The Academy, PROLOGUE

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Here the snow did not fall. To fall implies a lack of purpose, of agency, of will. The snow knew exactly what it wanted, and that was complete domination. Here the snow bombarded the land.

And yet, faintly visible through the microframes that existed between each kamikaze snowflake, was a light.

The building was made of thick stone, all but hidden from view by the storm and the trees. It had once been home to the grounds-keeper, but it was a home no longer. Like the frozen world outside, nothing of its original nature remained. No pictures adorned the walls, no old pieces of furniture, well-loved and long-used, cluttered the floors. Instead, it was now a space of utility, each of its rooms filled with tools and purpose.

Trapped in darkness behind a blindfold, Isabella stumbled down the staircase, the incessant pull of the chain at her wrists giving her no choice but to descend. The air shifted as she was led down. It was warmer here than in the cell, and her skin felt tacky with sweat after the cold. Her dress caught on something, holding her in place. Another sharp tug on the chain, the dress ripped, and she was on flat ground again.

Closing her eyes behind her blindfold, she concentrated: The floor was stone, cold and unforgiving, pressing against the soles of her feet. She couldn’t hear the storm clearly anymore, just the faint wail of the wind, screaming in the distance. What she could hear was the creature, standing next to her, breathing heavily, and, beneath that, the chime of glass touching glass.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a heavy shove to her shoulders. She fell forwards, instinctively placing her chained hands in front of her to break her fall. She felt leather, smooth and cool.

Large, calloused hands grabbed her and spun her around, pushing her backwards onto a chair. The creature. It lifted her arms, removing the chain from her wrists in quick, well-practised movements.

Instantly, Isabella brought the flat of her hand up, hard and fast. She ignored the pain in her wrist as her hand connected with something hard and fleshy, hopefully the creature’s nose.

A yowl of pain, to her right.

Isabella dived forward, aiming left, away from the sound. She hit the floor on her knees, a sharp jolt shooting up her thighs. Scrambling to her feet, her legs stiff from days of sitting, she launched herself forward, reaching up with one hand to pull the blindfold from her eyes.

Bright light filled her vision, causing her eyes to snap shut. Tears trickled through her eyelashes and down her cheeks. She ignored them, her only thought to get away.

The back of her head exploded in pain as the creature grabbed her hair. Kicking and screaming, she was dragged backwards, towards the leather chair.

“Be careful! Don’t hurt her!”

Suddenly thick arms encased her body, the creature’s rough hands grabbing her and picking her up. Isabella kicked her legs, trying to land a blow that would force it to drop her.

Useless – wherever her feet or knees landed, they just hit against solid flesh.

It was over in seconds. She was back in the chair, her vision blurred by tears and white spots of pain. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, flooding her stomach with a burning nausea. Her wrists were tied to the arms of the chair with padded straps, her chest and legs bound in the same way.

Squinting through her tears, Isabella could make out two indistinct shapes. The first she recognised as the creature, tall and wide, much bigger than any man. But the other one was smaller, a dark shape, dressed in black. A woman.

“Please, please, let me go,” Isabella begged, hoping that this new woman would have more sympathy than the creature. “I have a family – a daughter. Her name’s Irene and she’s five years old. Please, I can pay, we have money-”

“She’s feisty,” said the woman, ignoring her. She had a deep, pleasant voice, with an accent Isabella didn’t recognise. “Replace the blindfold.”

Isabella’s world went dark, and she again heard glass being moved, clean and sharp, cutting through the sickness her panic and pain had caused. It was almost a friendly sound, reminding her of evenings with her husband and their friends, drinking sweet fortified wine while the children played; of somewhere far removed from this cold place she’d been brought to.

It occurred to her then, in a way it hadn’t before, that she was never going to leave this room. She would never see her husband or her daughter again.

Isabella screamed, struggling against her bonds. But she was exhausted, the debt of her frantic flight demanding immediate repayment, and the straps holding her down were strong, much stronger than she was. Her screams turned to sobs, and finally to whimpers.

“See? Feisty,” said woman, once she’d quieted. “This is the one, the one, the one.”

There was a pause, and then a muttered conversation between the creature and woman.

Silence again, except for the sound of glass.

Cool breath brushed against Isabella’s face.

“You won’t believe me, but I’ve been waiting for you,” whispered the woman. She was speaking gently, calmly, like a mother to an upset child. “Don’t be afraid. You’re going to help me, and in return I’m going to take all your troubles away. All those worries about what you might have said to upset someone, all that anxiety over how you’re going to pay the bills, about what your life actually amounts to. Who will remember you when you die… Who loves you while you’re alive… All the things that keep you awake at night, spinning around in your head. Soon, they’ll all be gone.”

Isabella felt cold glass against her lips, and then nothing.


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