Kara had made it across the treeline to the roof of the longhut, though it had taken her longer than she’d hoped. Even with the conditioning and fitness she’d worked on so hard, she already felt drained. She wasn’t sure how much of that was exhaustion from effort in such a serious situation and how much was mental dread and discomfort from having been so easily twisted by the Serpent.
Either way, she was even more certain that her approach needed to be just right. She’d padded softly across the roof to the nearest skylight and glanced in. Below, she’d seen the Serpent standing above the ally she’d betrayed as Charlotte was strapped to the bed. A snake around Charlotte’s neck signified, to Kara’s guess, that Charlotte was already under his control. She could draw her pistol, shatter the glass, try to shoot him, but if Charlotte saw her, she’d cry a warning. Kara would be exposed, and have already all but failed.
Kara shifted position, worried she’d be seen. The last thing she glimpsed through the skylight before drawing away was the Serpent reaching for Charlotte’s dagger.
It didn’t make sense for this to be a ritual sacrifice. But nothing about this made sense anyway. There had to be an explanation, a way this could all fit together, but she didn’t have anything like the clues she’d need to put it together.
She climbed to the top of the roof, looked over, and smiled at what she saw on the other side.
At last she had a way to sow confusion and force the Serpent to split his guard, send them off in different directions. That might - just might - be what she needed to reach him in spite of his defences.
Moving as carefully as she could, trying to stay silent, she slithered down to the panels and located the cables running from them to the longhut’s power supply.
Kara followed the cables, and before too long, she found a section of the longhut’s outside wall that was hinged, able to swing open to allow access.
The Serpent’s lair and statues gave the impression this place had been thrown together, his military might coming later. But every time Kara got a closer look at it, it seemed to have more and more hidden away. Traps for the unwary or just sophisticated construction.
Someone with the background and skills to make this building right was already in thrall to the Serpent when he made this.
Kara paused for a moment, considering, and realised that she’d accepted what she’d been wondering for the last couple of hours.
Bimbeau wasn’t the Serpent. She was going to have to do this all over again if she wanted to take him down.
And she’d have to survive this first.
Lockpicking was not something she felt confident about, exactly, but she’d spent some time practicing. In front of her was a pretty basic lock; it was a maintenance panel, after all.
She unclipped her picks from the tiny pouch just to the left of her belt buckle and bit her lip, concentrating on what she remembered. When the lock sprang open, Kara was startled at how simple it had been. How long had it taken, though? Harder to say. She needed to be faster.
On the other hand, electronics wasn’t a field she had much experience in at all. Barring playing around a little in some lessons during her GCSEs, she hadn’t even tried. So the bundle of wires, boxes, and fuses in front of her might as well have been advanced biochemistry.
Fortunately, she didn’t think she needed to be all that subtle. Her lips curved into a smile as she reached down and closed her fist around a handful of wires, almost at the exact same time that Charlotte was taking hold of her braid to slice it.
It didn’t give at the first pull. She’d grabbed too many; they were too strong collectively. But she didn’t want to risk not getting the one she needed to shut things down, so she took it in both hands, braced one foot against the longhut wall, and, just as Charlotte discarded her bra, Kara pulled again.
This time the bundles of wires ripped out in a staccato series of crackles and snapping sounds, and the ambient electronic hum Kara hadn’t even noticed she was hearing abruptly stopped.
The lights in the longhut went out.
“It’s her,” the Serpent yelled. “She’s here. Find her. Bring her down. Bring her to me, all of you!”
His newest slave, her Master still inside her and above her, heard his order and immediately started to obey his order. As she squirmed out from under him, the squad that had brought her in moved with her, eager to act, eager to follow their Master’s wishes.
And so, too, did the two drones he’d set to watch the monitors. He stopped one of them with a twitch of his mental powers and a crooked finger; she came to an instinctive halt, turning to face him in a posture not far from military attention.
“You,” he directed, “get the power back on.”
She hurried to obey.
By the time they spilled out of the longhut, the woman who’d shut off the power was nowhere to be seen. The Serpent’s newest slave even scanned the roof, though she couldn’t have said why, and still saw nothing.
The squad around her surged forward, splitting into two and heading in two directions, obviously their patrol routes, so drilled and familiar to them now that they could effectively replace a conscious decision.
But the newest slave had no good way to hunt. She paused, looking about her, wondering how to best do as she’d been ordered.
After a few moments, she started back along one side of the longhut, deciding to circle it first. She couldn’t believe the interloper would have gone far. Not with other patrols out; not with trainees active elsewhere on the island.
No, she had to be close by, and that meant she’d be easy to find. All that was left would be subduing her.
Flat on the ground where she’d thrown herself, five or six feet from the edge of the longhut, Kara watched the Serpent’s slaves spill out of the front door. All but one of them were armed; come to that, all but one of them were dressed. No question now that Charlotte had become the Serpent’s willing slave; at least she wasn’t armed.
The main group headed out in two directions, but Charlotte turned back and swept her gaze over the area Kara was hidden. She froze, and flushed with how much she was suddenly panicked; but she couldn’t help remembering how utterly outclassed Charlotte had left her when it came to stealth.
When Charlotte moved off, heading not toward Kara but directly along the side of the longhut, Kara held herself still as long as she could, until she was surely well out of sight, then sagged, her breath coming out of her in a long, frustrated exhalation.
She rose to one knee, scanning around in case she’d been tricked, ready to run or fight. Then she moved up again, standing, and slipped over to the longhut’s front door.
The interior was largely modern, except for the bed within the ritual circle that she could see at the far end. One seat - almost a throne - just beyond that was aggressively modern; one arm of the throne was studded with controls of many different types. Near the throne was an area set into a wall giving off a strange blueish glow; she made her way across cautiously, hand resting on the grip of her dart pistol, to investigate.
Maybe it was the source of his magic.
Unfortunately not; however, the alcove boasted screens showing surveillance footage from across the island (and, she quickly realised, even beyond) and a number of control studs, with two empty chairs there for watchers. The screens displayed battery warning alerts now. A stencilled red message repeatedly flashed up encouraging the reader to RE-CONNECT MAINS ELECTRICITY.
Kara glanced toward the open longhut door, wondering if she had time - but there was nobody there. Kara slipped into the chair.
She took a few moments to calm herself again. She hadn’t felt the influx of passion the Serpent seemed to thrive on in a while, and she wanted to be ready for it when - if - it happened again.
If she could keep herself from becoming frustrated, angry, scared, she might be able to keep clear of him. Might have a chance to get the drop on him.
So much of her planning depending on how his powers actually worked, and she wasn’t convinced she knew.
Scanning the screens, she took stock of what she saw. The Serpent had nearly a hundred under his command, from what she could see; that was far more than would fit in the longhut, even assuming there were hidden areas - which there had to be - so she could assume they were all out in the wild.
Which might be the opening Kara was looking for. She rose again and drew her dart pistol.
It was time to act, and act fast.
She crept back out of the alcove and looked around again. After a confused moment, she saw a hatch door sunk into the ground, almost in the centre of the longhut floor.
Well, that explained where things might be hiding. She crept forward, wondered briefly if it was alarmed - but if she waited because she wasn’t sure, she’d only be caught by the patrols on their way back.
She had so much she’d have to learn before she attempted any other raid. It was only in doing this that it had become clear how much she didn’t know. If she even hard Charlotte by her side, she’d be better off. The woman’s skill at concealment and at scouting could have been her greatest asset.
And, instead, Whitestar had been shot down with tranquiliser darts by Kara’s own hand, before she realised the Serpent had had enough contact to enter her mind.
She took a grip on the hatch handle, leaned back so she wouldn’t be immediately in sight, and started to lift it open.
No sound, no yell, no gunshot; she eased it a little wider open, and waited. Still nothing. She opened it fully, taking care not to let it clang open, and glanced over the edge.
Nobody was waiting for her. The floor she looked down into was dark; maybe a little red glow tinted the scene, the result of some emergency power system, but it was so dim it had to be some distance away.
Kara stepped onto the staircase and tiptoed down, closing the hatch after her.
The Serpent’s newest slave completed her patrol orbit of the longhut and stopped, considering as best she could. She had a mind, still, with enough intelligence to be a worthy tool for her Master. But she had almost no information on her Master’s island. She was too new to have learned - something that was greatly frustrating to her at this moment.
She didn’t know patrol routes. Didn’t know landmarks. Some instinct inside her, born of a life she did not remember, told her how important it was to know the territory. As important as to know the enemy.
But she knew neither. It made the hunt a strange new kind of challenge.
She could repeat her circuit, but that would probably be wasteful. Could try to invent a patrol. Or could try to better understand.
She felt that better understanding was needed.
Her decision made, she moved on to best serve her Master.
She had a set of night vision goggles in her backpack. It turned out that they absolutely weren’t worth it, not in this place. Maybe somewhere with clear skies above. Maybe it was just what her mother had always called “cheap shit for rich people”; high-priced items that were more about the price tag than the quality.
By the bottom of the stairs, Kara had tried the goggles, given up on them, and stowed them back in the pack, with a resolution to test her gear better next time.
Too much of her plan for this had been “money will solve it.” She’d trained cardio, gymnastics, distance running, martial arts and more; when it came to her equipment, she’d been happy to let money speak for her. Now she was learning that you have to know what you’re spending the money on.
It didn’t look like the underground section was too complicated. The stair came down at the junction between two corridors, but the red emergency lights were at the four ends of the two corridors; these lights weren’t more than maybe fifty yards away each, and they showed enough that Kara didn’t think the corridors branched again.
This was clearly mostly a barracks; there were doors spaced about two beds apart on either side of three of the four corridors. The other had less predictable spacing.
Kara smiled to herself. Maybe she was underprepared for a lot, but she could tell which corridor held the unusual rooms. She guessed at an infirmary, an armoury, some kind of lab for the snakes, and… what? There were five doors on that corridor.
She told herself that this was where the Serpent was most likely to be. She took four or five paces, head cocked to one side; listening both to the world around her and to her own feelings. Either one could give her away, after all.
She decided to take the chance. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, steeling herself, attempting to suppress her emotions. Blocking the Serpent from taking hold.
In years to come, she would wonder if that had been her own idea, or if the Serpent had managed to place it there, given what happened next. She didn’t think it could have been his influence, but she’d doubt herself for a long time.
As her eyes were closed, a hand grasped her shoulder from behind. A sudden yank pulled her off balance, swung her around. Kara’s eyes opened in time to see Charlotte throwing a kick at where her head was about to be.
The interloper was easy to recognise. Aside from herself, she was the only woman without the Master’s preferred hairstyle. It made her a target. As she spun her around, disorienting her, she let fly with a kick, swivelling at the hip to drive a shot hard at her quarry’s head.
She was surprised when the interloper ducked the kick. She should definitely have been off balance from the spin, an easy target. Instead, the Serpent’s slave felt an elbow slam into her, just below the ribs. Her air rushed out of her and she began to buckle, but her Master’s will demanded this woman be brought down; as she started to crumple she threw a fist of her own, catching her target across the jaw.
Her knuckles stung with the impact, but it was worth it. She’d connected. Her target gave ground, stumbling away a couple of steps. That gave the Serpent’s slave the chance to recover her footing and her breath. She fell into a combat stance, reflexes from a life she no longer remembered taking over in her Master’s name.
Her opponent steadied herself. Adopted a stance of her own, one foot leading, hands low. Very different in style.
The slave feinted a charge to the left, then went low to the right. The interloper read her feint correctly, shifting to the side to avoid the slave’s movement. But that put her back against the wall. The slave, low, coiled forward into a leap, knee raised for a strike.
The interloper blocked the knee with both hands, catching the strike and shoving it down. But that left her open; a swing of one hand caught her around the head again. More a slap than a punch, but enough to disorient, embarrass, and frustrate. Enough to put her off balance.
She reeled along the wall. Knowing the slave would be coming, she lashed out with a kick backward; the slave was almost embarrassed that it caught her, but such emotions were beyond her. Devotion helped her Master; embarrassment was an irrelevance.
Once again she found herself sucking in breath, but a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye sent her backward. She hit the mat hard and rolled back, all on reflex, avoiding the punch. But before she could regain her feet the interloper was on her, aiming a kick for her head. The slave reached out, catching the kick with both arms; a sweep of the leg put her down on the floor, an echoing crack of impact as she landed.
They both heard a door open, but it didn’t matter to either; both had far too much on their minds already. The slave was scrambling for permission, going for a hold, trying to restrain the interloper, and the interloper was trying not to let her. They swarmed over one another, a writhing mess looking for advantage. By the time the Serpent’s slave came up to one knee, straddling the interloper with one arm twisted behind her back and the other trapped behind her head, whoever had opened the door was practically on them.
The interloper, flailing to free herself, raised her head, and froze so suddenly it probably hurt - as her eyes met a pair of glowing golden eyes.
Her head was swimming again immediately. The Serpent’s power was inside her, and once again, Kara couldn’t move, could only stare helplessly. She felt herself aching from the shots Charlotte had landed, felt herself also pained when Charlotte continued trying to hold her steady, pulling against a body that was suddenly rigid.
Strain was clearly not uncommon when you became the Serpent’s. And much as she hated the idea, Kara could feel that it wouldn’t be much longer until she was. The pressure of his power was flooding in through her eyes once more.
At least this time it wasn’t meeting other pleasure through her bite, or through the venom on her skin.
If she had to stare into his eyes, she tried to at least project defiance. She wasn’t convinced it was working.
The heat was starting to build through her again. Desire was curdling into a need to serve. And the part of her the Serpent had touched, the emotions which had betrayed her earlier, they were stirring again, out of nowhere and when she could not have expected it.
There was a part of Kara’s head now which had no name. No history. No desires of its own. Only a single, defining drive; to obey and please the Serpent. And as her eyes and his continued to meet, she felt that part of her stir and wake. The Serpent had two allies in his quest to take over her mind; Charlotte was one, and her own, primed hindbrain was another.
She was a traitor in her own head.
That shouldn’t be exciting.
The only reason, she told herself firmly, that it was so exciting - the only reason - was the Serpent’s influence.
And she might have believed herself, too, if she didn’t still remember the headmaster’s devices that had twisted her, Mike, and others into his young puppets, not long after she turned eighteen. That academy had opened her eyes to attitudes and (hah) mindsets she wanted to reject completely - but which she couldn’t. Not quite.
Even the contact of Charlotte’s body against hers was beginning to feel good. To feel like temptation.
Resistance hadn’t worked, and was less likely to work this time. Kara sucked in a deep breath through a mouth paralysed open into an O of surprise. It was time to try something a little different.
Kara let go. Let go of her need for control. The part of Kara Kraft that could still be called Kara Kraft let control of herself lapse and shrank. The part of Kara Kraft already affected by the Serpent expanded, filling her mind. Kara could only hope that she’d made the right decision.
But then, she could honestly say she’d had no real choice. Everything she’d tried since arriving on the island had backfired. She was far past her last backup plan.
She felt as if she were wrapped up in something tightly constraining. Already physically paralysed by the Serpent’s power, she no longer had control even over what her body might try to do.
With every moment, the Serpent’s nameless slave persona grew inside her head, squeezing her down, swamping her, overwhelming her. She felt like she’d been rolled into a transparent rubber ball; the vaguest, haziest impression of what her body heard, saw, and felt, but out of reach. Beyond her control.
Still unable to move, her body lost its tension. Charlotte – the woman who had been Charlotte, she reminded herself – released her hold and rose to her feet. Kara couldn’t see her, but she was completely confident the former military woman stood to attention. The most ingrained show of respect and duty in a soldier’s toolkit.
The Serpent’s power seemed to intensify. For a moment, Kara was flooded with it, smothered entirely by that glow of euphoria, swallowed up without reserve. But then the power died away, and the Serpent looked her over with suddenly human eyes.
Kara’s body, released now from paralysis, sagged suddenly and almost dropped to the floor before the slave persona at the controls realised and caught it. She felt herself suddenly rise, standing awkwardly, and after a moment, moved a pace to one side, then fell back a step, now standing side by side with the woman who had been Charlotte.
“You two,” the Serpent said grimly, “have been a damn menace. You understand that?”
Watching, Kara understood perfectly, but neither of the slaves stood before the Serpent did. They simply stood there, one at attention, one listless, arms loosely hanging by her sides, swaying slightly.
There was no active intelligence in either one. Not until the Serpent moulded and rekindled it.
His expression was grim and, in the dim, red light of the emergency lighting, hard to read. Kara read relief into it – relief at a threat now fully extinguished. Wishful thinking, some traitorous part of her said. It sounded a lot like the part of her which had been perfectly willing to accept the control headgear at the academy.
There couldn’t be some part of her that enjoyed this, could there?
The Serpent looked to Charlotte – formerly-Charlotte, Kara reminded herself – and said simply “Fetch the blade.”
That sounded… bad. Her view of the Serpent was cut off briefly as not-Charlotte passed between them, heading back toward the stairwell.
She’d have no better opportunity than this. She had to overpower the persona and strike while he wasn’t expecting-
The Serpent idly put out his hand and groped her breasts. A surge of programmed, implanted pleasure completely disrupted her ability to think.
Her body was primed now for the Serpent’s needs. The most idle, selfish pleasure he could take would now be a joy for her to give. And that emotional response reached all the way back through the slave persona to rock her own thoughts, too.
“Not bad,” the Serpent said. At least her slave persona had no overriding opinion on that ‘compliment’. She was free to be as disgusted by it as she wanted.
She tried to use that to power through the sudden arousal, to overcome her persona. Her left hand curled into a fist-
With an audible clunk, the lights came back on. Kara was dazzled – more dazzled than the slave piloting her body, who simply stood there. There was no blinking to acclimatise to the new light levels. She hadn’t been told to, so she waited.
By the time Kara felt confident once again, she could hear no-longer-Charlotte approaching. The moment had passed. She would have to find another – or make one, if she could
No-longer-Charlotte came to parade ground rest just to Kara’s right. She reversed her grip on a long, sleek combat knife and offered it grip-first to her Master.
He smiled, shook his head. “No. You can do it. You caught her.”
“Yes, Master,” the slave replied, though there was a tone of uncertainty in her voice.
“Cut her ponytail down,” the Serpent said, but only after a moment to realise not-Charlotte’s confusion.
If Kara had been in control, her eyes would have narrowed. Finally she had a slightly clearer idea what the Serpent’s limits might be. He’d reached into her mind to take her over, reached back in to nudge her into actions, plant ideas, twist thoughts. But now, giving orders aloud, it was clear that he couldn’t always do that.
Maybe he felt the strain every time he reached out. Maybe he was just drained after the extra efforts today. Maybe the fact she’d purged so much of the snake’s toxin from her body had made him push harder.
All of that was still up in the air. But regardless of why he was reaching his limits – he was.
As Kara continued to stand helplessly, not-Charlotte took a firm grip on her ponytail. Kara felt her scalp complain as her hair was pulled back, then another sharp yank as the combat knife pressed taut against it. Moments later, though, the cut was complete; Kara’s years-in-the-making long ponytail was in the other slave’s hands now, her hair too short to form a cobra’s hood but ready to grow into it.
Kara felt a curdled rage mingled with shame. The Serpent’s eyes narrowed; perhaps he’d sensed something. She wanted to hold her breath, but was cheated of it by the parts of her under complete surrender. Still, those same sides to her mind kept her face impassive, and the suspicion in the Serpent’s gaze quickly cleared.
Not-Charlotte fell back to attention, knife in one hand, Kara’s ponytail dangling from the other.
Kara felt more helpless than when she’d been about to lose out in the open, and - shamefully - was starting to realise how much she was tempted to just surrender.