John Carver has three rules: Don’t drink in the daytime, don’t gamble when the luck has gone, and don’t talk to the dead people who come to visit.
It has been almost five years since the incident in Kabul. Since the magic stirred within him and the stories began. Fleeing the army, running from the whispers, the guilt, and the fear he was losing his mind, Carver fell into addiction, dragging himself through life one day at a time.
Desperation has pulled him back to Afghanistan, back to the heat, the dust, and the truth he worked so hard to avoid. But there are others, obsessed with power and forbidden magics, who will stop at nothing to learn the truth of his gifts. Abducted and chained, Carver must break more than his own rules if he is to harness this power and survive.
Mackenzie sucked hard on the water tube, swilling it around in her mouth before she swallowed. The grainy paste clung to the inside of her mouth, sticking to the back of her teeth. She might have to eat the stuff to stay alive but, dear God, it would take a lot longer for her to actually enjoy it.
She’d lasted almost two days before she gave in and swallowed it down. For most of that time, she’d been too nauseous to feel hungry anyway. Eating had cleared away the last remnants of whatever drug she’d been fed, and the water had done the rest.
She figured she’d been in the room for about four days, but it was hard to tell with no windows to give her any reference. The lights came on right before she was blasted with water. She suspected they were on some sort of daily timer. It was impossible to know for sure, though. It could have been every eight hours for all she knew.
Sometime between the first water blast and the second, she’d given up screaming and started listening. Anyone within ear shot would have answered already if they were going to. Listening though; that had told her something new entirely.
The faint whine of electronics was just about audible through the walls, though she had to hold her breath to hear it. Once, she thought she caught the sound of footsteps, but the most important sounds didn’t come until the second day: the faint sounds of shouting.
The shouts were like hers to begin with, the words indistinct, but the tone was clear. Whoever it was passed back and forth between outrage and fear, alternating between screams of fury then, later, a quieter begging.
She’d shouted back until her throat burned, not realising the futility of it at first. She’d only heard them when she was holding her breath and utterly silent, and even then, she’d just caught the barest hint of their shouts. Whoever it was had no chance of hearing her unless they were as silent as she was. She needed them to adjust to their situation. To accept where they were for the time being. To stop yelling and start listening.
The voice, when it came, was soft—almost tentative, and from a completely different direction.
“Are you real?” it asked.
“Yes!” she shouted her answer, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. “Yes, I’m real. I’m here.”
There was no answer.
She fell silent, concentrating on not making any sound that might drown the voice out. It had been louder than the distant shouting, loud enough that it could have been from the next room. Maybe it was.
Her patience ran out. “Are you there?”
“Hey, arsehole. Answer me!”
“I thought I was dreaming again.”
Was it a man’s voice? It was hard to tell through the thickness of the walls. He, if it was a he, sounded either delirious or stoned, or maybe he’d just lost his grip on reality. Any of these were equally plausible in a place like this. She was barely keeping it together as it was.
“What’s your name?” she asked carefully, keeping her tone soft and level, as if speaking to a spooked horse.
There was a long pause before he answered. As if he had to wrack his brain for the answer.
“Armond. My name is Armond.”
French then. Or maybe German? It didn’t really matter. “I’m Mackenzie. Do you know where we are?”
He laughed then, the sound high and hysterical as it came through the concrete. “We’re in hell, Mackenzie. Hell on Earth.”
Probably better to just ignore that one, she decided. “Are we still in Kabul?”
“Where? No, but this room is dark most of the day, Mackenzie. I have no windows. I have no idea where we are.”
“Were you in Kabul, too?”
“Afghanistan? No. No, I was in Syria. In Damascus.”
Damascus? Syria was the other side of Iraq. It was thousands of miles away from Kabul. Where the hell was she?
He had a tone to his voice, an edge, like he was broken. It didn’t matter, it was enough that there was someone to talk to. Enough that she wasn’t alone. They spoke tentatively; like young lovers touching for the first time, each both excited and afraid of the other, but unable to stop themselves.
He’d been in Syria, with Oxfam, when he was taken; an administrator for one of their regional projects.
“How long were you there?” she asked.
“Eight months,” he replied, before his voice drifted into silence. “Before. You know, before this.”
“What did you do before that?”
“Iraq. Medecin sans Frontières for a couple of years. I don’t like going home so much these days. This job gets to you, and everyone at home just seems so blind to what they have.”
She nodded, despite the fact nobody could see her. He was right. The last time she’d gone home to Brisbane for Christmas it had been almost painful. The food left on the table was more than the street children in Kabul saw in a month.
Talking to Armond was hard work. He tended to fall silent for long periods, ignoring her when she called him, and she wondered if he was passing out. Or maybe he was being fed drugs. It wasn’t just that though. He was maddeningly guarded and refused to answer many of her questions about himself or what had happened to him.
It was another two days before she thought to ask the most obvious questions. “How long have you been here, Armond? Have you seen anyone?”
He’d fallen silent again and she forced herself to count to two hundred before she called out again. He was damaged, that much was obvious from his voice. Yelling at him would only make things worse.
“They still come for me sometimes,” he said, when she’d just about given up on getting an answer. “Not so much as they used to. Sometimes I think they forget I’m here.”
“What do they want?”
He laughed; a bitter, splintered sound that barely made it through the wall. “They want miracles, Mackenzie.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, but Armond had fallen silent again.
By the end of what she thought was the first week, she was fatigued and listless. She blamed the diet. The gruel was enough to keep her alive, but it likely lacked a lot of essential nutrients. She slept often, though how much of that was down to boredom was anyone’s guess.
Armond hadn’t spoken to her in days and in her weaker moments she wondered if he was still alive. She’d wondered more than once if he’d ever really been there in the first place. She marked the passing of time by the lights. Each time the spotlights blazed on, it was the beginning of another day. By her reckoning, she’d been in this prison for nine days.
The door was built into the glass wall, fitted so closely that it was invisible in the shadows that wreathed that end of the room. She gaped at it as it opened, an impossible thing that made her bolt up against the restraints. The figures that emerged were dressed in white medical garb. A man and a woman. They did not look at her, busying themselves with erecting a small stand a few meters from her. It was some manner of clamp, designed to hold something in place.
For the briefest moment she was bothered by her nakedness, a fleeting hangover from when she’d had a normal life.
“Hey!” she managed, her voice croaking. “Let me out. Please?”
The man glanced at her once. A plain, Middle Eastern man who could have come from anywhere. His eyes flickered over her bound form and then he turned back to the clamp, setting a large candle into it and lighting it before heading for the door.
“Let me go!” she screamed after him.
The door gave a pneumatic hiss, slid shut, and thunked back into place.
“Mackenzie?” A voice broke into the room through unseen speakers. “You are well?”
The question called for an answer, but it brought with it a realisation. They could hear her. The room must have a microphone in it somewhere. The thought that they had been able to hear her screaming for days on end, and just ignored it, passed quickly, smothered by the knowledge that they had probably heard every word she had shared with Armond. Somehow that was worse, and a spark of rage ignited in her chest.
“I’m tied up, you sick fuck! How the fuck do you think I’m doing?”
“Tell me about the fire, Mackenzie.”
“What?” She frowned at the glass wall across the room. “What fire?”
“You were nine years old, I believe?”
She stiffened against the frame, biting down the gorge that rose in her throat. “Fuck you.”
The voice ignored her, continuing in a calm voice. “The fire burned out your apartment complex in Brisbane. It completely destroyed everything above the third floor. What floor were you on, Mackenzie?”
“Go to hell!” She’d worked long and hard to bury that memory. It was why she’d left home in the first place. Tears pooled in her eyes despite herself, and she swore she’d cut the bastard if she ever got out of these restraints.
“But your apartment was different, wasn’t it? In the living room was a clear area. A circle untouched by the heat and the flames. That is where they found you, isn’t it, Mackenzie? But it was only you, wasn’t it? Your mother and father were killed, even your sister, died in those flames. How long did you spend in care homes, Mackenzie? How long was it before you were finally adopted? Was it until every child worth having had already gone?”
She bit down on her shaking lip, tasting blood. She’d be damned if she would answer him. The story had spread throughout the local news. It had followed her through counselling and into foster care, and then to two different schools when the bullying and name-calling had driven her out. They’d called her a freak. They’d thrown lit matches at her, and set her hair on fire, laughing as they told her to put them out.
“I believe it was you who held back those flames, Mackenzie.” The voice was relentless, droning on despite her tears and clenched fists.
“What do you want from me?” she grated from between clenched teeth. Maybe if she offered them something, they would leave her alone.
“Show me how you did it. Put out the candle.”
“Put out the candle, Mackenzie.”
She stared blankly at the glass. What was this? “How? I can’t reach it, you idiot.”
The voice turned hard. “Do not play with me, Mackenzie. Put out the candle and you will be treated well.”
The threat hung in the air, unspoken, but she heard it anyway.
She tried blowing, though she was easily three meters away from it. The best she managed was to make it flicker.
“I can’t,” she said, sagging back against the frame.
“Put out the candle, Mackenzie. Don’t blow it. Put it out.”
“I don’t know how,” she admitted.
“You do. You have tamed fire before. Put out the candle.”
She was going to die. The knowledge came slowly, creeping in like fog over a field. They wanted the impossible from her. Armond was right. They wanted miracles, and she had nothing to give them.
“I don’t know how I did it,” she called out again, pleading and hating herself for the weakness in her voice. “I don’t even know if it was me.”
“Put out the candle.”
The voice nagged and demanded for what felt like hours, repeating the order as the candle burned down, and wax dripped onto the floor. Eventually it fell silent, ignoring her protests as they turned to begging pleas.
She remembered so little of it. She’d been so young and what she could recall had a vague, dream-like quality to it. Sensations were all she could really remember.
The heat on her skin, and the roar of the flames in her ears.
She remembered the fear, so strong that it overrode everything else as she’d curled into a ball and pressed her eyes to her knees. Beyond that, it was just memories of the aftermath. The feel of the fireman’s jacket as she was carried out; rough and yet smooth on the hi-vis stripes. The smell of the smoke, and the way everyone looked at her—wonder mingling with a sympathy so sharp it cut into her.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I don’t know…”
She let her voice trail off. They weren’t listening. They were going to kill her. It might take months, but eventually, when they grew tired of her failure, they would kill her. She let the thought grow, the certainty growing with it, until it overwhelmed her and the tears began again.
“Give them what they want.”
She looked up, tossing her head to throw her dark hair back from her face. “Armond?”
“It’s better to just give them what they want, Mackenzie,” he repeated. He sounded calmer than usual, more lucid.
“I can’t,” she said. “They want a miracle and I didn’t bring any with me.”
She snorted a laugh then, tears still fresh on her face. It started as a giggle and built until she couldn’t stop even if she’d wanted to. She laughed until her stomach hurt and it left her gasping. She’d been drugged and abducted, chained up in this room by mad men, and told to perform wonders or die. The whole situation was so absurd that it seemed like there was nothing else to do but laugh.
Graham Austin-King was born in the south of England and weaned on broken swords and half-forgotten spells. A shortage of these forced him to consume fantasy novels at an ever-increasing rate, turning to computers and tabletop gaming between meals.
He experimented with writing at the beginning of an education that meandered through journalism, international relations, and law. To this day he is committed to never allowing those first efforts to reach public eyes.
After meandering across both England and Canada he settled once again in the north of England surrounded by a seemingly endless horde of children and a very patient wife who can arguably say her husband is away with the faeries.
The Lore of Prometheus is his fifth novel and draws on a foundation of literary influences ranging from David Eddings to Dean Koontz.
Adam is a Pennsylvania resident and has been reviewing and blogging SFF since 2017. When he's not reading or working his day job as a pharma consultant, he enjoys writing reviews, beta reading, and story editing. He loves hockey, his family, and his ridiculously adorable kittens. Hit him up at @swiff