Zoe jerked her head back to get away from the sharp pain and acrid smell that assaulted her nose and eyes. Along with the pain came awareness, and what it brought wasn't pleasant.
The defining fact of her life was pain. Zoe's wrists, arms and shoulders were a mass of agony. Her arms were bound over her head, and were holding up most of her body's weight. Her forearms and hands crawled with lines of fire as well, where he'd cut her.
With sensation came memory. This wasn't her first awakening in these straits. She'd been attacked in the garage beneath her apartment building, knocked down, something pressed over her mouth. When she'd come to, she'd already been chained to dripping pipes in a freezing cold room. She'd been redressed in what looked like a hospital gown, tied at the shoulders and hanging open in the back. It did little to keep chill away, and before she'd become too exhausted to shiver, the shaking had made the torment in her arms even worse.
She pried her eyes open, and the room swam slowly into focus. The man who'd kidnapped her stood a few feet away, reduced to a blue blur by his surgical scrubs and her uncorrected vision. The only light around her seemed to be coming from directly overhead, casting the rest of the room into blackness.
She gathered her legs under her as best she could, and took some of the weight off her screaming shoulders. Her legs were bound as well, wide enough to make standing a torment but not so far that she couldn't do it.
The man approached her, and studied her face from behind a surgical cap and mask, and safety glasses. "I'm sorry, my dear, but we can't have you sleeping. The ritual is quite specific. Yes, very specific." The voice was deep, cultured, the diction precise.
Zoe's head was spinning, and her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls, but she managed a croak, "Why...?" Why are you doing this to me? What have I done to you? WHAT DO YOU WANT?
"Why? Because your pain and fear opens the door as much as the designs in your skin, child." He patted her arm, causing a wet slapping sound and a jagged spike of pain. He laughed, a throaty chuckle that climbed alarmingly to a falsetto. "An unmoored mind is a powerful thing. Powerful."
He moved behind her, striding a few paces. "But the designs must be cut, mustn't they? Wouldn't due to skip a step and suffer for it!" His voice was still a grating falsetto, and he'd begun shouting though he hadn't gone far.
There was a rattle of chains, and the cuffs around her wrist snapped taught. Zoe began to rise quickly, first to her toes and then off the floor entirely. As the chains securing her ankles extended to their maximum length, Zoe felt a strange tearing in her shoulder. With a scream, she blacked out again.
* * *
It took longer for the smelling salts to bring her around this time, but once they did the clamor of pain in her left arm snapped her fully awake. She shouted again, a mix of fear, pain and anger.
"You son of a bitch! How do you think you're going to get away with this? My roommate is going to call the police if I don't come home!"
"I know, but by then it won't matter," said her captor. His tone had returned to normal, and he stood before her with shoulders stooped. He released a heavy sigh, "I really do regret the necessity. I went ahead and did your legs while you were unconscious, so at least we don't have to go through that, hey? I decided that would be alright, so long as you're with us for the end."
It was hard to tell where she hurt anymore. The chains and cuffs had stretched all her joints as she was hoisted aloft, and her body was a mass of undifferentiated pain. When she focused on her legs, invisible below her chest and shoulders, she could feel a new, sharper pain, and warm wetness on the front and back of her thighs.
His protestations of solicitousness brought a hysterical, cynical laugh to her lips. It's like he wants a thank you for torturing me slightly less, she thought. As though there's anywhere this can go except for him killing me!
Zoe was conscious, more awake than she'd been since she'd felt his weight pressing her against the concrete of the garage floor. She tried to force past the pain to move her wrists and ankles, trying to find a direction or position in which the shackles that bound her were even slightly loose.
The attempt rewarded her only with pain. Even those small movements tormented her over strained joints, and the bonds only moved slightly on the chain in response. She pulled as hard as she could, and felt the tearing in her shoulder again, but it accomplished nothing more than to make her aching body wobble between the four chains.
Her killer reached out toward her, untying the gown at the shoulders. New fear gripped Zoe, and she thrashed her head back and forth, trying to reach his hand with her teeth. "No. No no no. Please, no!"
"Preparation is done. The hour draws near. The time for modesty is past. It's time for you to become one with the cosmos," he said. His voice was tight with emotion and excitement, but had not returned to its maniac cackle. He lifted his right hand to shoulder height, and she saw that he had flensed her skin not with a scalpel as she'd been expecting, but with a large knife with ornately carved hilts. The point of the knife punctured her skin between her shoulder and breast, and the knife easily cut a half circle over the right side of her chest. Zoe threw back her head and screamed as the blood began to run.
She thought she'd be numb to new pain by now, but every time the knife bit new flesh, her nerves sent their alarms, warning her to run, to get away from whatever was hurting her. Zoe screamed again and again until her throat burned and her voice was only a croak, and the madman drew intricate designs on her flesh. The covered her chest and shoulders, down her sternum and around her navel. A particularly busy design was incised on the inner swell of her left breast, over her heart.
Throughout, he had been chanting in a language Zoe didn't understand. She waited for the pain and fear to overwhelm her, to drag her down into unconsciousness again, but it never did. As her torturer finished the design over her heart, the chant rose to a frantic crescendo, and he raised the knife high over his head.
Zoe couldn't take her eyes off the glittering knife-tip, high over her head. She held her breath, trying vainly to pull away before the deadly sliver could drive down at her. The man released a soft grunt, and instead of plunging toward her chest, the knife fell straight down as his arm collapsed.
Lowering her gaze, Zoe watched in amazement as a narrow pointed blade withdrew into her captor's chest, and the surgeon's garb turned red. He reached helplessly toward the place the blade had been for a moment, and collapsed.
Standing behind her would-be killer was a young Asian man, holding a sword. He looked at her for a moment, an expression of rage clouding his face. Her reached to her feet and picked up the blood-spattered robe.
"You're alright, now," he said, draping the robe over her shoulders.
"Never mind the robe, get me down from here!" Zoe croaked. "Is he.. is he dead?"
"He is dead," her rescuer said. "I hit his heart, and possibly a lung." He finished tying the robe behind her neck, and left one hand on her cheek. "It's time for you to sleep, and forget."
"What? Sleep? I can't sleep! That's ridic-"
As the young man's hand left her face, darkness took her one last time.
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