The elevator doors open to the dimly light basement hallway, which Ian swiftly enters to finally escape the cascading sparks. He reaches out to one of the deep gouges in the faded yellow walls and wonders if a bear is loose. It would not be the strangest thing he has recently seen, so he grabs a metal rod from a battered trashcan. Ian stares at the thick network of pipes in the ceiling, noticing that several of the valves dripping rusty water onto the warped floor. The few exposed bulbs that are working are set above crisscrossing boards, the wood nailed to the dense concrete. Approaching one of the strange barriers, he can barely discern the outline of an old frame. Squinting into the distance, he can only see one exit and carefully avoids the puddles to reach the polished door. The handle turns and the hinges move without a sound, allowing Ian to sneak in without being noticed.
A maze of cages and containers cause him to freeze and let the metal rod slip from his loose grip. The crimson lightning makes him think of Hell, which is enhanced by the howling screams drifting from the upper levels of Raven’s Hold. Shadowy forms move behind the bars and extend frail hands toward the newcomer. The nearest container shudders as whatever is inside pounds on the side and weeps. Ian moves away when he sees a stream of tears flowing toward the grating under his feet. Strong fingers grab him by the shoulder and pull him against cold bars, the other hand coming around to cover his mouth. He struggles against the prisoner until his thrashing causes both arms to pop out of their sockets and fall to the floor. A mournful wail erupts from the decrepit woman and she repeatedly bangs her head on the cage while Ian quickly gets away.
Keeping away from the cages and ignoring the noises from the containers, the young man weaves toward the brightly lit part of the chamber. The occasional raised voice echoes throughout the basement, but is devoured by the din created by the prisoners. For a brief moment, Ian swears he smells fresh pizza and someone is talking with their mouth full. Catching a glimpse of the distant area, he sees the end of a leather couch and a woman’s hand nervously tapping on the arm. Curiosity and caution battling in his mind, Ian is stopped when a familiar noise draws his attention to a small cage to his right.
The repetitive click of a camera forces him to get closer to the bars and his gloom-adjusted eyes make out the form of Rich. He can see that the bald man is becoming emaciated even though he has not been away for very long. The vacant look on his friend’s face remains unbroken even when Ian reaches over to tap his shoulder. A weak moan slips from Rich’s mouth as he continues clicking his camera, which is missing the strap and lens. With a stuttering sigh, the man leans forward to gnaw on the device and pays no attention to his departing friend.
Ian crawls under a cage with wheels to get a safe look at the source of the voices. He is not surprised to see Dr. Rutherford, the blonde woman sitting on the couch and glaring at her companions. She keeps a stern glare aimed at Dawn who is joyfully eating pizza and dancing to music that only she can hear. The brunette occasionally stops to throw uneaten crust at the doctor and unleash a flood of curses.
“As the person whose name is on the paperwork, I have every right to bring in any person I feel will benefit us,” Dr. Rutherford says, wiping some sauce off her cheek. She fixes her glasses and removes a piece of drool-covered crust from her lap. “Mr. Connors was perfect in the role of a low risk patient. His presence could have kept others at bay and a successful treatment would have cemented our declaration that we help others. Our more recent residents have all shown signs of being doubtful. Mr. Connors was part of the plan to keep us going and you ruined him, Ms. Addison.”
“I made him more fun, but I can’t take all of the credit,” Dawn replies while stripping out of her clothes. She bounds over to a closet to pull out a pair of crimson jeans and a black top, the garments fitting perfectly. “Besides, this lesson has nothing to do with him. I’ve gotten over you bringing him in without talking to me first. My issue is with Ginla . . . Cana . . . the sister. That’s a stupid move because, unlike the little puppy, people will look for her. You’re the one who put our home in danger.”
“I had nothing to do with her.”
“Then why is she here, Grace?”
“Because I wanted her here,” announces a deep, male voice.
Stepping out of a patch of shadows, a black-haired man joins the two women and finishes drying off from his shower. His slender body shows several scars that shift until they are where he feels like placing them. The stranger knows his mood will change his decision before too long, so he ignores the markings and wraps himself in a thick robe of feathers. Taking a seat next to Dr. Rutherford, he pats his lap and braces himself for Dawn to land on him. He kisses her deeply while his yellow eyes scan the area, the vibrant orbs pausing briefly on where Ian is hiding.
“Both of you must remember that this is my home,” the man calmly states while running a hand through Dawn’s hair. He hands a thick file over to the doctor, who quietly flips through the pages. “I appreciate all that you two do for me, but you’re not irreplaceable. My whims are what keep you here and possibly alive just as they do for the mice above. If I wish to do something new without your permission then that is my choice.”
“I understand that, sweetie, but I don’t like being in the dark,” Dawn coos, nipping at the man’s neck. A playful bite draws blood, which she quietly wipes up with a napkin. “This whole thing makes me feel like I’m being punished. I figured out a way to have fun with the little puppy even though I wouldn’t have chosen him. We don’t really send people home, Grace, so why bother faking it?”
“It’s all about keeping up appearances, Ms. Addison,” the doctor replies without looking away from the file on Ms. Nash. She smacks the man’s hand away when it creeps toward her shoulder. “There will be none of that. We’ve had this discussion before, Corvus. I’m here to help you and not be one of your broken playthings. That’s why I brought you Ms. Addison. Is she losing her luster?”
“I will eat your tongue in your sleep,” the brunette threatens with a territorial growl.
Corvus gently eases the woman off his lap and gets himself a beer from a cooler. “Please behave yourselves. I’m tired from having so much fun with the residents. It’s been so long since I’ve had a riot to interact with. Makes me feel alive and free instead of locked down here. Now, I believe you two are visiting to discuss Carla and Gina Nash. A beautiful creation, isn’t she? I erased her past life and replaced it with memories from that orderly with the head wound. There was nothing wrong with that one, but I wanted to fiddle. By the way, Grace, I need you to have one of our people dispose of the husk before it starts smelling.”
“I’ll put it in the usual place, but I hope you will answer a question for me,” the doctor replies, jotting down a few notes in the folder. She tucks it into her coat and reaches for a glass of wine. “Raven’s Hold is impossible to find unless invited. How did Mrs. Nash get here?”
“As you’ve guessed, I brought her here and that took considerable energy. Manipulating others from so far away is not something I do very often,” the man states while putting an arm around Dawn’s waist. “I do apologize for causing you trouble, but I was getting bored. Well I did agree to you bringing in Mr. Connors, I found him too boring for my interest. Like my love, I needed to turn him into my toy. That required some prodding and breaking, which required the sister. It really isn’t that hard to figure out.”
“What do we do with her now?” Dawn asks, licking some beer off Corvus’s lips. She sighs when he sits her in a chair, but her mood improves when a burger appears in her lap. “I say we turn her into a patient. No reason to hide it either. The riot can be the cause of her having a breakdown. What do you think, sweetie?”
“Possibly, but I want to use her for a few more things. One of which is rather immediate.”
Ian feels a chill run up his spine and backs out from under the cage, his eyes focused on the grinning man. Before the nervous patient can stand, he hears a stun gun go off and a jolt of pain strikes him in the back. Shuddering on the floor, he can barely make out Gina looming above him. When he tries to talk, she zaps him again and rolls him onto his back. By the time the cages and containers part to let Corvus approach, the orderly has Ian pinned to the ground.
“This one has certainly been an oddity,” the black-haired man says while removing a feather from his robe. “He’s been on the verge of belief since his first day, but he routinely stops himself. One more step is all he needs and we almost had him until Dawn threw a tantrum. I have to say that people have been truly disappointing me lately.”
“I’m sorry, but you should have talked me about it,” the brunette states while poking at a crying prisoner. She plucks a flower that sprouts from the woman’s hair and tucks it into shirt collar. “We can still push him if you want. It isn’t too late, sweetie. Don’t send me away because I was being cute.”
“I wouldn’t dream of losing you, my love,” Corvus declares in shock. Stepping away from the smiling woman, he puts his hands on Gina’s shoulders and runs his fingers along her tense arms. “Changes in faculty must be done. Someone has to pay for losing control. Perhaps you’re right that she has to go and Mr. Connors deserves a chance at redemption.”
“What about the hallway?” Dr. Rutherford suggests as she joins the others. Noticing Ian, she kneels in front of him and checks his pulse. “It was designed to give failed patients a slim chance of returning to the fold. It could be used for staff too. Give me some time to make a list of who is important and who is expendable.”
The clicking of Rich’s camera causes Corvus to twitch, so he stretches his arm to harmlessly pull the man through the bars. Callously tossing the wiggling patient next to Ian, he pushes Gina forward and gestures for her to examine both men. A wicked grin is on his face while Dawn dances around the cage. Dr. Rutherford catches the expression and moves to Corvus, who puts a friendly hand on her shoulder. Gina and the patients remain unaware of the silent understanding between their companions.
“It was a fun game, but it’s time for some people to leave the board,” Corvus announces with a stomp of his foot. Ian and Rich fall through trapdoors, leaving Gina kneeling on the edge of an abyss. “I hate losing my toys.”
“I’ll get you more,” Dr. Rutherford promises while adjusting her glasses. The grip on her shoulder gets tighter and she grunts in pain. “I will get to work on it right away.”
“No. You won’t, Grace. Good-bye, old friend.”
Another stomp of Corvus’s foot opens a hole beneath the doctor’s feet and she plummets into the darkness. Wiping his hands clean, the man lifts Dawn into his arms and whistles for Gina to join them at the couch. A large television is already rising from the floor and speakers are flipping lowering from the ceiling. Flickering to life, the screen reveals a hallway and three fuzzy forms sprawled on the floor.