Part of our training here involves torture; not giving it, taking it. Only the bad guys in Dunari ever use torture. Nevertheless, Ganhook insisted that we needed to be exposed to it to know what to expect if any bad guys ever catch us.
That’s why he took us to the Fortress of the Five Heads yesterday morning. This is the hub of the Dunari intelligence services where information is filed away on every known threat in this world. It’s also where criminals with super long sentences are held in either the Den of Spies Prison or The Shadow Pit.
While the Five Wise Heads reside in the fortress, a walled complex of spy schools, exploration schools, military barracks and other security buildings surround the castle. The whole place is enclosed by a high wall.
We’d heard rumours about a ghost prison, but even Shinytop wasn’t sure if it was true. Nor was he too sure who or what the Five Heads were. All he knew was that they shared the knowledge of the world between them.
After passing through the main security gates, two guards escorted us to a long rectangular barracks that sat in the shadow of the fortress. The building had no windows, and the moment we passed inside through a second security gate, shadows closed in around us and the chill pawed at my face.
A black girl in a grey suit introduced herself as Lailia. When I saw the golden flecks glittering in her hair, I almost asked her if it was some deterrent against mind readers. But she looked too nice to be teased. Besides, the gloomy corridors, the cold, the shadows and the oily stink of burning torches was quickly dampening my mood.
‘She’s too nice to be a torturer,” Aisling whispered. ‘Maybe she’s going to tickle the truth out of us.’
I couldn’t stop myself laughing. Ganhook shot me a filthy look. He beckoned us closer, and whispered, ‘You’ll be interrogated three times. Each time, once you’ve had enough, just say the release word ‘I yield’ and the interrogation will stop. Understand?’
‘And,” Ganhook smiled, ‘The interrogator will write down the time it took before you cracked. Let’s see who can do best.’
My stomach sank. Aisling was the super competitive one. I could already see her waving triumphantly in the air.
Lailia led me away past a food hall, some offices, through another security gate and down a stairs to a corridor lined with more heavy iron doors than I’d ever seen in one place before. The corridor stretched off forever, and I was grateful when she led me into the second cell on the left, and said, ‘Sit. And don’t touch anything.’
Considering there was only a table, two chairs and a table lantern, there wasn’t much to touch. The instant she left, the bare stone walls and ceiling felt like they were closing in around me. The timber floor was polished and slippery and reflected a warped version of myself whenever I glanced down.
Study 1: The Insect Crown
I spent a few minutes fidgeting in the chair until a man marched in and sat across from me. Dressed from top to toe in a chain mail suit, he looked like he was about to go diving with sharks.
‘Er . . . hello,’ I said, trying to smile.
Sharp green eyes blazed out from behind the armoured face veil. He said, ‘To avoid discomfort, tell me Ganhook’s ‘release’ word.’
He placed a beautifully polished wooden casket on the table, and stared at it. I stared at it, too, for so long I nearly screamed at him to open it. But I knew he was playing mind games. I’d seen stuff like this before on TV.
Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘You are Fox Keyes, Ganhook’s ward?’
I pulled my shoulders back. This guy wasn’t going to threaten me so easily. If he’d known what I’d seen in the Wrecking Woods, he’d have thought twice about ever asking me to quit so easily. ‘Yes.’
‘Tell me the ‘release’ word.’
He opened the box, keeping the lid at a ninety-degree angle so stop me seeing inside. He lifted out a green striped insect about the length of my finger, and held it over the lantern as if warming its gossamer wings. The insect twitched. A long orange sting curled out from its abdomen. Then, like he was hanging it from some invisible hook, he left it floating motionless a foot above my head.
More insects followed, things of different colours, sizes, and shapes, things with stings and things with teeth and things with so many spines they resembled thistles.
Within minutes, a circle of these things dangled over my head like some terrible crown.
Sweat pushed out across my brow. My hands started trembling. It became hard to breathe.
Was this another mind game? Or were these things going to . . .
‘Tell me the ‘release’ word?’
‘No,’ I croaked.
The light went out, and the room became a Universe full of hidden things. I heard the whirr and whine of wings, a clicking, then the chattering of tiny teeth. Something droned past my ear. I gripped the table, desperately trying to stop my legs from dragging the rest of me out of there. Tiny feet clipped my head, the talons or claws or whatever, catching in my hair.
The light came on. But I kept my eyes shut. I didn’t want to know what was there.
‘Tell me the ‘release’ word?’
I opened my eyes. Frozen in mid-air, the green stripey thing was inches from my face, its sting drawn back as if preparing to strike. To my left and right, other insects were suspended all around my head.
The room went dark. That terrible whining buzzing started up again. Something landed on my forehead, and scratched. A bead of liquid ran down my nose. I tried to convince myself it was sweat, not blood, but the only thing I was certain of was that other things were now crawling over my head.
‘Tell me the ‘release’ word?’
I wanted to shout ‘no!’. I wanted to scream it. But something was picking at my chin, and I was too terrified to open my mouth in case it darted inside. ‘No,’ I mumbled. ‘No. No. No way never.’ Seconds later, though, when something tried to prise my eyelid open, my mouth opened all by itself, and I heard myself cry, ‘I yield!’
By the time the light was fully on, the insects were already back in the box and the man was writing something on a card. He handed me the card, and left.
I took slow deep breaths and examined my face. I felt no blood, no bites. Not even a scratch. I was proud, though, that I’d not given in easily. Still panting, I swallowed two super-hot chilli chocolate chewies and let the searing heat of them distract me.
I examined the card. Four minutes and fifty-one seconds. It had felt more like four hours.
Study 2: The Puppet
It wasn’t long before another man marched in. I was relieved that he was wearing a plain grey uniform without a hint of armour anywhere. He wasn’t much older than the new teachers that arrived at our school every September. When he sat across from me, and laid his hands on the table, I noticed they were shaking.
The new teachers’ hands sometimes shook like that, with nerves, and it gave me hope he was a trainee.
Then I noticed that he was actually kneading some kind of dough between his fingers, and my hope of an easy torture vanished.
‘You cannot move,” he hissed.
And suddenly, with the power of those few words, I was paralysed. I could only watch as he strode around the table, dabbing dough balls onto my wrists, elbows, shoulders, head, knees and ankles.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me for the word?’ I asked.
The man smiled. ‘Let’s have some fun first.’ Then, like he was holding an invisible string attached to my left wrist, he yanked his hand back and my arm shot across the table.
‘What are . . .’ I cried. Before I had time to finish he snapped his hand upwards, and my head shot back.
Before I could catch a breath, I was out of the chair and doing a crazy puppet dance around the cell. He bent me backwards until my spine creaked. He held me suspended in mid-air over the table. Most humiliating of all, he pinned me high up the wall, making me feel like a bag of bones hanging from a hook.
And, though I felt no pain, the strength behind the movements convinced me he could easily have torn me apart.
In the midst of the mayhem, I realised Ganhook was right to bring us here. We did need to be exposed to this. After a few more minutes of mistreatment, I figured I’d been exposed enough. I cried, ‘I yield.’
Like all the strings had been cut, I tumbled to the floor. The man pushed the time into my hand. I was so stunned, I shoved it in my pocket without checking it.
Study 3: The Dark
Deciding that whoever came next could help me up, I stayed on the floor, my twisted reflection staring back at me. I waited, and waited, and waited until leg cramp forced me up. I slumped into the chair. I figured that I was doing okay so far. I also figured that I’d gone along with things too easily. For the third interrogation, I’d fight back and . . .
The lantern flickered and died.
More tricks, I thought. I’d wait them out. Once again, I waited, and waited, and waited until my stomach was growling and I desperately needed to pee. Finally, I pawed my way through the blackness to the door. Locked. Not even a chink of light was visible around its edges.
That made me think about the insects, and thinking about them filled my head with images of bone crushers, and demons, and giant worms and any other amount of other horrors I’d experienced in this world. The stink of stale, animal breaths crept into the room and turned my stomach.
Suddenly I imagined the darkness filled with these things, all silently milling around me, preparing to attack.
I staggered to the door, and cried, ‘Let me out.’
‘Tell me the ‘release’ word?’ Despite the thickness of the door, Lailia’s voice was lucidly clear.
I realised then that my solitary confinement was another form of torture. ‘I yield.’
Lailia unlocked the door and handed me a time card
Study 4: The Maddening Curiosity.
Ganhook and Aisling were waiting upstairs. Though Aisling was smiling, her face was white and the dark rings around her eyes betrayed her exhaustion. Briefly, I wondered about her times. But by then I was past caring. I was just relieved she was okay.
Lailia escorted us outside. As we passed the food hall, I saw four people sitting over a table, drinking ale and laughing. One was the puppet master. He looked my way, and gave me a thumbs up. Somehow, I managed to smile back.
Once we were outside, Ganhook said, ‘Well done. You’re both alive. Now give me your time cards.’
Squinting against the daylight, I handed my cards over.
‘Congratulations, Aisling,’ Ganhook said. ‘You held out longest during the Insect Crown.’
I shot her a bad look. My pride was restored when I learned that I’d won The Puppet.
Then Ganhook shocked us by handing us back our ‘The Darkness’ time cards, and saying, ‘Now, if you want to know who won, you’ll have to interrogate each other.’
It sounded like he was pitting us against each other in one last torture because he knew we were both so stubborn we’d never reveal our time first.
For the past six hours Aisling and I have badgered, threatened, teased and tried to bribe each other to reveal our time.
Though I figure I’d have better luck trying to blow away my own shadow than get the answer out of her, I’m not giving in. No. No. No way never.