicked a stone through a small puddle of water. He paused, staring over his shoulder, his thoughts still on the little girl he had seen by the Witchtrap Wall. Try as he might, he could not get her tear-streaked face out of his mind. The wind whispered behind him. Under the collar, the burning sensation beneath his skin was stronger and fiercer than he had ever felt it before. He released a sigh and turned away, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his sweatshirt. He was needed at home.