Chapter Sixty-One

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It was a sound like thunder that roused Em from her drug-induced stupor. At first, through the dense fog in her brain, the sound was distant. It made her think of the waterfall she and May had come across deep in the tropical forest of Hoku, back when she had taken May camping for the first time — the night they had finally come together. The instant Em's mind landed on the memory, she was back among the trees, skin shining in the humid air. She could hear the crash of the waterfall somewhere through the lush greenery, and she wanted to find it.

But when she tried to look back at May, to tell her they were almost there, she didn't find her there. In fact, she couldn't see much of anything through the blinding white light of the sun, which seemed impossibly intense.

Then came the cold — a chill that crept along Em's back and sloshed around her neck. The shock of it startled her, and suddenly the thundering sound was all around her. It crashed in her ears as if she was sitting directly under the waterfall, and it was so loud she could barely follow her own thoughts. Not that her thoughts would have been any easier to follow without the noise — they jumped from one thing to the next, chasing after every tangent and dropping down each rabbit hole too quickly for her to track.

The cold rose higher.

The ship is sinking, she thought, then immediately wondered how she had gotten on a boat in the first place.

Something lapped in her ears and streamed over her eyes, distorting her already blurred vision.

The ship is sinking, she thought again, only this time she was able to understand why her mind kept going there — the cold that was slowly swallowing her up was water.

You need to get up, a small voice screamed in her head, cutting through the clutter. You're going to drown, get up.

Though her bones felt as though someone had filled them with cement, Em managed to roll onto her side. Water splashed around her, over her, and without thinking she gasped at the shock of it. But her mouth didn't fill; her lungs pulled in a breath of air. She sat up and the world spun violently. Her vision lacked focus—everything around her was nothing more than bright smudges—but she knew she wasn't on a ship. There was something on her face, like a hand over her mouth. She fumbled, her fingers trembling over where her lips should have been, and found a hard dome pressed over the lower half of her face.

"I wouldn't touch that if I were you," a voice boomed over the crashing water. Em winced at the volume and how it all seemed to echo around her. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Slowly, the world began to take shape. She reached out and placed her hand on a thick pane of glass. On the other side of it, a face smiled darkly at her.

Her mind dragged the details out of the dark. Wyndam. I'm in the lab. They're trying to kill me.

"You're going to want to keep that on," Wyndam said, his voice blaring directly into her brain. Em clutched her hands over her ears and realized they were completely covered; likely ear pieces held in place beneath a waterproof seal. He pointed at his own mouth. "Unless breathing under water is one of your many supernatural talents."

Em touched her face again and realized what she felt there was a mask. She swallowed — breathing under water wasn't one of her abilities.

She looked around, the world sluggish to keep up as she turned her head. A steady stream of water was pouring in through an opening in the ceiling.

They were flooding the chamber.

The realization was instantly sobering. Though her legs were still weak, Em dragged herself to stand. Her scrubs were soaked through and hung heavily over her shaking shoulders. She shivered from the cold. Her thoughts still tripped over each other, but she forced herself to focus. It made sense that they would flood the chamber — it was the only thing they had yet to try in their efforts to isolate her power.

She tipped her head back and followed the hose that protruded from her mask. It disappeared into the ceiling. If the chamber filled, that hose would be the only source of oxygen she would have. Her heart hammered at the thought. If she didn't find a way out of there before the water reached the ceiling, she was as good as dead. That hose, and the oxygen that flowed through it, would be the only things keeping her alive. If she thought she was at the Loyals' mercy before, she had been laughably mistaken. It would take nothing to kill her now — Wyndam would simply call for the oxygen supply to be cut off so he could watch her suffocate before his eyes, suspended in the water like a macabre marionette.

I have to get out of here.

Em took flight and came to hover next to the water-spewing hole in the ceiling. She knew Wyndam was watching her, that he might try to stop her.

Let him, she thought. I can't not try. Not now...

Mustering what strength she had, Em manifested a disc of energy on her palm and willed to grow into a shield. Once it was big enough, she thrust it into the stream of water. She pushed against the torrent, trying to block its flow. If she could just breach the ceiling, wedge her way into the pipe... she didn't believe the rest of the chamber was as fortified as its inside. She could do this, she just had to stay strong.

But strength had been a rare resource since the day she found herself in captivity. Her stores were nearly depleted at the best of times, and now definitely wasn't a good time. All around her, the lights faded in and out as her magic nearly blew the grid for the umpteenth time. The power of the water hammered against Em's shield of energy; every time she forced her way passed the ceiling's threshold, the pressure would overwhelm her. On her third attempt, with an arm that felt like rubber, her energy fizzled out and she let loose a frustrated scream. Her body plunged downward and landed with a splash in the water that had risen hip-height.

Still screaming, Em waded back to the window. As the water rose around her, she hammered her fists against the glass. She punched and pounded and howled through the throbbing pain that radiated up her arms with each strike. She kept at it until the water lifted her feet from the ground.

"Save your strength, Starborn," Wyndam drawled. "Don't forget, you have work to do."

The water crept ever higher. Em was grateful for one thing: at least with all this water, none of the monsters on the other side of the glass wouldn't be able to tell she was crying. Her thoughts reached across the expanse that separated her from May. She wondered where she was, and if she was safe.

Em thought of May and hoped she knew how much she loved her; she hoped she knew that marrying her would have been the greatest privilege, the truest adventure she ever could have hoped for.

I'm so sorry, May, she thought as the water slipped over her head. The flow of oxygen was just enough to keep her conscious; she bobbed beneath the surface with each small breath she took. I really thought I could do this.

I thought I could get back to you.

The world was quiet. The chamber was full. A dreamy sense of calm washed over Em like sleep at the end of a long hard day. All the overwhelming noise and vibrations of energy ricocheting around the universe were snuffed out. For the first time since she'd last been at May's side, Em knew peace.

And that's how she knew the real trouble was only just beginning.

Her eyes snapped open. How could she have forgotten?

At this point, being deprived of oxygen would have been the best thing she could have hoped for. At least then she could take her Starborn essence with her, and deprive the Loyals of the only thing they wanted from her.

But here, suspended underwater...

How many times had she sought the dulling crush of water? How often had she craved the way sinking beneath the surface quieted her mind and made her feel the closest to normal she could ever hope to be?

These were the conditions Wyndam and his team had been trying to create all along; something that would subdue Em's power just enough for them to study the magic that flowed through her.

And judging by the smile that split across Wyndam's face, he knew it too.

He had her right where he wanted her.

He had won.

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