Chapter 6: A Lesson in the Royal Way

My captors were dragging me out of the truck when the smelling salts blasted me back into full wakefulness. My hands were bound behind my back again. I was blindfolded and had what felt like a neck brace securing my blaring wound. Why didn't they just dress it properly? I wondered. One man – monster?! – gripped each of my upper arms with a gloved hand, as they propelled me forward. They hadn't tied my ankles again, but they also hadn't returned my boots; the tops of my bare feet scraped along the ground.

Once I began supporting my own weight, the strain on my shoulders decreased, though my companions held my arms no less tightly.

We were in some kind of building. The floor was smooth and cool and free of debris, swept regularly. When the pads of my feet touched it, sense memory transported me back to the unfinished concrete basement beneath Jeremy Cline's father's antique shop. It had been one of our favourite places to hang out in junior high, not only because it was full of weird old furniture and creepy trinkets, but because it was relatively free of adult supervision.

Yet another place I'll never set foot in again, I thought dourly.

The concrete gave way to a set of metal steps, though no one saw fit to warn me about them, so my ankles slammed into the first couple before I was able to change my gait to compensate.

"Ow," I grunted.

"Shut up," commanded someone to my left. I wasn't sure if I'd heard this voice before or not. I didn't think so.

"Where are we?" I asked.

A heavy hand crashed into the back of my head. Whoever hit me had done so with an open palm, but it was more than hard enough to ignite a fresh explosion of agony in my stiff, throbbing neck. My knees gave out, setting off secondary incendiaries in my shoulders as my kidnappers yanked my arms upwards to stabilize me.

"What did I just say?"

I took that to be rhetorical, and without any way of breaking free, I didn't see what good inviting myself to be their punching bag would do. The way my luck was going, I'd likely end up missing another chunk of flesh. Just thinking about that got my pulse pounding. Fear had become a chronic condition, but the levels of terror varied. Being eaten alive pretty much ranked a ten.

We came to a halt at the top of the staircase, and I heard the metallic thunk of a deadbolt being withdrawn. Realizing this was my last opportunity to assess the space we were in, I concentrated on what I could learn from my remaining senses. I caught a hint of fresh air; I'd missed it earlier because my abductors' odour overshadowed everything else when I was in close quarters with several of them, but it was definitely there. Whatever this room was, one or more of its doors led outside. That tiny spark of hope, the one that had almost been extinguished, found some fuel in that: If I could remember the way back here, I could find my way out.

There was a mournful squeak as the door swung open, and then we moved further into what could've been the basement of an apartment complex or a factory or any number of other places. I sniffed at the air again, but the stench of my captors kept any further olfactory clues at bay, except one: this space was much smaller than the room we'd just left. As we walked further, it became obvious we were moving down a hallway.

We passed through two more doors – both locked – hung a sharp right, and then descended four flights of stairs. The further down we went, the more the encroaching claustrophobia chewed away at my resolve, never mind my ability to keep track of our winding path. I pictured myself buried alive, choking down dirt instead of air. Being underground always brought that phobia percolating to the surface. Breathe, I reminded myself. Focus. I'd whispered those same words to myself during my algebra exam, which felt like forever ago now, but here they bore the weight of stone-hewn commandments.

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