A Citadel of Captives – Bella Forrest

It was difficult to keep a positive outlook in the face of everything that had happened. If it were just us captured by Ta’Zan, it would be different. Our worst-case scenario in that instance would be a possible eternity spent in this place, while Ta’Zan lifted the genetic material he needed to create his Perfects and continue his quest to design the ideal supreme creature. But this wasn’t just about us anymore. Our kids were out there looking for us. Two of our ships had been utterly destroyed by Ta’Zan’s Perfects. A couple-hundred lives lost. Hundreds more captured. All we could do was hope that our loved ones had not been on the ships that had gone down, or at least were among those who had survived the attack. This was a new and downright frightening situation, since we knew for a fact that Ta’Zan intended to take his creations out into the universe and conquer every nook and cranny of the In-Between. He didn’t even intend to keep the existing species alive. He’d said he’d keep those willing to serve, but we all knew that no nation would so easily renounce its sovereignty. No, he planned to replace them all with his Perfects—carefully engineered hybrids that had been made possible because of us. Derek and me, Xavier and Vivienne, Lucas and Marion, my father and Kailyn, Corrine and Ibrahim, Claudia and Yuri, and Cameron and Liana… We were indirectly responsible for the existence of Ta’Zan’s perfect killing machines. We were held prisoner by a combination of technology and magic; we didn’t know what type of magic it was—only that it was nothing that Corrine and Ibrahim had dealt with before.

Something new and complex, deeply intertwined with Ta’Zan’s scientific methods. And we couldn’t even fight our way out of this place. After all these years, all our trials and tribulations, we’d been rendered virtually useless by Ta’Zan and his strange magi-tech, as we called it. We only had two things working for us at this point. First, Ta’Zan had yet to make a decision on whether the Faulties would live or die, since he still considered his first creations useful, but that didn’t stop us from exploiting that avenue and planting a seed of doubt in the heads of Isda and her Faulty siblings. Second, Ta’Zan seemed to have a bit of a soft spot for Derek. He’d taken my husband out of his glass box and had given him a tour of the facility, while the rest of us stayed back. It was a good opportunity for Derek to scope out the building and to better understand what Ta’Zan was planning and doing. Of course, the conclusion was terrifying and grim, but at least we knew more about what and who we were up against. “How are you feeling?” I asked Derek.

He lay in his bed, still reeling from what he’d seen outside. Derek had witnessed the aftermath of our fleet’s destruction—the ravaged ships falling apart and plunging toward the ocean in fiery chunks, the numerous escape pods intercepted by the Perfects, the third space vessel pulling back to avoid destruction and capture. It had taken its toll on him, since he’d never seen so many of our own, of GASP, get caught like that. We’d grown accustomed to being stronger together, numerous species from three different dimensions, working to promote peace and prosperity wherever we ventured. All of a sudden, GASP seemed helpless and small, compared to Ta’Zan’s Perfects, whom he was mass-producing at incredible speeds. Despite our years of experience, we had every reason to be afraid, not just for ourselves, but for our families, The Shade, and all the planets that were going to burn once Ta’Zan ordered his creatures out to conquer everything. “The headache is starting to subside,” Derek muttered, resting his forearm over his eyes. “But there’s nothing I can do to overcome this helplessness that’s eating away at me.” “Don’t go soft on me now, Derek,” Lucas replied. “We still have a shot at doing something, even if we’re stuck in these wretched boxes.

” “I know, I know.” Derek sighed. “I tell myself that, as well. I just have these momentary relapses that I need to get over. I’ll be fine, don’t worry.” “You care, that’s why it feels like this,” Kailyn said. “We’re in this together, Derek. We’re all feeling this way, but we’ll get through it. We always do.” Corrine stood up and looked around for the millionth time.

She’d made a habit of quietly studying the underground cave we were in, as if she’d spot a detail she’d missed before. Anyone else would’ve thought she was going crazy, doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different results each time. However, I knew the witch well enough to understand her mindset. She was calculating possible escape scenarios, and our surroundings could prove themselves useful… maybe. I didn’t exclude the possibility that Corrine had yet to lose hope, despite the dire circumstances, or perhaps there was a sliver of madness fueling her. Either way, it didn’t really matter. We had no way of getting out of here through violence. “Isda brings us food every six hours,” Corrine said. “I counted.” “That explains why you’ve been quiet for so long,” Claudia replied, slightly amused.

“Well, I was curious,” Corrine said. “There are patterns here. We just need to keep our eyes open and observe them. They’ll come in handy later.” “So, what do we do next? Wait for Isda and try to convince her to let us out?” Cameron said, his arms crossed as he sat by the glass wall separating him from Liana. “No. She serves Ta’Zan,” Derek replied. “You know she won’t turn against him so easily. You’ve seen how she acts around him. She worships the guy.

” “We need to get to her, psychologically,” Xavier chimed in. “We’ve talked about this. We need to plant a seed of doubt. If Ta’Zan has yet to decide whether he’ll keep the Faulties alive or not in the future, it works in our favor, because it makes it obvious that he doesn’t cherish them like he does the Perfects. It’s bad enough that Abaddon and his siblings treat Isda and her people like crap. Imagine if she learns that her own ‘father’ doesn’t deem her worthy enough to get an automatic pass into the ideal world he plans on building.” Vivienne nodded slowly, staring at the stream flowing by her bare feet. “She needs to know that Ta’Zan is undecided,” she said. “There’s one thing that we, all living creatures, have in common, and that’s the will to survive. That is so deeply embedded in our genes that not even a genius like Ta’Zan can change it.

We all want to live and breathe. If that is threatened in any way, our survival instincts will kick in. It’s the same with Isda. You tell her that Ta’Zan might kill her and her siblings, and she’ll start thinking about it.” “What if she confronts Ta’Zan over this?” I asked, analyzing all possible scenarios. Vivienne shrugged. “He’ll either lie to her or tell her the truth,” she replied, then looked at Derek. “My dear brother, you were with Ta’Zan up there. You got to talk to him for a little while longer. Does he strike you as the brutally honest type? Or is he more of a deceiver? What does your instinct tell you?” Derek sat up, then exhaled as he looked at his sister.

“He doesn’t care much for other people’s feelings,” he said. “He’s quite clinical in his approach. I mean, he’s cold to Isda. He doesn’t treat the Faulties like his children. He shows them no affection, but he acknowledges them as living creatures that are of some use to him. He uses the right words, but puts no emotion in them. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just tells her that he’s undecided about her right to live.” “That’s horrible,” Claudia murmured, visibly disturbed. “The guy’s a psychopath.” “Yeah, but there’s more to him than that,” Derek replied.

“He’s managed to form some kind of a bond with the Faulties and the Perfects, though I doubt it’s emotional for him. He doesn’t feel remorse for his actions. He thinks he’s in the right. If he finds you useful, he’ll treat you well. The moment you’re deemed unnecessary, however, he’ll wipe you out. I guess that’s what makes him so efficient. But, that does come with a weakness. He’s incapable of empathy. His Faulties, however, clearly have feelings. They love and worship him.

If you tell them their father might want to kill them, it’ll throw them for a loop. Like Vivienne said, planting the seed of doubt will definitely cause a reaction.” My father cleared his throat. “There’s something else we should take into consideration, as well,” he said. “The Faulties only know what Ta’Zan has told them. If we show them compassion and kindness, if we make them understand that it doesn’t have to be this way for them, we might be able to nurture that seed of doubt until it grows into something stronger.” I immediately understood what he meant, probably because we were all thinking it. We’d been imagining it for hours, since we’d heard about the fleet’s destruction and the impossibility of dealing with Ta’Zan’s forces in a military fashion. “Get the Faulties to sabotage Ta’Zan’s project,” I said. “Right.

But I have to ask, what could the Faulties do to tear his work apart and stop him?” “They may know how to kill the Perfects,” Derek replied. “And how to stop the mass production. We can focus on those two things, then render Ta’Zan defenseless.” “I doubt he’ll ever be defenseless,” Lucas muttered. “He’s too smart and powerful.” “On his own? Without his Perfects and Faulties blindly following him?” Derek replied. Lucas thought about it for a few moments, then nodded. “Fair enough. But we don’t know how he’s doing certain things, not only in the biotech field, but also where infrastructure and energy are concerned. We’re in the dark here.

So we should keep that in mind going forward, in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.” The cave door opened with its loud, familiar clang. I instantly recognized the dark silhouette against the yellowish light from the hallway. Isda came in, pushing the food cart. She sported a bruised eye and a split lip—those were new. “Isda, what happened to you?” I asked, showing genuine concern. Talking about Ta’Zan wasn’t a good conversation, given the way she looked. She’d taken quite the beating, and I was already suspecting that Abaddon might’ve had a hand in it. She gave us all a weak smile as she brought the cart in front of Derek’s glass box. We all stood, careful and slow in our movements so as not to startle her in any way.

I wanted her to feel safe and comfortable here, even though we were the prisoners. Establishing a rapport with her had taken the top spot on my priority list. “Isda, talk to me, sweetheart. What happened?” I asked again, determined to get a response. She served Derek’s pitcher of fresh blood through the liquid-like opening of the glass box, then looked at me and let out a tired sigh. “Nothing for you to worry about, Sofia,” she said. “How can I not worry? You came in here with a busted lip and a black eye, Isda! Believe it or not, we don’t like violence, especially against creatures as kind and gentle as yourself,” I replied. Something flickered in her eyes. I was ready to guess that I’d touched a sensitive point. “Please, tell me what happened.

Who hurt you? Was it Ta’Zan?” Her eyes grew wide. She shook her head vehemently. “No. No. Father would never hit me!” That told me something new about Ta’Zan, and also about their relationship. The absence of physical violence helped explain why Isda was so devoted to her creator, even though he treated her coldly. “Then who? Abaddon?” I asked. She poured me a pitcher of fresh blood, then handed it over through the glass, which reacted to her touch, creating an opening for her hand to pass through. I never got tired of watching it, and I looked forward to better understanding this strange mixture of magic and technology. It was nothing like what we’d accomplished so far.

Isda nodded, giving me a sad look. “He has a bad temper,” she whispered. “But it’s not his fault. Even though he’s a Perfect, his psychology is a bit… faulty,” she added, the corner of her mouth twitching. “What do you mean?” I said, then gave her a thankful nod as I retrieved my blood pitcher, and she moved on to Xavier’s glass box. “Well, Father’s Perfects are the result of numerous experiments,” Isda explained. “Some aren’t perfect per se, like in Abaddon’s case, but their physical capabilities are extraordinary. Such abilities trump his short fuse, and so Father decided to let him live. He’s just not allowed out in the world yet. He’s undergoing additional educational sessions.

” “Okay, so basically, Abaddon is extremely capable but mentally unstable, right?” Claudia asked, watching Isda’s hand movements as she served Xavier and Vivienne their blood pitchers. Isda nodded. “Yes. Abaddon is extremely powerful. In the Draenir’s old language, Abaddon means ‘place of great destruction.’ And that is something that certainly describes him well, albeit not as a physical place, but as a living creature.” “Why did he hit you, Isda?” I asked, frowning. Deep down, I was already looking forward to ripping his throat out. Seeing what he’d done to Isda, however, made the fire burn even hotter inside me. “I ran into him earlier,” Isda said.

“He was angry because Father kicked him out of here. He said, ‘How is it that you, a filthy Faulty, get to be there, and not me?!’ So, I told him the truth. I’m here because it’s my duty to look after you and your people. His duty is to not be in here. Needless to say, he didn’t like my response.” “Yeah, that’s pretty much obvious,” I replied, crossing my arms. “Have you told Ta’Zan about this?” She chuckled softly. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t dare trouble him with such trivialities.” “Your wellbeing is considered trivial?” Claudia inquired, raising an eyebrow.

“Isda, you’re not an inferior animal. You’re a living creature with extraordinary cognitive abilities. You have nothing but kindness and patience in you. How can you put yourself down like that?” Isda seemed confused, her gaze darting between Claudia and me. I had to give Claudia credit—she knew how to play the cards we had, and she’d jumped right into the middle of it with great dexterity and grace. Her past experiences certainly played a part in her ability to manipulate people. “What do you mean?” Isda asked. “You deserve respect and care, Isda, like all of us,” I replied. “That’s what Claudia is trying to say. Why should you be treated as a second-class citizen? Because your physical appearance and your abilities aren’t like the Perfects’? Is that it?” She nodded slowly.

“That’s ridiculous.” Claudia sighed. “Where we come from, people are treated equally and with nothing but respect. We love and support each other, even though some of us are stronger than others. It’s what makes our world so wonderful. Tolerance, Isda. Has Ta’Zan taught you nothing about it?” That was a rhetorical question, in my opinion, but Isda didn’t take it as such. She was sweet and innocent enough to actually answer. “No, Claudia. I was taught that my sole duty in this world is to serve him and the Perfects.

I am expendable.” Claudia and I looked at each other, then at the rest of our crew. There was an overall feeling of heartbreaking pity lingering—all of it aimed at Isda. A few moments passed in silence as she continued to serve our blood and food, one glass box at a time. Claudia spoke up when Isda reached her. “That’s just so… so sad and unfair, Isda,” she said gently. “Why should you be treated like this? Why wouldn’t your feelings or wellbeing matter?” Isda shrugged. “It’s how we were taught.” “And has it never occurred to you that it might be wrong?” I retorted. She shrugged again, then moved on to Corrine’s glass box.

“Isda, life is a very precious thing to have,” Corrine chimed in. “It doesn’t matter what size you are, what you can do, or where you’re from. Your soul is priceless. Your time in this world is valuable, and no one can ever tell you otherwise.” Isda seemed to think about what we were trying to get across to her, but she didn’t express any of her own thoughts. I could tell, however, that we’d planted one of the first seeds in her head. It was time to work on that. “What good is life if you can’t make it as free and beautiful as you wish?” I replied. “What good is it to breathe, if we cannot explore and enjoy everything that this world has to give us, huh?” “I don’t know, Sofia,” Isda said, her tone suddenly flat. “I’ve never thought about it.

” “Well, you should,” Derek cut in. “Because Ta’Zan clearly doesn’t give a damn about you, or about whether you live or die.” That hit her hard. She scowled at him. It was the first time we were seeing this side of her, and I knew what she was experiencing. I’d seen it in Derek and even Lucas, back in the early days. She’d been accustomed to this kind of life, and she’d been taught that it was the only way for her to be, even though it wasn’t. Isda was preparing to go on the defensive. She was ready to defend her maker, even though, deep down, she was already beginning to see things from a different perspective. “That’s a lie,” Isda said.

“Father loves me. He loves all of us.” “Then why don’t you tell him about what Abaddon did to you?” Derek said. “If Ta’Zan loves you, like you say, he’d be furious if someone hurt you. Even if that someone is another one of his… children.” “How do you know?” Isda replied, pursing her lips. “Because that’s what love is like,” I said, following Derek’s lead. “When you love someone, you do your damn best to keep them safe, to make sure they’re free and happy. Because seeing them smile is what gets you out of bed in the morning. Love is selfless like that.

You’ll do anything to make your loved one happy.” “I don’t know what Ta’Zan has told you about love, Isda, but it’s not what you think it is,” Lucas interjected. “Love made me change my ways. I was one of the worst creatures to ever live. I was selfish, ruthless, and envious of everyone who’d found love, who’d encountered happiness in their lives. Then I, too, found someone to love. And, Isda, I will break anyone and anything that tries to hurt those I hold dear. Especially my daughter. Do you understand that?” Isda blinked several times, then nodded. “You have a daughter?” “Yes.

I have a son of my own and an adopted daughter whom I love like my own, to be precise,” Lucas replied, then gave Marion a warm smile. “When Marion and Avril came into my life… everything changed, Isda.” “So, what should I do, then?” Isda asked. That was the question we’d sort of been waiting for. She was actually asking us for help. It was essential that we had her play into this of her own accord. We needed her to see for herself that she wasn’t as important to Ta’Zan as she’d been raised to believe. We needed her to understand that what Ta’Zan professed as love toward her and her siblings wasn’t that, at all. The Faulties were a necessary bunch of animals to him—service creatures he could do with as he pleased. I didn’t want to fall prey to a sense of false hope, but I had every intention of seeing this through.

I was determined to do and say anything, until doubt festered in Isda’s mind. Until we got her on our side. Once we convinced one of the Faulties, the others would likely follow. We didn’t need many. Just enough to sabotage this whole project from the inside. Just enough to get us closer to freedom and to destroying Ta’Zan and his Perfects. The entire universe depended on it.

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