When we made it back to where we started from, my box was still there though closed again. My ‘guide’ propelled me over toward the only other occupants of the room with a shove. My parents hugged me desperately. My mother was sobbing openly and my dad looked like he just might join her any second now.
Through her tears, mom said, “Oh, Liam, what are you doing here? We thought you would be safe on that planet. We thought you wouldn’t be able to leave. We thought you couldn’t.”
“I came looking for you. I got worried when I didn’t hear from you.” Then I whispered in her ear in case we were being listened to. “F.Y.I. mom, there’s another man with me, or at least I hope he’s still with me. The story is that you hired him to baby-sit me before you left. He’s a short man with light hair that’s turning gray. He has a mustache and his name is Pip; have you seen him?” and then louder again. “What’s going on here?”
Both my parents shook their heads imperceptibly about Pip and then tried to answer my question. “My last report about the magic that man told us about, I didn’t believe it until after we reached that mining colony,” started my father. “I’m sure my attitude was clear in my report and I didn’t bother to change it after you convinced me otherwise, but someone believed it. When they took us, they were after you. Baron Vladimir was furious when they brought us here and you weren’t with us. Now that you’re here, I don’t know what he’ll do.”
“Listen, mom, dad, whatever he does, I can handle it.” I really wasn’t as sure about that as I managed to sound, but they didn’t need to know that; they were scared enough. “So don’t worry. I need to know where they’ve taken Pip, so I’m going to have to let them do whatever they’re going to do until I find that out.” I looked them both intently in the eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll get us out of here.”
Mom looked dubious and dad was trying his best not to.
“Well, well, well. Such a happy family reunion,” said an oily voice behind me. “Ah, and there’s even tears, how touching.”
My dad stiffened and my mom let out a tiny gasp. I turned around, keeping my mom directly behind me. Striding into the room from a door on the far side was a man dressed in many layers and folds of what could only be very expensive material. All of it was glittering with gold thread and expensive gems. He might have been quite handsome some forty years ago, but greed and indulgence had had their way with him unfavorably. He had pale red hair and too white, too fine, too shiny skin. There was a large jewel on every one of his chubby fingers and gem encrusted slippers on his feet, or what I could see of them. I was stunned; he must be wearing several million credits worth of clothing. I wondered how much it weighed.
“Have you no welcome for your baron, boy. Didn’t your father teach you any manners? Bow to me, boy, before I have you flogged for insubordination.”
As a matter of fact, my father had never mention the proper way to greet royalty, but I bowed anyway, and out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my parents doing the same on either side of me.
I held my tongue as he looked me over with glee twinkling in his eyes. If he wanted obeisance, he wasn’t likely to stand for questions until he asked for them. My bow was only half hearted; I didn’t want to take my eyes off him, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve been told that you can do magic. I want you to show me something,” said the baron without preamble.
Who could tell him something like that? “What do you mean? I don’t know any magic tricks.”
“That’s not what I heard. I read that medical report. That idiot doctor going on about some miracle. No one could survive that kind of boost. A heavy-worlder couldn’t have done it let alone a skinny fifteen-year-old boy. Show me something, or I’ll show you some pain.”
“I’m sixteen now; I celebrated my birthday while I was in that god forsaken box of yours.” I knew that making him mad wasn’t going to get me anywhere but in trouble, but showing him some magic wouldn’t make the situation any better.
“Well happy birthday to you,” he said sarcastically. He waved to someone out of sight and a man with a whip stepped into view. Sixteen you say, then let it be sixteen lashes. If you can heal yourself from the damage done by a PTS boost, a little thing like a whipping should be a cinch.
He was right. I could protect myself or I could let it happen, but I wasn’t too sure I would be able to let it happen completely. That whip looked like it would cut to the bone and my control had never been tried under such pain.
Men poured into the room and grabbed me. They pulled me to the center of the room and forced me down onto the floor where they held me spread-eagled face down.
“NO!” my mother screamed, “How can you do this? He’s only a boy.”
“Silence,” Vladimir snarled at her. “If he can work magic then he’ll work it for me, or he can die.” Then in a different tone he said, “Be gentle with him, I don’t want him to pass out yet; I’m not finished with him.”
I looked over my shoulder at the man with the whip. “I’ll never work for you,” I yelled, trying to sound brave.
The whip descended with blinding speed and I could only flinch away from it. It didn’t do any good though. My back lit up like it was on fire. I didn’t scream after that first stroke, not because I was being stupidly brave, but because my lungs wouldn’t cooperate with such an idea. I did scream after the second one and for many others after that; by the time the last one had come and gone I was a blubbering mass of raw nerves.
The rest of the room, however, was quite silent. The men who had held me pinned to the floor drew away and I curled up, wishing I could bend the other direction so that my hurt could be protected from further pain.
“I knew it,” I heard the baron say, and my heart sank.
What had I done? I lifted my head enough to glance down my back and saw. My t-shirt was in bloody shreds but though my back was streaked with angry red welts, my skin looked like it had not been broken. I groaned.
The men who’d pinned me down pulled me to my feet where I swayed. I could hear my mom’s muffled sobs and I turned to look; her face was buried in my dad’s shoulder. My dad looked like he was carved of stone.
“So you can heal yourself, boy. I knew it. What else can you do?”
I locked eyes with my father for a moment longer before turning back to the baron. “Where is my servant? What have you done with him?”
“We left him at the docks. Someone will open that box . . . eventually,” replied the baron with a sneer. “I didn’t have any use for him.”
So, Pip was dead. I had no reason to believe that he had received the same care I had received. He had either smothered or starved to death in that damn crate. Someone would pay for that too and that someone was standing directly in front of me.
I turned back to look at my father; his face had gone all dark. Someone smacked a hand flat in the center of my raw back and I roared in pain.
I looked back at the man I had learned to hate. “I can do quite a bit. What would you like to see first, death or destruction?” It was rather satisfying to see my antagonist draw away.
The baron just laughed at what he thought was pure bravado. It was bravado, but it was so very real. “Why don’t you start by making me a pile of gold here at my feet? One can never have enough gold, you know.”
Gold? Gold is very rare and he wants a pile of it. “I thought you might start with something hard like clothes,” I said, and brought my leathers back into existence complete, with my blue basilisk. “Or perhaps weapons for your men.” I reached out and grabbed the two men who were closest, and used the metal and leather on their bodies, as well as the others who were close, to make my sword belt with its comforting weight of blades. I didn’t have to do it that way, but now they were disarmed, and some of their clothes were threatening to fall off as assorted buckles, zippers and buttons were no longer there to do their job. It felt so good to flex my magic. “But no. All you can think of is your greed.” I knelt down and touched the floor. The drain was tremendous, but the rush was exhilarating. Finding a source of gold far closer than I had expected, I caused a patch of it to replace the marble under my hand and then extended that patch toward the baron.
He was ecstatic, and actually bent over to watch it come. He was utterly unprepared for what happened next. It’s difficult to change stone into metal. It’s not much harder to change flesh into metal, but with the gold at such close proximity, I could scarcely tell the difference.
The baron stepped out onto the gold path and knelt down to touch it with his hand. He began to scream when his hand became welded to the floor and the line between gold and flesh traveled up his arm. In another minute, his screams stopped as his lungs no longer drew air to expel sound. His eyes were nearly popping from his head with terror before they too were made of gold. Everyone in the room was frozen with shock.