“Are you sure you want to do this?”
Sarah lit the candle she was holding and returned it to its metal base before she answered Alice’s question. Though primarily a healer, Alice also trained those who had recently mutated, teaching them how to better their concentration and control their abilities. All of her considerable skills would be necessary for the ritual they were about to perform.
Candlelight wavered across Alice’s round face, emphasizing the worry in her dark blue eyes. Sarah squeezed her upper arm and produced a smile she hoped was convincing. “I’ll be fine. You’ve seen me through far worse than a vision quest. Most people don’t even bother with an attendant anymore. Several of the precogs do this on a weekly basis.”
“Only because they enjoy the ride.” Alice shook her head, disapproval knitting her brow. “It’s only been eleven days since the transformation. Doctor Lansky isn’t even sure the change is permanent.”
Sarah glanced away from her friend, unable to hide the emotional tempest unleashed by the mention of his name. Allen Lansky, destroyer of lives. Well, destroyer of her life at least. The rest of the Underground might consider him a hero, a brilliant scientist who swooped in and pulled them back from the brink of death. Her opinion of the ambitious doctor was far different from the rest.
True, her mutation had become unstable and it was likely she would have died without Doctor Lansky’s treatment. But he hadn’t stabilized her condition, as promised. No, the nanites he’d injected into her body had reset her genetic code, meticulously purging her DNA of any trace of mutation. And robbing her of her prophetic visions in the process.
“This is permanent and we both know it.” Too anxious to remain still, Sarah began to undress. “I’m healed. Praise be to Doctor Lansky, modern-day savior of the Underground.”
“If you’re no longer able to penetrate the veil, this might be an exercise in frustration.” Hushed resignation crept into the healer’s tone. Alice didn’t like the idea, but she had obviously accepted that the ritual was going to happen.
“I doubt I could be any more frustrated than I am right now.” The bedroom was small and warm. A multitude of fragrant candles created a soothing glow, but they also compounded the airless heat. Wearing only a loose underdress, Sarah crawled onto the bed. “My gift hasn’t left me, Alice. I still sense the visions waiting beyond the veil. My mutation allowed me to punch through and access the images. If I can find another way in, I won’t be useless anymore.”
“Anyone without paranormal abilities is useless?” Her tone remained conversational but challenge raised her chin. “I know many who would object to that conclusion.”
Sarah waved away the older woman’s objection. “I didn’t say that. I’m a dreamer. Even before my original transformation, I was sent images from beyond the veil. This is my destiny, what I am meant to do. This is a setback, not my ruination.”
“Vision quests cannot replace your gift.” Alice went to the small table where she had crushed the needed herbs. She added cirgra tea to the dry ingredients and vigorously stirred the mixture. “It’s dangerous and addictive. This compound can erode your mind in ways you don’t want to consider.”
“I’m aware of the risks. All I want to do is reestablish the connection, relearn the path. If I can experience the voyage once from this new perspective, I know I’ll be able to find my way again.”
Alice didn’t argue with her, but doubt shadowed her expression. She brought Sarah the cup and watched closely as she drank. “Fane will have my hide if he finds out I did this for you.”
“Then let’s make sure he doesn’t find out.” She lay back against the pillows and closed her eyes. Fane had an uncanny ability to anticipate trouble, but he was also extremely busy with all the recent changes that had come to the Underground. New alliances and new enemies. Sarah couldn’t remember a time when things had been so unsettled.
“Clear your mind. Don’t try to control the images. Let your being flow freely.”
Wood scraped against wood and Sarah pictured Alice moving the desk chair nearer to the bed. The quest could take several hours or she could emerge in a matter of minutes. There was simply no way to know. Alice had agreed to remain at Sarah’s side until she awakened from the vision.
Heat spread across Sarah’s skin and her fingers tingled. Was the concoction taking effect already? No, it was much too soon.
She inhaled deeply, savoring the spicy scent of the candles. The air around her swirled, wafting against her skin and stirring her hair. Peeking through her lashes, she looked at Alice. The healer held a fan in each hand, slowly waving them back and forth. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved as she whispered ancient words Sarah didn’t understand.
Lowering her lids again, Sarah let her mind wander as she waited for the potion to lead the way. She saw herself standing before a mirror, staring at her reflection in stunned disbelief. Her features were straight and symmetrical rather than twisted and deformed. Most people would have been thrilled by the transformation. She saw only uselessness and betrayal.
Doctor Lansky swore the result hadn’t been intentional, that he’d only meant to arrest the deterioration and restore her strength. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been playing God, giving her what he thought she needed rather than the compromise to which she’d agreed.
The image blurred and her head spun. Colors burst within the darkness. She took slow, deep breaths, sinking deeper into intoxication. Opening her mind to the sensory rush, she flowed with the tingling stream.
Her body seemed to rise and twirl, suspended in midair. Weightless and naked, she accepted the image without question or conscious thought. She arched and wiggled, luxuriating in the soft brush of air against her bare skin.
Tingles rippled across her flesh, awakening her senses and stirring her desire. The slow, melting heat wasn’t altogether alien to her. Though she’d never been with a man, she’d brought herself to release when the restlessness grew too persistent to ignore.
But why had her quest led her here? Sexual frustration wasn’t keeping her from the vision world. Or was it? Was her self-imposed isolation hindering her gift? The ache between her thighs focused as if to confirm the supposition.
“Don’t analyze what you’re seeing. Accept each image and move on to the next.” Alice’s voice sounded very far away.
Sarah tried to assure her that she would heed the advice, but her body refused to cooperate with her mind. Reality dissolved and the feelings assailing her body intensified. Her nipples tightened and her breasts felt heavy. She tried to lift her arms, to press her palms against the fullness and ease the ache.
Gradually an image separated from the fog swirling through her mind. She could see herself bent over a table or desk, naked, legs straight yet parted, butt raised by the arch of her back. What in the world? A man stood on either side of her, one dark-haired, one blond. They took turns spanking her upturned ass, the crack of their palms obscenely loud against her bare bottom.
Her image gasped and sensation echoed through Sarah’s corporeal body, heat and tingling pleasure-pain. She tossed restlessly on the bed. How strange. Why would she allow this? And clearly she was a willing participant. Her image wasn’t being held down. She stood there, passively waiting for each firm swat of their big hands.
She forced the image away, not willing to analyze when or why she would submit to such foolishness. The fog swirled through her mind for a moment, then hands swept up along her ribs, bringing with them another image. She gasped and shied away from the touch, only to press back into a tall, warm body.
“Easy, love. Let us soothe you. Relax and let it come.”
Let us soothe you? Why did she keep seeing herself with two lovers instead of one? The man behind her wrapped his arm around her waist while the man kneeling in front of her caressed her breasts. All she could see clearly was the top of his blond head as he bent to suck her nipples.
Despite her intention to flow with the quest, her mind began to whirl. How was this helping her recapture her abilities? Unlike the Stilox, most Protarians didn’t require two men for conception. Tri-bonds weren’t unheard of on Protaria, but they were far more unconventional than on Stilox. She had no room in her life for one lover, much less two.
Their hands moved over her body with bold familiarity. Was she glimpsing the future, or had she unleashed some deep-seated fantasy she’d never dared to entertain?
Surrounded by their warmth and supported by their strength, she began to soar. The blond’s lips pulled firmly on her nipple, sending hot darts of sensation through her chest. A hand covered her mound, rubbing and squeezing without venturing into her crease. She rocked her hips, pressing against the hand, needing more than he was giving. The subtle motion drew her attention to the cock rapidly hardening against her back.
Why wasn’t she afraid? She’d never been claimed by a man before. How could she possibly be comfortable with this?
The hand between her thighs shifted, the man’s long middle finger parting her folds. He teased her opening then pushed into the core of her body. Even the slight fullness felt wonderful. She canted her hips, taking him deeper.
She tried to abandon herself to the vision, but her mind would not be silenced. His hand shifted again, his finger settling over her clit. She jerked with the first gentle flick then rotated her hips, encouraging the circular caress.
Warm lips pressed against the side of her neck while she undulated and moaned. It had never felt like this when she touched herself. The sensations built gradually, gathering momentum as they swept through her body.
She wanted to see their faces, to understand what this meant. Tangling her fingers in the blond man’s hair, she tried to lift his head and reveal his features. He ignored her efforts as his mouth continued its steady sucking. Feelings rushed toward completion. Pleasure burst from her clit and pulsed through her abdomen. Her inner muscles clenched and released while sensations rained down upon her.
Floating in the weightless aftermath, she felt the image slipping away. No! There had to be more. This revealed nothing helpful, nothing useful. She hadn’t seen their faces, had no idea how to find them or if she even wanted to try.
Alice pressed a cool cloth against her brow as she struggled free of the lethargy. “That was a waste of time,” Sarah whispered, her body still tingling with echoes of her orgasm.
“What did you see? I couldn’t tell if you were in some sort of struggle or… enjoying the ride.”
She dragged her fingers through her hair and sat up. “Even if the image I saw was real, it was in no way helpful.” Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she released a ragged sigh. “This was my last hope. There is only one other way to reactivate my gift and I really don’t want to go there.”
“Don’t even think about it!” Alice planted her hands on her hips and glared at Sarah. “I was part of the team that kept you alive during your first transformation. You were delirious, so you don’t remember much of it, but I do.”
“That’s just the point. I survived mutation before. Chances are good I will—”
“Die in agony.” Alice let the prediction hang in the air for a tense moment before she went on. “Two of the members of the original team are no longer alive. There is no way I can heal you alone.”
“You’re not alone. There are other mystic healers and you’ve only gotten stronger since my transformation.”
Alice sat beside her and captured one of her hands. “Don’t do this. It’s not worth the risk.”
“I can’t live like this.” Sarah looked into her friend’s eyes and allowed her anguish to show. “I sense the visions just beyond my grasp. My dreams are filled with warnings and predictions, but the moment I wake, the knowledge slips away no matter how desperately I try to hold on to the images. How many will die if I’m unable to warn them? How many will suffer without my help?”
“It’s not worth what you’d be risking. Find another way to serve the cause.”
“There is no other way for me. I was born to dream.”
A muffled shout drew Allen Lansky’s attention to the hallway beyond his lab. He deactivated his microscope and moved toward the disruption. Fane had immobilized Sean Wylie against the corridor wall, though the mutant leader stood several paces away.
“Calm down and I’ll release you,” Fane told his indignant friend.
“If anything happens to her, this is on you! I told you to have her shadowed.” Sean’s face was flushed, his gaze narrowed, fists clenched at his sides.
“Thom is shadowing her. Unfortunately, he didn’t report her behavior. I have a feeling her guard has become her escort on this misadventure.”
“How the fuck can you be so cavalier? She’s the most resourceful person I know. If she wants this to happen, it will happen.”
“I agree.” Fane eased the telekinetic pressure, allowing Sean to step away from the wall. “We can do our best to protect her, but ultimately this is her decision.”
“I don’t accept that!”
Understanding spread through Allen, dread half a step behind. Despite the very real danger, Sarah had decided to expose herself to the lentavirus for a second time. And apparently the specter who was supposed to be guarding her was now helping her achieve her goal.
Sarah. Strong-willed, fiercely independent, untouchable. Her face had haunted Allen ever since he arrived in the Underground. She lay near death, features twisted by mutation when he first met her. She’d seemed tragic, in need of a savior, a champion to protect and heal her ravaged body. He’d worked relentlessly, determined to save her. And he’d succeeded—a little too well. Not only had his treatment stabilized her mutation, an unintentional glitch in the programming had resulted in a complete transcription of her DNA. She’d regressed to a point in her physiology before mutation had begun, leaving her physically whole yet essentially powerless.
“Does she know where to find the lentavirus?” His question drew the attention of the other two.
Rage burst across Sean’s features and he charged down the hall. Fane brought him up short, mutant intensity glowing in his eyes. “Enough!”
After a long, tense pause, Allen rephrased his question. “Do you know where she’s gone? There are only a handful of people who have access to the strain she needs.”
“There are very few people who have legitimate access to the virus,” Fane corrected. “There’s a network of suppliers who sell the shit on the black market.”
“There’s a black market for the lentavirus?” The question sounded so preposterous, Allen resisted the possibility. “The outbreaks have killed millions. Why would anyone pay money for a lethal germ?”
“For the same reason Sarah wants it,” Sean muttered. “To unleash their mutant potential.”
“Not everyone who survives the onset illness mutates and not everyone who mutates ends up with any significant power.” Allen shook his head, baffled by the concept. “Don’t they realize it’s far more likely they’ll end up blind or deformed or dead? The airborne strain has been eradicated, but anyone injected with the virus can still spread it through sexual contact. This is insane.”
“You’re preaching to the choir.” Fane moved closer while Sean stayed back and continued to glare. “We’ve been trying to shut down the black market for years. As long as there’s a demand for it, these scumbags will find a way to provide for their customers.”
“Can we focus on Sarah?” Sean snapped. “How long has she been gone? Has anyone tried to contact Thom?”
“Several of us have tried. Thom is shielding his signal, distorting it just enough that I can’t get a fix on his location.” Fane crossed his arms over his chest, his expression nearly as grim as Sean’s. “After some browbeating on my part, Alice admitted that Sarah had a contact in Silver Hills.”
“Silver Hills? That’s in zone fourteen.” Sean made a vertical motion to his side and an opening appeared in midair, allowing him access to the shadow dimension.
Seeing a specter effortlessly manipulate the fabric of space helped Allen understand the allure of mutation. The possibility of possessing that sort of power might be tempting to those willing to face the dangers. Still, it was only a possibility and a slight one at best.
“Keep us in the loop,” Fane said.
Sean paused in the opening, half of his body swallowed by shadow. “I will. If you learn anything, no matter how insignificant, let me know.”
Fane waited until the opening sealed behind Sean before he turned back to Allen. “Silver Hills is a decoy. Sarah is too smart to tell anyone where she’s really going.”
“Then why send Sean there? You don’t intend to let her do this, do you?”
“Of course not. Sarah has been traumatized by her unexpected regression. She’s not thinking clearly right now. This is her decision, as I said, but sometimes people need to be protected from themselves.”
“Sean is a specter. Wouldn’t his skills be valuable in this situation?”
Fane just smiled, obviously well used to life-and-death crisis. “Sean’s too close to this. Emotions make people sloppy and we can’t afford mistakes.”
“Then what’s the real agenda?”
“There are three possible options that make more sense than the rest. Two are in Old Towne, one’s in the heart of Sanctum. Are you willing to help me search? Your background gives you a believable interest in the virus.”
Reaching back into his past, Allen dusted off his military training. He might be a lab rat now, but he’d spent eight years in the field before settling down behind a microscope. Besides, when push came to shove, this was his mess to clean up. Sarah’s regression had been unintentional, but his treatment had caused the change.
Sarah’s image lingered in his mind, delicate features flushed with anger, accusation flashing in her bright green eyes. He’d been attracted to her from the beginning. Her sacrifice and loyalty had awakened longings he’d never felt before. He’d been determined to save her, unwilling to let her sacrifice be for nothing. But any hope he had of getting to know her better or making her aware of his feelings for her had been abolished with her full recovery. He was the cause of her dilemma, the last person she’d confide in or trust.
“I doubt she’ll venture any farther into Sanctum than she has to, even with an escort,” Allen mused, refocusing his thoughts on the present crisis. “Her life has been very compartmentalized.”
“I agree.” Fane handed Allen a data crystal as he explained, “I’d like you to visit Carr Sancho. He owns half of the pleasure district outright and controls the rest. Guns, prostitution, drugs, he has his fingers in everything. It’s doubtful Sarah will approach him directly, but he’ll be able to point you in the right direction if she tries to score in his territory.”
“And why will Sancho agree to see me, much less help?”
“I’ll tell him to expect you and ask for his assistance.” The casual confidence in Fane’s tone made him easy to believe. “We’ve exchanged information in the past. As long as I stay out of his territory, he’s remarkably civil.”
“For a kingpin?”
“Understanding one’s limitations is the first step toward success in any endeavor.” Fane punctuated the statement with an enigmatic smile.
“You can’t secure the Underground by pissing off the rest of the world?”
“Something like that. Sancho might participate in endeavors most consider shady, but he lives by a strict code of honor. He’ll tell you the truth as long as we leave any ramifications to him. When rules are broken in his territory, he likes to be the one to dole out justice.”
“I have no problem with that. Is there anything else I should know?”
“A quick who’s who of the pleasure district is on the data crystal. We’re also searching for this man.”
Fane’s gaze narrowed and an image formed within Allen’s mind. The man was blond with pale blue eyes and sculpted features. “Who is he?”
“He calls himself Ceddrik. He’s extremely dangerous. If you spot him, contact me immediately. Do not approach him or attempt to detain him.”
“Is the image accurate? He doesn’t look dangerous.”
“Don’t let his appearance fool you. Ceddrik is ruthless and deadly. He’s also low on energy and his most likely hunting ground is the pleasure district.”