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Her eyes went so wide then, her breath hitching in her chest, that burning now only cold and hollow. She shook her head, her hands clenching into fists, her heart racing.

“What did you do to her?” she whispered.

“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t even know where she is.”

“You’re lying!” she gasped. “If you hurt her, I’ll kill you, I swear, I’ll kill you. Where is she?! What have you done to her?”

The corner of his lip twitched, only slightly, only a little, his head tilting to the side as he watched her. “I never lie,” he said. “And I don’t know where she is, but test me again and I might just find out.”

She gasped again, a gasp that was almost a sob and almost a scream. “What do you want?” she asked. “What do you want, tell me, I’ll do it.”

“I already told you what I want, you’re the one refusing to do it,” he answered. “We’re done here, Phoenix, you just need to pay the price for disrespecting me and we can both move on with our lives.”

“What do you want?” she asked again. “You want me to train, I’ll train harder than anyone else out there, but you have to find Iris.”

“What makes you think that I could find her,” he asked, raising his eyebrows and smiling a little, but then he shook his head. “I take deals very seriously and right now you have nothing to offer. You stop all… this,” he said, looking at her. “And I’ll consider it, but you have a long way to go.”

“You’ll find her,” Phoenix nodded. “Or I’ll-,”

“Enough,” he cut in, those Implants flickering furiously, his eyes narrowing into thin slits. “We’re done, and you say one more thing and you’ll be done for good. I only brought you here so you would understand how things work and stop wasting everyone’s time. Time is precious, almost as precious as respect, you understand?”

She went so still when she saw Emery come in, her eyes flicking to that rod in his hand, her own clutching at her chest. She was not sure of much in that moment, she was sure of far fewer things than she had ever been before in her life, but one thing she did know was that this was going to hurt. She heard that crackle of current, a part of her wanting to laugh, a part of her only wanting to cry, and by the first hit she was glad that those armbands were holding her up. She gasped, feeling that ache in her stomach, feeling her face scrunch up in a tight wince. It was nothing like she had ever felt before, it was a pain that was somehow bright, somehow only a tingle and sharp tickle in her chest and her thighs, but by the third hit she was screaming, tears streaming down her cheeks, her head shaking when she saw Emery lift the rod again.

She looked at the Master, ready to tell him that she would listen to anything he wanted her to do, but he wasn’t even watching. His back was turned, his eyes fixed on those screens of cascading code, his fingers tapping at his lips as he read it. Whenever Emery hit her then, all she saw was a bright white light, almost pleasant, almost warm, until she realised her skin and her muscles were on fire and she screamed again. She wanted it to stop, she wanted it to be over, she wanted to have never been caught. That burning grew too much, it caught at the back of her throat, coming out in a big burst as she gasped and was sick.

“Eighteen, that’s not bad, Phoenix,” he said, his voice so quiet, his fingers rubbing at his lips.

She thought it was over then, her head lifting, her eyes so heavy and stinging with tears, but she saw Emery lift the rod again, her eyes going big and wide until she felt them rolling, and then she saw nothing. She woke in her room, her hand coming to clutch at her mouth to stifle a scream. So tightly she held it, tears streaming down her cheeks, her body shaking and trembling and burning as she laid there. She wanted to shout, she wanted to cry louder, but she couldn’t do anything but breathe, short, shaking, jittery breaths until the pain became too great and she had to stop and wait. There was a knock on her door, that girl not waiting for her to answer before she came in and closed it behind her. She gave another slight bow, that smile on her lips as she clasped her hands behind her back.

“The Master says you are excused from training today.”

Phoenix wanted to snap at her, she wanted to tell her to get out, but all she could do was nod, her eyes closing tight, her body trembling. The last thing she heard was the door clicking shut, one last breath making the pain too great, and then there was nothing. She woke to another knock, her eyes flicking open, her heart hammering in her chest, and she just wanted to close her eyes again, she just wanted this to be over.

“Just a minute,” she said, her voice so cracked and hoarse, her face scrunching up in a wince.

She had to be stronger, that much she knew, that much was clearer than ever. She gritted her teeth, those tears streaming down her cheeks as she went to stand and she stumbled to the door, just about catching the handle before she fell against it. She cried, a short cry that was more like a gasp, and then she opened it. That girl was back, her hands clasped behind her, her head giving a quick nod.

“The Master would like to see you.”

Phoenix almost cried again but why she could not say. Had this all been a trick? Was he about to punish her for not going to training? Maybe all that waited for her behind that door was the rod. She shook her head, not sure why she did it, not sure what else there was that she could do. She closed the door behind her, her breath shaking, her knees trembling as she walked down the corridors. That girl stayed beside her, her hands clasped behind her back, that smile always on her lips and she did not say anything, not even when they were outside his door, but Phoenix did not need her to. She pressed her hand to the keypad, glad that she had never stopped to put on her boots, but she almost cried when she had to take that step up, her teeth grinding together, her eyes closing tight as she swayed.

He was leaning against his desk, his head tilting to the side, his eyes never blinking as he watched her. She did not know what to say, she did not know what there was to say after all that, but he took a few steps forward, her chest heaving, her forehead lining in a crease when he came close.

“Let me see,” he said, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.

It was only when he reached for her shirt that she shook her head, her eyes going big and wide, her breathing even heavier. He raised his eyebrows, those Implants flickering a little quicker, his eyes a little colder. She did not want the rod again, she couldn’t take it, not now when it already hurt just to breathe, so she closed her eyes, grabbing onto his arm to stop herself from falling when her shirt brushed up against her stomach.

“You did well yesterday,” he said, and her eyes flicked open, a wince springing to her face when she saw him there, and then she looked down, that hand grabbing his arm going loose, her head rolling when she saw that bruise. “Why did you look?” he tutted, sweeping her up and laying her on a sofa. “Looking just makes it worse, Phoenix, you should know that,” he said, but he did not wait for an answer.

She couldn’t have given him one anyway, her hand coming back up to clutch at her mouth, her body trembling and shaking, but she didn’t hear him come back, her eyes going wide at the sight of him kneeling beside her, and then she gasped, a gasp that turned into a scream that turned into a cry, and she shook her head.

“Easy,” he said, holding up a small jar. “I have something for you, you know what it is?”

She stared at it, her breathing so heavy, her forehead lining in a crease, and then she shook her head. He laughed, a short, curt laugh, and he twisted the lid off, pouring what looked like oil onto his fingers and holding them out to her.

“I’ll take that as an answer for now,” he said. “But you’re going to have to get better at talking. If I told you this would make you feel better, would you believe me?” he asked, and she stared at those fingers, that crease growing deeper, her hands clenching into fists. She shook her head again, but she did not expect him to smile. “Good,” he said. “Looks like I don’t have to teach you everything. You should never trust a Master, Phoenix,” he said, and she shook her head again when she saw those fingers reaching for her, her hand whipping out to brush them away, but he caught it. “This is going to make it better,” he said, his voice so quiet, his eyes half-closing as he stared at her.

She wanted to shake her head again, she wanted to cry, she wanted to fight and scream, but all she did was gasp when those fingers touched her and her shoulders dropped. She closed her eyes, a tight wince on her face, her hands going limp at her sides, and then she heard him laughing, a short, curt, little laugh, and she felt those fingers on her temples, that oil taking everything away.

“I’ll say this, just so we’re clear,” he said. “You do well and you get rewarded.”

She didn’t know why she nodded, only that she did, only that she didn’t want him to stop or ever feel that pain again, but then her eyes flicked open, staring at him and watching those Implants flicker, and he stared back at her, his head tilting to the side as he grabbed a cloth and dried his fingers.

“You can sleep if you want,” he said. “I meant what I said, you did well, not many make it through eighteen… I want you back in training tomorrow.”

“Will you help me find Iris?” she asked, her voice so strained and hoarse.

He stared at her, sitting on a nearby ottoman and staring again. “I don’t trust you, Phoenix, I only make deals with people I trust… And why would you ask me to help you? You don’t trust me either.”

“You bought me for a reason,” she said. “I’ll do whatever that is as long as you use that and find Iris,” she pointed at his computer.

The corner of his lip twitched, his eyes half-closing as he leaned in closer. “How do you know it was you I was after, you came with three others.”

“Don’t mess around,” she snapped, sitting up straight and glaring at him. “You wanted me. Now what do you want me to do?”

Those Implants flickered so quickly, his body so stiff, his eyes so cold as he stared at her. “With or without a deal, that’s the last time you’ll talk to me like that,” he said, his voice so quiet. “I am a Master, Phoenix, and you’re a slave, you understand what that means even if you don’t want to… But I’ll be honest with you, you won’t find Iris, not even if I helped you look for her. You’re new here, I know you don’t understand, but what you want to do is like trying to find one particular leaf in a forest, it can’t be done.”

“You have that,” she said, pointing her finger at his computer, and his eyes flicked to it, his head nodding slightly as he sat up a little straighter.

“That might help, but I’m just telling you the truth,” he said. “If you still want to make a deal, I’ll go along with it.”

“You can’t just go along with it,” she said. “You have to actually try to find her.”

“I take deals seriously,” he said, those Implants flickering furiously. “What I need is some proof from your side that you do too. All you’ve done since you got here is lie.”

She stared at him, her eyes cold and hard, her hands clenching into fists. “What do you want?”

“The location of another Woodlander family.”

“No,” she shook her head, her mouth so dry, her heart racing. “I’m not giving you that, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. None of us know where the others live so we can’t give each other up when we’re caught.”

He watched her so closely, his eyes never blinking, those Implants flickering quicker and quicker. “That’s the last time you’ll lie to me,” he said.

“It’s not a lie, it’s what-,”

“You know where Ash lives,” he cut in. “And you’ll tell me where that is right now, if you want me to look for your sister.”

She stared at him, her heart racing, her skin so cold and her hands trembling. “How do you-?”

“It’s safer for you to assume that I know everything about you,” he cut in, and she gritted her teeth, her eyes narrowing into thin slits, that burning back in the pit of her stomach.

She should just kill him now, there was no point in making a deal with a Master, no point, not even if he had a machine or Implants like that. It was all a trick, it had to be, there was nothing else that made any sense. He let out a little laugh then, leaning back against his palms as he watched her.

“And there’s the problem,” he said. “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me and I have so much more to lose.”

“I’m not going to lose my sister.”

“You did, Phoenix, and what if she stays lost, what then? Hmm?”

“She’s not going to.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because you and I are going to make whatever deal you want and you’re going to find her.”

“I already told you what I want, you’re not giving them up.”

She stared at him, feeling her blood run cold, knowing the right answer, but needing a moment to work up the strength to say it. He smiled as he stared at her, his head tilting to the side, the light from those Implants only soft, almost pleasant. She opened her mouth to speak, her face scrunching up in a wince, her heart so heavy.

“So,” he said, before she could. “She means more to you than he does? That’s interesting, I wonder if he would do the same.”

She gritted her teeth again, her eyes flicking open to glare at him. “Of course, he would,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Is it?” he asked.

“He wouldn’t choose me over his sisters,” she shook her head.

“Hmm… so he has sisters?” he smiled, his head tilting even further to the side. “How many?”

She felt so cold then, her skin tingling, that burning in her stomach turning to ice. “I-,” she stammered, but he laughed.

“Now you have a lot to lose too,” he said. “So I guess that makes us as even as we can be. I don’t like to lose, Phoenix, and I don’t like liars, not bad ones anyway. But I have more conditions, you lie to me one more time or you try to run away again and the deal is off. This will only work if we trust each other.”

She stared at him, her eyes stinging, her heart so heavy. “I don’t trust you,” she whispered, but she did not expect him to laugh.

“I don’t trust you…” he waited, his eyebrows raised.

She couldn’t say it, she had to say it, if not now, then when? “Master,” she whispered, burying that burning down in the pit of her stomach, her mouth going dry, but he nodded.

“That’s a good thing too,” he said. “I don’t go back on deals, not unless the other side breaks them first, but you trust anything another Master says and we’ll be done, Phoenix, that’s for certain.”


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