Winnie’s first thought was that she’d somehow been transported underground. She could hear voices, but they were muffled, as though something were covering her ears. Worse, something was covering her entire body—dirt, or some kind of pebbly rubble. Perhaps the ceiling had collapsed; there was something heavy resting on her back.
She could move, kind of, but it felt wrong. Her limbs felt swollen and stiff. They must be numb since she couldn’t feel her hands, fingers, or feet. Had they been crushed?
Panicked, she tried to remain motionless. Moving her crushed limbs would make them worse. Why didn’t she feel any pain? Was she in shock? Maybe. She felt cold, yet her surroundings felt warm. Was this blood loss? Was her body shutting down?
Winnie tried to scream—in distress, in pain, in fear. All that came from her mouth was a pitiful wail that sounded wrong. She couldn’t make words; her tongue felt swollen. And her teeth… were missing? Everything about her mouth was wrong. Everything about her body was wrong.
She screamed again. Again, the same raspy wail. This time, she didn’t stop.
Her inertia shifted; she was moving. Then something indistinct was before her, hardly visible in the dark. She screamed again. It came closer. It wasn’t human. Was it a ship? Someone in an armored suit? No. It was… a hand? A giant hand?
It flicked her on the face.
“Shut up, you. We’re talking.”
The hand floated away. Winnie followed it with her eyes. It was attached to a giant human, one that was holding her.
And then she understood.
She wasn’t buried underground.
She was being held by a human.
…a human that looked identical to her.
Winnie closed her eyes. Concentrating on her power, she visualized herself.
She was a tortoise.
She screamed all over again. In her mind, she saw her tortoise-self make the same little yelping gasps Marzipan had been making. It was pitiful. No one would ever know what she was trying to convey. This was a terrible dream, or a bad trip. Even her mind felt broken and sluggish.
A part of her was aware of her bladder releasing.
“Oh, hell,” her human body said. It shuffled her from hand to hand as it shook off urine. It looked her in the eye again. It’s expression was alien to Winnie, as though she’d seen the face a million times, and now it didn’t look like a face anymore. It took her time to realize it was sneering.
“Tell me we don’t have to take these shits with us.” Winnie’s tortoise ears could hardly make sense of his words. It was only through her power that she could understand him.
“No,” said Helena, or whoever was occupying her body, “We can leave them. This one though.” The Helena impostor stepped over the enclosure and picked up Marzipan, or rather the real Helena. Everything was starting to make terrible sense. “This is Victoria’s daughter. We will take her with us.”
Winnie’s body put Winnie on the ground. Winnie tried to stand, but failed.
“Hold it.” This was the caretaker. “That one has a power.”
“This one?” A foot rested on Winnie, keeping her pinned.
“Yes. It has awareness of all that it chooses to notice, at least that’s my best guess.”
“In the present physical world, yes.”
“Then Victoria will no doubt consider her valuable.” Helena’s imposter faced Winnie’s imposter. “Alex, hold on to her. Christof, are there any other powers here?”
“Three that I see,” the caretaker replied. “Sibyl is over there. And there and there are two others.”
“Point them out. We’re taking them with us.”
“Why?” replied Winnie’s impostor, apparently Alex. “If we walk out of here with an armload of tortoises, we might draw some attention.”
“Victoria locked them in here just like she did us. They could be allies. And we need to know their powers. Anything they can do, she can do. Come.”
Alex picked Winnie up. They walked to the other enclosures. The one called Christof stopped before one. “Here is Sibyl.”
“Damnit,” the Helena impostor muttered.
Alex burst out laughing.
Winnie saw in her mind what was wrong. The tortoise was humongous. So much so that any one of them could climb on its shell. It’s plaque said it was a Galapagos tortoise.
“Oh my God,” Alex said. “She’s still a fat-ass.” He stooped to look the tortoise in the eye. It gazed back. “Oh. Oh my. They had to put her on a diet… because she was gaining weight.”
“Take this seriously,” impostor Helena said.
“Should we swap her with one of the other tortoises?” Christof asked.
“We’ll have to.”
“Or,” Alex regained his composure, “we leave her, because she’s deadweight. Heavy deadweight.”
“We are not leaving her behind,” impostor Helena said. “Or any of the powers.”
“We can’t have much time. Any minute she could figure out we’ve escaped. We can’t go saving everyone.”
“Would you rather I have left you?”
“I am useful. Sibyl is not.”
“We are not leaving anyone behind. You might not realize this, but Victoria is the queen of the world now.”
“What?” Christof said.
“Of course I know that,” Alex replied.
“Then you will realize that escaping is just the beginning of our problems. She will hound us to the ends of the earth. We need allies. We need to work together.”
“Hold on,” Christof said. “She’s the queen? Of the world?”
The Helena impostor hushed him. A white flashlight beam danced from behind the trees and shrubs. Winnie could see who it was long before they could. Two guards were approaching. She recognized one from the night before.
“How many?” Helena impostor peered toward the light? “Is it two?”
“Yes. Two,” answered Christof. “Do we hide?”
“No. They must know we’re here. But this is good. Alex, you can read tortoise minds, right?”
“Did you miss just now when I read Sibyl’s?”
“Go with Christof. Figure out which of the other two will most likely help us and bring them. Go. Be quick!”
Christof hid the tortoise in his hands behind the enclosure. Alex did the same with Winnie. They hurried off toward the other enclosures. As the guards approached, the Helena impostor likewise put Helena out of view with the others. Winnie knew what was about to happen, the impostor would need her hands free, because she was about to steal those guard’s bodies.
This was a nightmare. No, it was worse, because no matter how foggy or slow Winnie’s mind was working, she couldn’t wake up from this. It was reality, and it was all because of her. She had cracked Marzipan’s cage. She had invited that impostor to come down here, where all these other prisoners were. And now these guards would suffer too.
But right now, she couldn’t think about that. Her captors had put her down, and they were preoccupied with the coming guards. If there was ever a chance to escape, it was now. It wasn’t just a matter of saving herself and Helena, is was about not letting herself become a pawn.
These people had been the queen’s prisoners once. They clearly still feared her. She would have all of their powers on that necklace of hers. That meant she could swap bodies. Why had she never told anyone about that? …well, there were probably a thousand reasons why not, but Winnie didn’t ponder them right now. What was important was that Victoria had the power fix all of this.
If Winnie could get away, then she couldn’t be used against Victoria. It was all she could do, but it would help.
It was time to figure out how to be tortoise.
Winnie concentrated on her new body. Her limbs felt like stumped clubs. She tried setting them on the ground and lifting. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get her legs beneath her. It had to be possible though.
She looked at herself with her mind and saw a tortoise trying to do ballet with its legs bunched up beneath it. Of course that was wrong. Tortoises walked with their legs out to the side. She tried it. The stumps of her new limbs pressed flat against the ground. She felt like a bow-legged cowboy, but it worked. Concentrating, she put on foot in front of the other. It was progress. Up ahead, she could see the shrubs along the side of the walkway. If she disappeared into that, then maybe she could hide from her captors.
Then a tortoise cried from behind her. Glancing with her mind, she saw Helena struggling to catch up. She was doing the same ballet leg bunching Winnie was doing. Close behind her was the caretaker. He’d figured out how to stand and was looking from Winnie to Helena. He couldn’t possibly know what was going on, but he seemed more in control that Helena.
It was excruciating waiting for Helena to catch up, but Winnie did so. She kept her mental eye on the humans.
The guards came close. The one with a flashlight was potbellied. He aimed the light at the impostor.
She shielded her eyes. “Hello?”
“Your Highness? Are we going to go through this again?”
The potbellied guard heard Alex and Christof mucking about at the other enclosures. He shined his light. “Who’s over there?”
The others approached. Alex carried a tortoise.
“You’re taking them out for a stroll this time, I see.” The guard focused on Christof, who was in the caretaker’s body. “Did you let them in here?”
“I did,” Christof replied.
“This couldn’t wait until morning? This place is supposed to be off limits at this hour.”
“Nevermind that,” Alex said. “Look at this little guy. Here.” He held the tortoise out toward the guard with the flashlight.
“I don’t want to—”
Helena grabbed his hand and slapped it onto the tortoise’s back.
A shiver passed through all of them. The guard collapsed. “Wooaah,” he yelled. “Woah woah woah. What? What the fuck?”
The other guard reached for his sidearm, but Alex, Christof, and the Helena impostor swarmed him. Each grabbed an arm and wrestled him into the pen with the galapagos tortoise.
“What. Hey?” The struggling guard fought against the others, but his legs caught on the low enclosure wall and he tumbled backward next to the giant animal. The Helena impostor placed a hand on both. Another shiver.
The giant tortoise wailed and thrashed. The Helena impostor and the others quickly got out of the enclosure.
Compared to the flashlight guard. Whoever took this person’s body was much more calm. They looked about wildly, then settled their gaze on the Helena impostor. “Sakhr?”
“Yes, it’s me,” the Helena impostor said.
She looked about at the other two. “Alexander? Christof?”
“That’s right,” Christof said.
Winnie’s mind caught on that. Alex was short for Alexander? There was a man in her body? That was such a worse violation than before. What would that man do with it? If Winnie got her body back, would it ever feel clean again? She tried not to dwell on it. Helena had finally figured out how to walk like a tortoise. She caught up with Winnie, and together with the caretaker, they hiked into the shrubs. Winnie led the way.
“How did you escape,” the guard asked. They’d called him Sibyl, right? That was a woman’s name.
“It’s a long story,” Sakhr said.
“Yes,” Alex said. “And quick question. Am I drunk?”
“Yes. We both are.”
“Ah. I see.” Alexander took the sidearm from the one called Sibyl. She didn’t seem to notice. He pondered for a moment how to holster it on the dress Winnie had been wearing, then made do with tucking it down down Winnie’s cleavage. It hung out of the dress awkwardly, but stayed put.
“Excuse me!” This yell came from behind them. The guard who’d held the flashlight was still sitting on the ground. Beside him lay the tortoise Alexander had carried. In the struggle, it had dropped onto the walkway. Its shell cracked open. Red flesh glistened within. Blood seeped. The wails it made were pitiful. Winnie had only been a tortoise for minutes, but she already understood its pain—like having her nails crack and fall off, exposing the nail bed, only for her entire back. Whoever was inside that tortoise was going to die, slowly and miserably.
She could only plod onward.
The impostors turned their attention to the guard sitting down.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “I’m free?”
“In a matter of speaking,” replied Sakhr.
“You freed me?”
“I got you out of the tortoise, yes.”
“Is Victoria dead? Are you the queen now?”
“No. This is a jailbreak. I have released you because we believe you might be of help to us in getting free.”
“Free?” said the man. “What are you escaping from?”
Alex chimed in. “He thinks you’re the queen’s daughter.”
“I am not,” Sakhr corrected. “I took this body for myself, just as I gave you that body.”
The man blinked, then glanced down at himself. “What the hell? Who the hell am I? Who’s body is this?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s fat. I wasn’t fat. Where’s my body?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have time to get you another body right now. We are currently inside—”
“Will we get my body back?”
“Listen. The only reason we got you out is because my friend here thinks you can help us escape,” Sakhr gestured to Alex, “but if you’re going complain, we can put you back in the tortoise and leave you. Understand?”
The man looked at the broken tortoise beside him. It didn’t move much anymore.
“Yeah. Okay. I get it,” the man said, “but we will deal with this later, right? This isn’t my body forever now. Maybe we’ll find mine?”
Sibyl spoke. “And do you think maybe I could get a woman’s body? I don’t want to be a man.”
Sakhr held his palms up. “Later, everyone. Right now, I want to know who you are.” He looked at the other man.
“I’m Quentin Avery.”
“Do you have a power?”
“Yes, he does,” answered Christof. “Some kind of understanding of the world around him.”
“He has an extra sense?”
Christof shook his head. “No. It’s… understanding, not knowledge or awareness. He intuits the natural world.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Quentin asked.
Sakhr studied him. “Your power. Your… flair, I suppose. You do know about it, don’t you?”
“Flairs? You mean those magic things? No. I don’t have a flair.”
“Katherine never told him,” Alex said, “but he’s an inventor. This is the guy who developed repulser technology. He didn’t have to work very hard at it either. Hey,” he snapped his finger at Quentin. “Look at me.”
Quentin gave him a scrunched look. Alex gazed back as though reading small font.
He was reading Quentin’s mind, without a glyph. That made him the original mind reader, not Bishop as Victoria had let Winnie believe. All of these people were the original flairs, and they hadn’t been Victoria’s loyal exemplars, but her captives. That meant Winnie and Sara the shield girl were the only two flairs who weren’t prisoners. Winnie didn’t have time to dwell on the implications of that either. Right now, she needed to escape.
She, Helena, and the caretaker were well off the path, but they weren’t hidden yet. She’d already found a spot beneath a hedge where they could hide. Its underneath was a pocket that a human would have a hard time reaching into. If nothing else, it would stall these impostors and buy Victoria more time to find out about this. If Victoria set all this right, Winnie would never, ever, ever do anything disobedient again.
Alex was still scrutinizing Quentin’s eyes. “Yeah. Science. That’s his power, and he definitely didn’t get it from studying. Katherine kept him in the dark on purpose.”
“What the hell are you all talking about?” said Quentin. “Who’s Katherine.”
“You know her as Victoria,” Sakhr said. “You have a supernatural power. She knew about it, but she never told you.”
“What? How the hell could you know?”
“Because we too have powers. I can swap bodies with others. Alexander here can read minds. Christof can see your power directly. Sibyl is an empath. You, it seems, have a supernatural understanding of the sciences.”
“Uh, or I’m… you know, intelligent.”
“Perhaps. We’ll discuss it later. Only one question matters now. Victoria locked us into these animals and kept us like pets. I don’t know how long I’ve been her captive, but now that I’m out, I will make her pay for what she did to me, and ensure she can never threaten me again.” He stared fixedly at Quentin. “I don’t know you. I don’t know what your relationship with her was or why she locked you away like us. All I care about is this: Will you help me destroy her?”
A smile spread over Quentin’s face. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll help you. Let’s kill the bitch.”
“Excellent.” Sakhr turned to Christof. “The other tortoise. Does he have useful powers?”
“Very useful,” Christof replied.
“Unfortunately,” Alex said, “he won’t help us.”
“He’ll be a liability. Trust me.”
“Hmm. Get him anyway.” He scanned the ground. Winnie could tell he was looking for her and the others. Fortunately, they were just now entering the hidden pocket beneath the shrub.
“Sibyl?” Sakhr said. “There are three people hiding from us. Where are they?”
Sibyl didn’t even have to to think. She pointed, through the leaves and bushes, directly at Winnie. “Are you talking about them over there?” she asked. “They crawled away when they thought no one was looking.”
Winnie’s heart sank. Of course the empath would see her. Winnie’s great escape amounted to nothing. The imposters reached the bush before Winnie could even consider running farther.
She wasn’t going to go peacefully though. She oriented herself toward them and prepared.
Christof and Sibyl knelt and reached for them. Winnie snapped her jaw. Christof whipped his hand away.
“Damn,” he said. “They’re fighting.”
Winnie tasted blood. It was the caretaker’s body. Hopefully he’d be okay with that once he got his body back.
Sibyl reached from the other side and snatched Helena. Helena thrashed and snapped, but it didn’t help. The caretaker had his jaw ready, but Christof caught him from behind too, giving him no chance to fight back. Only Winnie was left, but they wouldn’t sneak up on her. Her power let her see their approach. Christof got down on his belly and reached in from two sides. Winnie whipped her head back and forth to face both hands, her jaw ready to clamp.
He reached with his left, she snapped, then he latched his right onto her shell. With leverage, he kept her from turning as he got a steady hold of her and pulled her out. He peered at her at eye level. “That wasn’t nice,” he said.
Back with the others, Sakhr took Helena from Sibyl.
“What about these two?” asked Christof.
“But this one has powers.”
“Oh, right.” He considered. “Then yes. Bring it.”
“What’s the plan?” asked Alex.
“Simple,” said Sakhr. “No one knows that we’re out yet, but we’re still not free. As far as anyone else can tell, I’m the queen’s daughter and you’re all with me. We walk out the front door.”