by Anita Howitt
When I entered Humboldt Tower, I knew the rocky garrison would be the site of one of my truest tests. A remnant of the days when Greely was torn by war, the old fort had been refitted with enough iron to make a ship gunner weep. What little life made its home within the shadowy crevices of the courtyard only served to bear witness to the deaths of hundreds of prisoners that perished there every year.
Patches of brittle brown grass cushioned my footfalls as I strode under trees withering in the desolate wasteland on the western edge of civilization.
I unbuttoned my coat’s capelet, loosening my cravat, the smell of death and decay assaulting my nostrils. I’m not the executioner, but the man they call when there’s something to uncover, a secret too far within the twisted mind of a deranged criminal for conventional interrogation. When torture fails, I’m the one who breaks the locks no others can and gets the tight-lipped to spill their guts like a Sunday afternoon confessor. Once, I even had a name. Now all I have is a reputation: a reputation for getting results.
“You’re the Diablarist?” A middle-aged man in a dented steel breastplate eyed me with suspicion as I ascended the steps to the former keep. Rust stains marred his shirt around the collar and worn leather gloves gripped a poleaxe with a nicked head.
“I was sent by the Mage General,” I said, fishing in my waistcoat for my papers. I held them out to the balding man, who looked none too pleased to see me. “I’m here to speak to one of your prisoners.”
After glancing at my papers, the man laughed. “Good luck interrogating that one. He’s as tight-lipped as I’ve seen and doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by pain. You have your work cut out for you with that piece of dog shit.”
“I’m not here to torture your prisoner,” I said, taking back my credentials. “I have my own methods. Will you show me to his cell?”
The guard set his jaw and cast me a dark glare, perhaps intimidated by my insinuation I could get results where others failed, but I was used to dealing with his ilk. I stood straighter and straightened my wrist ruffles while he tapped his foot. When he whirled to stomp up the steps, I followed.
I met Hugh Montgomery in a stone cell that reeked of excrement. After my eyes stopped watering from the odor and adjusted to the light, I caught a glimpse of him, huddled in the corner. His pale, almost colorless, eyes shone in the darkness, hiding within their depths great wisdom. I’d seen the look before, on Jeremiah Fisher, the terror of Greenvale. A rapist and murderer of women, Fisher racked up fifty-four bodies during his decade-long rampage and the task had fallen to me to help locate them all.
Hugh glared at me from where he knelt like a frightened rat, shivering in the darkness. Whimpering as I approached, he pressed back further but had nowhere to go. I waited for the guard, keeping my eyes on the prisoner.
“Hello, Hugh,” I said, standing some distance away. I wasn’t about to get too close without him securely bound.
The guardsman brought forth wrist and ankle irons and, with the help of an enormous assistant, clapped shut the shackles. They dragged Hugh from his cell, kicking and spitting all the way.
“I need a calm place to work,” I said, wondering whether such a place existed in Humboldt Tower, the most notorious prison in the western province. “Perhaps a room with a window?”
The guard grunted, his lips not budging from their set frown. Guards all over Greely and the surrounding areas tended to react similarly when I showed up. I don’t know whether it’s that I give off an air of superiority, or simply their disdain for government officials, but I’ve rarely been welcomed with open arms. I honestly don’t care.
After I was shown to a comfortable seat in the officers’ quarters, Hugh was shackled to a small bed there, I got to work. I opened my leather bag and took out a dozen glass bottles.
“What’re those?” the guard asked, looking down his nose at my finest assortment of chemicals. They cost more than his yearly salary but I didn’t think pointing that out would give him any more respect for my trade.
“Herbs, mushrooms, toxins, poisons…” I rattled off the list, unconcerned with explaining my every step. “I’m going to put your prisoner to sleep.”
“I thought you wanted to talk to him.”
“I do,” I said, stirring my concoction with a silver spoon. “But I need him unconscious and these will weaken his resolve. In a few minutes, I’ll be able to demand answers from him as easily as a general does his soldiers.”
The guard said no more and I was glad at least for that. I hate explaining myself to those too ignorant to understand how my powers work. “Hold his eyes open.”
With Hugh putting up a mighty fight, I finally succeeded in getting several drops into his eyes. “That should take effect in about ten minutes,” I told the guard, more for his benefit than mine. “I need to do three more, if you could hold him still.”
I mixed the next, a combination of hallucinogenic mushrooms and snake venom. Coating a needle with the clear liquid, I jabbed it into Hugh’s thigh. He didn’t flinch as the toxins entered his bloodstream.
When all four mixtures began to take effect, Hugh’s head lolled to one side and saliva leaked from the corner of his mouth. “You may go now, if you wish,” I told the guard.
“I’d prefer to stay. He’s a handful. Killed the woman they sent before you.”
I shrugged, not caring whether he remained to watch and said, “As you wish, but, please be silent. I’m performing difficult magic and need to concentrate. Distractions can be dangerous.” It wasn’t exactly true, but I abhor observers asking incessant questions and the threat of danger is usually enough to silence even the loneliest prison guards. I couldn’t be sure what happened when Gertrude Wallace came to question Hugh but was fairly certain she either underestimated the prisoner’s mental faculties or overestimated her abilities to control him without proper subdual. She wasn’t the adept with toxins I was. Probably her undoing.
I took a deep breath and let it out, closing my eyes.
It took me longer than I expected to break through Hugh’s defenses and, I had to admit, it was impressive. Drugged with enough chemicals to subdue a team of oxen, Hugh’s mind should have been soft as a rotten plum. When I entered the depths of the deranged subconscious, I found myself not in a cave, or on a mountain, like most megalomaniacs, who see themselves as truly magnificent, but in a quiet meadow full of wildflowers, as plain and unmemorable a place as any. That should have been my first clue that something was very wrong in Hugh’s mind.
A young girl caught my eye as she stood from a crouch, a basket of picked flowers clutched in her small hands. She wore a dirty pink dress and her blonde hair, tangled and limp, swayed in a pleasant afternoon breeze. “Hello,” I muttered, not familiar with speaking to children.
“You should leave,” the girl said, her voice eerily forceful for one so young. Her eyes held me in place and I soon realized the girl with whom I spoke wasn’t a figure from Hugh’s memories or even a figment of his imagination, but Hugh himself, personified by his subconscious.
An interesting indication of his state, I thought. Either I’d miscalculated the snake venom or Hugh figured I’d go easy on a child. I proceeded cautiously, keeping the innocent-looking figure within my sight. “Hugh, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to ask you a few questions.”
The waif narrowed her big blue eyes. “You’ll dance on my grave with all the others. They aim to hang me. Why should I help you?”
Why indeed, I asked myself. The truth of it was, Hugh was a brilliant telepath. For a man who graduated top of his class from Rosenbaum University and went on to write several books about his illustrious career, Hugh had fallen hard. They say he dug too deep, lost his mind and turned to the more sinister side of our magic, mind control. Eventually, his delusional path led him to grave robbing on his quest to communicate with the minds of the dead.
I, personally, didn’t see the harm in his course of study, but as grave-robbing was illegal in Greely, Hugh Montgomery, once a man of impeccable reputation, was imprisoned by the Mage General like a common criminal and tortured for his secrets. Only no one was any closer to discovering whether he’d accomplished his goals. The dead weren’t talking, and neither was Hugh.
I wondered whether Hugh’s crimes were enough to rightly earn him a death sentence, but I wasn’t the man who made those calls. I only brought back information before executions. It just so happened, the Mage General wanted to know whether Hugh succeeded in contacting the dead, and I had jumped at the chance to find out for myself.
“I will mourn your passing,” I said gravely. “I once held you in high regard, Hugh. You were a man all students in my graduating class endeavored to emulate, myself included.”
The little girl smiled, showing two teeth missing from the bottom front of her mouth. “What do you want to know, Diablarist?”
Flattered as I was that he was coherent enough to recognize me, I became worried at that point. Something about his willingness to part with his secrets made my blood run cold and my heart beat just a bit quicker. While the drugs I’d administered made cracking into the minds of men easier, it had no effect on their overall cooperative spirit. If Hugh was offering information, it was for his own reasons.
My own job was hardly more legitimate than Hugh’s research, I thought. Wasn’t I tapping into a man’s mind while his body drooled and slept a fitful sleep? Only the Mage General’s blessing separated me from men like Hugh, caught on the wrong side of the law for his success.
Distracted by my own foolish contemplation, I was unprepared for Hugh’s next move. The little girl’s face screwed up into a grimace and I felt it, a knife sliding behind my eyes, a great torque in my own head, and I realized I was outmatched.
Back through my own memories Hugh dragged me, sifting through them like a pile of rubbish, casting images aside until he found what he was looking for. Into a distant past, he directed me, one I didn’t want to remember. The night I questioned Fisher. I too had dug deep once.
Images invaded my conscious mind. Broken bodies twisted and desecrated. Screams of dying women echoed and sadistic glee surged through me as I watched them twitch in their death throes. Fluttering eyes, wild with fear, tender flesh yielding beneath me, and blood warm on my hands. No, not my hands, Fisher’s hands. But that night, he’d pulled me into his mind. I became him for a moment, felt the ecstasy of a deranged man who rapes and kills for thrill and power. I tried to turn away from the memories, Fisher’s… my memories.
“This is your biggest fear?” the little girl’s voice asked, twisting a corkscrew between my ears.
I fought to answer, but couldn’t. Hugh’s mind was too strong and it took every ounce of my concentration just to hold him at bay. What would I have said, anyway? That as hard as I’d worked to become the best in my field, I feared where it had taken me?
“You wanted the secrets of my powers and now I will show you, Diablarist.”
I tried to pull out, but we were in my mind then, not Hugh’s. While I’d been concerned with breaking into his defenses, he’d scaled mine with apparent ease and I could only fight to kick him back out. I tried to remember anything, the day I graduated, my promotion to the elite ranks under the Mage General, my mansion in Treeno, far away from Greely and the decaying prison. But all I could see were the images I’d pulled from Fisher’s mind, countless pictures of defiled, tormented women and their bloody deaths.
I felt my resolve weakening. With the threat of breaking my own mind looming like a tidal wave waiting to crash onto Greely’s rocky shore, I called out to my body with all I had and woke as it fell from the chair crashing to the floor of the officers’ quarters.
Scrambling like a bobcat in a trap, I grasped for my bag and pulled some vials free. As I groped to pop the cork on the first, Hugh’s eyes flew open on the bed and my hands froze in place. “Hugh,” I yelled at the guardsman, who hurried to my side. But before I could instruct him, my voice shut off. I looked like a bumbling idiot, opening and closing my mouth like a gasping fish. Hugh lay unmoving, working like a puppeteer from his bed.
My hands smashed the vials on the stone floor and upturned the leather bag. I struggled to regain control of my body, but had little experience with true mind control. I’d never met anyone who exceeded my own strength.
My commandeered hand slid over the scattered objects and halted, hovering above a syringe in a glass tube. I tried to empty my mind, but my heart pounded, giving away my fear. I tried to look up at the guard, signal for assistance, but I was helpless to alert him to my plight.
Hugh pulled the lethal syringe, a last resort I’d always carried but never before needed, from its protection and jammed it into the muscle of my forearm. My heart dropped as my traitorous thumb depressed the plunger and a moment later, Hugh pulled me back into my mind as my unconscious body fell to the floor.
The little girl sat upon the wooden porch swing of my childhood home, her dingy locks drab even in the summer sun. “You wanted to know my secrets, Diablarist, and now I’ll share them with you. Anyone can break into a weak mind. It’s no great feat to pick through memories. If you seek to control the minds of others, the only place to break their defenses down far enough is in their weakest moments.”
With minutes left, I considered the implications of his words, the insinuation I might have indeed controlled the minds of several of my subjects, unwittingly.
Fisher… the name hung echoing in my consciousness. Before I could say anything, a dimness surrounded me and the world grew darker, like the sun had set on my parents’ home. “Why am I still here?” I asked Hugh.
The little girl smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you alone. I’ll be happy to share my secrets with you forever.”
Donovan Horace pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against his nose as he neared Humboldt Tower. When the guardsman met him outside, Donovan produced a set of papers, bearing the insignia of the Mage General. “I’m here to speak with Hugh Montgomery,” he muttered through his handkerchief.
The guard smiled. “You’ll have your hands full with that one,” he said. “He’s killed two of you mind-wizards already. How many more is your employer willing to lose before he lets me stretch this animal’s neck?”
“I thank you for your warning, good sir,” Donovan replied, “but, I’m well-trained in the art of breaking into men’s minds. Hugh will not be able to shut me out. Show me to his cell.”