I’ve failed you, Father. You never even knew your confession was priming me for this, and you’ll never know that I was lost to it, where I went, or where I’ve gone. You won’t even have the half-answer you had with Mum.
And Mum, I’ve let you down. I’ve lost you forever.
And soon I won’t even know, or remember what I was trying to do, or even that I was trying to do anything.
I love you both. I love you both so much.
They were the last thoughts Kara anticipated ever having. Unlike the last time she’d found herself mentally twisted, the effects came from something inside her. Something that would completely lock her down, shut her off.
But they were interrupted when the Serpent’s power stopped pouring into her mind. The conduit - the gaze of his modified serpent - was suddenly gone. The arousal remained, the sensation of slipping away remained, but there was suddenly no outside direction.
It was an aching effort to stop her hands, to stop her mad groping and masturbation, but something inside her still felt that orgasm would push her over the edge into mindlessness. Which was perhaps worse without the Serpent’s power broadcasting ideas and ideals into her receptive mind.
She had a fleeting image of herself lying there forever, empty of mind, empty of personality, empty of self. And empty too of programming, purpose, submission, desire, and the other things Kara now considered opposites to her own free will.
With the same willpower she had used in the Swiss academy, she forced herself back from the brink. Her vision started to clear as her gaze unconstricted, seeing more than just the two points in space where a snake’s eyes had been. Her mind swam, disoriented, rattled, confused, not quite lost.
Kneeling over her was a compact, muscular woman, skin heavily brown, with long hair which swept across her forehead before being tied back and secured in a loose plait. In one hand she held a weighty, sharp combat knife, now smeared with red and yellow after slashing through a cobra’s neck. Her dark eyes were studying Kara quizzically, and her form was hidden somewhat; a loose black T-shirt under a loose black cloth jacket with dark blue combat trousers beneath, laden with pockets. Probably ten years Kara’s senior.
“You’re going to have to tell me who you are, you realise,” she said, her accent, to Kara’s ears, indeterminately American. Not East Coast. Not Southern. Somewhere in the soup of accents she’d never yet had the exposure to learn.
Kara’s own senses were still not completely clear of the Serpent’s toxic control. And none of this made sense.
“Never mind that,” she panted. “Who the hell are you?”
The Serpent opened his eyes and snarled audibly, the flare of golden power fading back to his brown irises. His contact had been cut. And without eye contact, he couldn’t push her over the edge.
A true shame. She was ripe. She was already powerful. She would make a fine slave in the field or in the harem. And her despair had been delicious to feel and feed on as he started to consume her identity.
But something had interrupted it. His hand swept up to point at one of the slaves attending his monitors. “You!” he thundered.
She was, of course, unmoved by his rage. To be cowed by him, she would have had to be able to think, and that had stopped being the case long ago. “Yes, Master?”
“Alert Green Patrol. Send them to the interloper’s location to detain her.”
“Yes, Master.” Her finger was already moving to the control stud which would allow her to repeat his commands.
It was more time consuming than projecting his mind, but he knew he had a battle ahead, and wanted to conserve his will.
The woman looked up, head cocked, listening. “We can deal with introductions after we move,” she said, suddenly and decisively. She stood and reached down her hand. Kara spurned it, pushing herself up to a seated position, throwing one arm up to balance herself as she attempted to reach her feet.
Except that that part didn’t happen. One knee buckled. One leg barely made it off the ground.
Kara Kraft was an athlete and a gym rat par excellence. She trained in multiple martial arts, had taken dance and gymnastics throughout her schooling, and lately had studied parkour and other philosophies of movement.
But half kissed by the Serpent as she was, she collapsed back to the ground rather than stand. Some of that same yellow and red mix of fluids that adorned the knife was daubed across her shirt, and her skin tingled where the snakes venom touched it, a burn that hit both pain and pleasure nerves in roughly equal measure.
The other woman frowned, sighed, looked around, visibly frustrated, then stooped, grabbing Kara’s flailing arm and hauling her up by it. Somehow she got her head under Kara’s shoulder, an arm around Kara’s waist - the Scot’s nerve endings firing with bliss just at the physical contact as the toxin did its work - and started running.
Kara wasn’t sure what they were running from. All she knew, if she was honest, was that her head was swimming as she jolted up and down, but her feet found the ground and started running alongside the woman, on reflex.
After maybe four or five hundred yards the ground dipped abruptly. The other woman, focused on carrying Kara and keeping her upright, lost her footing and started to roll inexorably forward and down, but Kara was, by now, almost out of autopilot. Several years of cross-country runs at various schools in the back of beyond had trained her for uneven, treacherous terrain like few others.
She went down the hillock almost gracefully, dropping to a knee by the other woman. “Are you OK?” she asked in a whisper.
Recovering after a moment, the woman put a finger to Kara’s lips to silence her. Kara studied her face as, eyes shifting, she listened to the world around, then nodded. “I think they’re not coming over here,” she said quietly. “Sorry.”
She pushed back and levered herself into a sitting position.
“So,” Kara said after a moment. “We were about to introduce ourselves.”
The other woman nodded. “Sure.” She held out the hand without the knife. “Charlotte Whitestar.”
Weird name, Kara thought. She took the hand. “Kara Kraft,” she said, unaware that her new companion was thinking the same thing.
“Okay,” Charlotte said. “Why are you here?”
She took a deep breath. “It’s a long story, but I think this might be where I’ll find my mother.”
Charlotte’s mouth opened and closed a few times before she spoke. “OK, fair.”
“Lot more to it but this isn’t the time,” Kara shrugged. “Your turn. What’s going on?”
“The long story short version?” Charlotte grinned crookedly. “I went up to the bar at the wrong time on a hen night six months ago and when I came back they were gone. The trail leads here.”
Now it was Kara’s turn for her mouth to goldfish silently a few times. “OK,” she said at last. “I guess if I have to hear that story, you should hear mine.”
She took a deep breath and began the story of her mother’s disappearance, as she knew it. She started when her father called her at school in a panic, his wife having stopped even stringing him along. She went through returning home. The fire at the labs. Meeting her mother, wanting so desperately to believe her that she swallowed her lies whole, and going to wait for her mother only to be caught in the same hypnotic trap as the household staff.
Waking up, stiff and sore, a full day later, with her father missing, too. She told how he didn’t return for a week, by which time Kara had driven the local police frantic with little but her own panic and drive. Talked about how he shut the investigation down. Wouldn’t say anything until the police were gone.
Then he told Kara everything. Told her so she could take revenge for the family.
Charlotte sat quietly for a long time after that. The patrol they’d fled from, presumably, grew tired of the search and returned home. And Kara? She had a splitting headache.
It had set in while she told the story, so slowly that she wasn’t sure when it had started, but there was, now, tension across her temples and all the way between. She sat in the quiet, grateful for it, focusing on the pain, forcing it to shrink back and cover less of her brain by sheer force of will.
It felt like it was pushing back, honestly. Her vision swam again, but she balled her hands into fists, let sharp nails dig into her palms, and let the sudden pain be her answer.
Eventually, Charlotte spoke in turn.
“I knew her through my old unit,” she began. “We signed up more or less the same time. For more or less the same reason, half a country apart. Both of us were in places that were just falling apart. Me, I grew up on the res, and - well, there’s not been money on a lot of reservations for generations. And no money means no jobs. I needed out, and the Army was the way I did it.
“Shannon was from Gary, Indiana.” She shot the young Scotswoman a look, testing to see if this was all the information that was needed, and finding it wasn’t. “Let’s just say it’s seen better days. She met a recruiter one day, and figured it was cheaper than college, and you trained on the job.
“After we made it through Basic, we ended up in the same unit. Spent years together. Some of it in combat zones. I don’t know what story you’re imagining, but you’re probably not far wrong. The good, the bad, there’s plenty of both in the Army. We got each other through both. Had each other’s backs the whole way through. We kept in touch when we mustered out; not just the unit Facebook group, the whole thing. The first month we called each other once a day because we were just so used to checking in.
“We got that down to once a week afterwards, but that was solid. The next couple of years, whenever either of us switched jobs, we sort of moved closer. Any friends we made, we ended up holding in common.
“Last couple of years, we’ve been living about an hour’s drive apart. Building a circle of friends. Women supporting women.” Her chin jerked up, as if to attention; a nervous tic left over after she’d trained herself not to stand to it. A last visible show of respect for her own principles. “Occasionally there’s been some kind of trouble that five or six pissed off mamas can handle just by showing up and taking names.” She offered a grin with that one, just to show she didn’t take the idea too seriously.
Kara was young enough to be naive about a lot, but not innocent enough not to realise that those ideas were the ones taken most seriously of all. She took that with the pinch of salt it deserved.
Charlotte siled wistfully for a moment, then sighed. “She met her guy about a year and a half ago,” she said. “We vetted him, obviously, but they were great together. You know?”
Kara shrugged. Relationships weren’t really something she’d given any thought to since her mother’s disappearance. She had more serious questions on her hands. She could imagine protectively checking out any romantic entanglement her friends got into, though.
“They should’ve been married this spring,” she said. “We arranged a hen party. Our whole little circle, flown out to the islands. Drinking, food, sun, sea, all that good stuff.
“We’d staked out a little spot for ourselves round this beachfront bar for the day. A little area where we had enough peace and quiet that we could at least pretend any noise we made wasn’t distracting anyone.” She took a deep breath. “I went back up to the bar for another order. It took a bit longer than I expected. Nine cocktail pitchers is a big job even for two guys working at once.
“And when I got back, they were all… gone. Shoes, towels, T-shirts, sun cream, even purses, all left behind. I thought maybe it was a weird joke, so I sat there for probably half an hour before I decided to go looking.
“I think even then I knew something had gone wrong.”
Kara reached out and tentatively put her hand on the older woman’s. As different as their stories were, the pain of that puzzlement, the ache of not knowing why you were abandoned, resonated between them.
“So I gathered up all their stuff. Took it back to our hotel. And nobody was there. Everyone’s stuff, everyone’s travel money, it was all left behind. And Molly’s phone was with me, too. Which - you don’t know her, but it’d never happen.” She shook her head.
“I raised hell. We looked around for ages, but they were gone. No trace. Eventually I had to go home, tell her fiance, tell their families. That was hard. Real hard.” Her head jerked up to attention again in that strange tic of hers. “And then, last month, I saw Molly and the others on the news.” She looked back to Kara, making eye contact again at length. “You can guess the hairstyle.”
Kara’s mouth twisted in sympathy. She hoped the result looked like a smile, but she wouldn’t have bet on it. “Surveillance footage?” she asked.
Charlotte nodded. “A robbery. A whole squad, performing a robbery, but they were most of the squad. Molly was in charge, of course. She got to call the shots.”
Kara realised that her headache had eased slightly; a dull throb at her temples only now which seemed to throb in time with her breathing. The bite site throbbed, too, in time with the ache. “And you tracked them down,” she said.
“More or less,” Charlotte said. “I won’t say it was easy. I’d just got my boat camouflaged and started getting my bearings when I saw your plane coming in. Tell the truth, I assumed you were with them.” Her eyes met Kara’s. “I was wondering whether I was going to need to kill you. But your hairstyle didn’t fit the profile, and you didn’t look nearly so tranquil as everyone else here seems to.”
Kara’s blood was suddenly cold. She sat very still, aware of her own reactions, trying to mask them. Charlotte had been aiming, she thought, to speak to her as woman to woman, professional to professional. And it made Kara realise just how much of her training was born not out of professionalism but rage. “So… you followed me, instead?” she asked slowly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way but I figured if either one of us was going to get themselves in trouble, it could be you and I could learn from it.” She paused. “Sounds now like you can’t afford to fail either. Although I’ve gotta say, I’m not sure the Serpent sounds like your Bimbeau.”
“He’s had five years to get worse,” Kara returned shortly. Her heart was hammering in her ears now. The only thing stopping her from losing her temper was the knowledge she’d have been willing to make the same sacrifice. She’d still push Charlotte into the way of a threat if it got her vengeance, she thought, and her headache began to ease. She shook her head abruptly, hoping to clear it.
“Father saw him do his thing. He loved burning out individuality. Those squadrons with the same look, right down to the hair? That’s exactly the kind of crap he’d pull.”
Charlotte shrugged, willing to take the younger woman at her word. “So, the question has changed,” she said. “What we need to figure out now is what we’re doing. Where we go from here.”
Kara tilted her head. “Are you saying we should back off because there are patrols?” She could feel the headache pressing in again. She felt dangerous. For the first time in a long time, she realised how out of her control her temper had become.
The older woman held up her hands. “Nothing like that. But we need to decide a thing or three. Like how we’re going to play this.”
Why do you assume this is ‘we’?
The words almost escaped Kara’s lips, but she stopped herself at the last moment. Her head was throbbing again. She closed her eyes, wincing, put one hand to her temple.
“Shit,” Charlotte muttered. “That thing actually is poisonous. That… wasn’t what I figured, watching you.”
Kara stopped for a moment as she remembered what the snake had done. For the first time, she realised that she was barely wearing her clothes at all after her descent under the Serpent’s Kiss. The surprise seemed to galvanise her, flood her with adrenaline; at least, her headache was suddenly much less present.
What was even happening with that?
“Maybe,” she said. “I’m… not sure what happened there. There was someone inside my head…”
Charlotte was looking at her - no, Charlotte was watching her. Carefully. Which wasn’t something Kara liked, right now. The woman was clearly competent; she’d shadowed Kara without being noticed, she’d decapitated a snake with one slash - and the more Kara thought about that, the harder it seemed like that would be to do. If Charlotte decided Kara was a liability, that might mean the end of her pursuit for vengeance.
A small voice of doubt wondered where she’d got the idea Charlotte was so close to being an enemy. Kara told herself she couldn’t afford to listen to it.
To save her blushes, she turned away from Charlotte’s gaze, shrugging off her backpack. She’d been expecting that she might be here overnight, and she did have a second pair of shorts in the bag somewhere. She started sorting through it, unpacking much of her equipment to find the shorts and a new top. She was aware the other woman had reached out to pick up a couple of the small packs within her bag, examining them curiously, as she pulled off her tank top.
She used the spoiled, twisted top to mop away some of the snake’s venom that tingled on her skin, and found out only afterwards that she’d mostly succeeded in hiding the substance while increasing the amount of her body where the pleasure nerves continuously, blissfully tingled.
“These are brand new,” Charlotte commented as she turned one of the bags over. “Did you get a list off the internet? Because this is good stuff-”
Kara had tuned her out partway through. She was just grateful she’d taken the chances of downpour into account. Without that, no change of clothes. Her ruined bra she hung on a tree branch nearby before replacing it with her spare, then on with the tank top.
Charlotte was still speaking, but Kara wasn’t listening. Her headache was gone, replaced with a wilful, stubborn tunnel vision. Her head wanted to swim but she didn’t have time for that. She stood up and unbuckled her belt harness, which took a considerable amount of time to do fully and safely.
She peeled off her ruined shorts slowly. An outsider might have thought she was making a show of it, but Kara told herself she was just doing things carefully and slowly while her head swam.
On went her backup pair, and she busied herself with her belt harness again. She rested her hands briefly on each pistol grip, reminding herself. Left hand: pistol ammo. Right hand; tranquiliser darts.
She knew that, of course. And it wasn’t often she felt the need to remind herself. But this had been a disorienting half hour, and anything she could use to ground herself was good.
The Serpent sat on his throne, eyes closed, and took a deep breath before renewing his focus. His connection had been broken, but there was a fragmentary link to his target’s mind from the work he’d done and the toxin within. He was used to being able to brute-force his way into minds, forcing their pleasure centres to full capacity, driving them to distraction, and overwhelming their will with his own.
That only worked with a conduit, and while she might become a conduit in time, his foothold wasn’t strong enough for such a thing. But her emotions he could still push, with effort. Not enough to produce the same driven-to-the-edge results, but enough to influence her thoughts.
And little by little, she was fighting the few thoughts he slipped in less. Between struggling with the headache and relaxing every time her thoughts accepted the ideas he gave her, she was effectively being coaxed into doing his work for him.
Which was excellent. He’d learned only a little of the other woman’s story when he finally made contact, but it was enough to tell him that she, too, was a threat - and one that needed eliminating.
Thankfully, the woman already slowly giving in to his venom would help him resolve the situation.
They would make a pretty pair, when both were fully soldiers of the Serpent. He imagined the ponytail and the braid replaced with his slaves’ signature hooded style, and grinned in anticipation.
Elsewhere in the room, his monitor slaves watched their screens, directed to look for two figures on the approach and to alert him when they were seen.
They had an order to carry out, and as a result their bodies shivered with pleasure, an arousal and excitement so overwhelming that only broken minds could continue to carry out their purpose.
“Let’s get in closer,” Kara said, cutting across whatever comments Charlotte had been making. Trying to catch up on her ideas when she’d made no real attempt to listen seemed like it would give away her state of mind and she didn’t want to do that. Instead, she started packing her bag, snatching the packet Charlotte was holding from her hand, stuffing first it then other items back in.
“Oh, are you done turning a change of clothes into a strip show?” Charlotte retorted, her tone frustrated. Whatever Kara hadn’t listened to, the other woman had clearly thought was important. She brushed past it. “I’m a little shaky. I’m taking my time, OK? Because when we get there I’m going to need to act fast.”
Charlotte looked at her for a few moments. Kara could see the wheels turning, could watch the veteran assessing her. She frowned and pushed past her, shouldering her bag back into place. “If we get close we can make a proper plan.” She stopped about five paces further on, looked over her shoulder. “You coming?”
Charlotte audibly sighed. “You’re going to get us both caught acting like that,” she said as she started walking. “I know you don’t want us both to lose, because then this asshole gets away with it. Right?”
She nodded grudgingly. “Right.”
“So we need to get in close, but we need to get in close without being spotted. And - no offence whatsoever intended - that means I should be leading the way, OK?”
Her headache was suddenly back. Kara’s lips set in a thin line. “Sure.” No offence whatsoever intended. This woman was trying to ‘handle’ her. Just because she had experience didn’t mean she needed to break out that kind of ego.
She set out following her, one hand on her pistol grip. The throbbing at her temples eased the moment her hand rested on the grip. “You learn this in the Army?” she asked after a few moments.
“I got a lot better in the army,” Charlotte said. “But my family hunted a lot. So you grew up with it, and being taught things before they’d ever let you come out.
“The Army taught me to blend better. Hunters don’t want to blend so well other hunters don’t see them.” She was educating, Kara told herself, but the pressure behind her eyes said she was just being condescending.
“So you learned to seek at home and hide in the Army?” she sniped. Watching just Charlotte’s body language, she could see she’d scored a genuine hit. She felt far better about that than she probably should.
“That’s cute.” Charlotte looked over her shoulder. “Look, we’re both better off with both of us here. We can make this work. But to do that I need you to work with me, OK?”
Kara nodded, raising her hands slightly. “You’ve got more experience than me,” she said, and Charlotte nodded. They returned to their route, moving along slowly. Charlotte was leading them through the centre of the island, where there’d be fewer chances for someone to spot them during their approach.
She paused in her tracks at one point - Kara, her head swimming, which she’d decided was preferable to the headache, nearly walked into her - then went out in a slow arc, looping around an area maybe thirty metres across. Kara followed, but when she was confident they’d returned to their original course she whispered “Why did we do that? Booby trap?”
“Statue,” Charlotte said simply.
“Are statues a problem?”
“I don’t know, so I’m not taking any chances.”
Kara’s face flushed. More and more her anger was directed at Charlotte, not the Serpent. Yet the embarrassment of having walked right up to a statue and studied it was also there.
The Serpent opened his eyes. “They’re past the final camera ring,” he snarled at his obedient monitor slaves. “You two have failed me.”
They took their chastisement with the same helpless submission they took all his other moods.
“It’s a shame there only seems to be one entrance route,” Charlotte said thoughtfully. “I’d like to be able to get in without getting trapped.”
“I thought I saw some windows,” Kara murmured. “Might be able to go in that way.”
The older woman waved a hand dismissively. “There’s no way to go through a window and not be spotted.”
Another slight surge of embarrassment washed through Kara, and this time it stayed with her, curdling rapidly into anger. Her headache was completely gone, her emotions suddenly seemed to go completely flat, and her head stopped swimming. She knew what she had to do just as well as if someone had given an order.
She drew the pistol from her hip, aimed at Charlotte, and fired twice.
Only after the second pull of the trigger did she realise, hearing an echo of the Serpent’s amusement in her mind, that it had seemed as clear as obeying a command because she had been obedient to his command.
Emotion roared back, hot embarrassment, frustration, and rage, and with it came something that would pass for free will.
As Charlotte crumpled forward, Kara turned and ran blindly away from the scene of her shame.