EXCERPT: THE BURNS ENIGMA
The Fire Salamander Chronicles Book Five
~ Zane Burns, a.k.a. Gunz ~
Somewhere in the United States… Probably…
The room was absolutely white. Except for unblemished white walls, polished white tiled floor and white ceiling, there was nothing else in this room—no furniture, not even a mattress on the floor. A small area in the back was separated for personal needs by a low white wall. Long white light panels were embedded into the ceiling all around the perimeter.
The lights never went off, not even at night, and since there were no windows or a clock, it was impossible to count time. Gunz sat on the hard floor, resting his back against the wall as he stared at his reflection in a one-way mirror at the other end of the room. If not for his dark hair, he would be invisible against the white wall in the white medical scrubs he was wearing.
He got up, pushing off the floor, and swayed slightly. Since he’d been brought here and locked up in this room, he hadn’t been able to take a deep breath as the air in this chamber of torture was infused with halon, a low-toxicity fire extinguishing agent. There was enough oxygen here to keep him from dying a human death, but his fire was suppressed, and he experienced a constant nagging pain accompanied by lightheadedness and fatigue.
Despite feeling weak and unsteady, he assumed the initial stance of Koryo—a Taekwondo pattern Aidan had taught him a while ago—and closed his eyes, focusing on his breathing, as shallow and uneven as it was.
The loud clank of the lock made him flinch. He opened his eyes and stared at a small window in the entrance door as a guard knocked on it with his baton.
“Inmate 802313,” he said dryly. “You’ve been summoned.”
Gunz sighed. Usually that meant nothing but trouble for him. Approaching the entrance, he pushed his hands through the window, allowing the guard to lock the handcuffs on his wrists. The restraints were just the human variety type, and normally something like this wouldn’t keep him restrained for longer than a few minutes.
Here, however, everything was different. Magic detectors and heat detectors were installed in his cell and as soon as the magical energy field around him spiked up even a little, or if his body temperature went up by a few degrees, a large doze of halon was released, incapacitating him, leaving him curled up on the floor screaming in pain. The muscle weakness was so debilitating that he had to wonder if it was only the fire suppressants that made him feel this way, or if there was some powerful dark magic in play too. In this facility, he was disabled as a Fire Salamander, as a wizard, and as a man.
The guard opened the door and seized his shoulder, yanking him roughly out of the room. As a reaction to the sharp movement, everything around him spun and his stomach heaved. He leaned forward, bracing himself with his handcuffed hands against the wall, and rested his forehead against his elbow.
The guard pulled him away from the wall, shoving him farther ahead. “Keep moving, inmate,” he said icily, adding an extra push into Gunz’s back, which almost sent him flying to the floor.
Gunz glanced back at the man, shaking his head. In this hellhole, all guards wore strange helmets, covering their faces. All he could see was a pair of blue eyes, staring at him with icy contempt. He walked the already familiar path along the well-lit corridor and stopped in front of a door with a name plate on it stating, “Dr. Roger Harris”.
The guard knocked and once he heard a loud buzzing, pushed the door open. He grabbed Gunz by the back of his neck, forcing him inside the room.
“He’s all yours, Doc,” he said, pushing Gunz toward the table.
Gunz grunted as he lost his balance and fell forward, hitting his forehead on the edge of the desk. The room flipped upside down as he dropped to the floor. With his blurry vision he saw the guard leave and close the door. Then he felt someone’s hands grabbing him under his armpits, pulling him up gently. Doctor Harris helped him sit down and walked around the desk to his own chair.
Gunz leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths to fill his lungs with clean air. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Doctor Harris observing him with interest.
“Feeling better, Mr. Burns?” he asked.
Gunz nodded, staring at the doctor with a deadpan expression. It wasn’t their first meeting, and every time he was in this room, the good doctor tried to take his mind apart, block by block, as if it were nothing but a bunch of Legos. He hated these sessions and couldn’t understand their purpose. Everything here was designed to torture him, and he still couldn’t figure why. It seemed like whoever held him captive was torturing him for the sake of torture.
“I’m fine, Doctor,” said Gunz, his voice raspy from constant coughing.
“Great, great.” The doctor rubbed his hands together, an expression of delight on his face. “So, Mr. Burns… or should I call you Gunz? Or maybe Fire Salamander?” he asked, arching his eyebrows at Gunz.
Gunz tensed—that was the first time the good doctor let it slip that he knew his nickname and his true nature. But he suppressed his emotions and smiled lazily.
“No, you should not,” he replied. “Only my friends can call me that, and you’re not one of them.”
“Aw, Mr. Burns,” said the man, leaning back in his chair and making a steeple of his fingers. “I was just trying to be nice. There is no need to be so offensive. Not just yet, but I’ll give you the opportunity to fight once we’re done here.”
That’s something new, thought Gunz, cringing inwardly.
Since Gunz didn’t say anything, the doctor continued, “So, Mr. Burns, what do you think about your stay here?”
“Your five-star accommodations could do with a good interior decorator,” replied Gunz, sarcasm clear in his every word.
“And why is that?” asked the doctor.
“I’m not the biggest fan of the color white,” replied Gunz, an uneven smirk curving his lips. “Besides, sleeping on a cold floor with lights on doesn’t promote a healthy life environment.”
“Are you suffering from sleep deprivation, Mr. Burns?”
“No, Doctor Harris, I suffer from infinite boredom,” he replied dryly. “I don’t even have reading privileges. Come to think of it, I didn’t even get my phone call when I was brought here, which is a violation of my rights.”
“You mean it’s a violation of human rights, Mr. Burns,” replied Harris with a sugary smile. “We both know, you’re not human. Legally, there is no human rights violation here.”
Gunz grunted, clenching his teeth to stop himself from saying anything that would trigger painful consequences.
“I see,” purred the doctor, observing his reaction. “How does it make you feel?”
“Hmm,” hummed Gunz. “How does it make me feel? Good question. Well… Like strangling you with these very handcuffs, for one.” He lifted his chained arms with a cold smile, his fingers clenched into tight fists.
“I see.” The doctor nodded, calmly observing him like he would any lab rat. Then he cocked his head and smiled as if Gunz didn’t just threaten his life. “Do you read a lot?”
“I used to,” replied Gunz with an indifferent shrug. “Until you threw me in this hellhole, that is.”
“Hellhole? Hardly.” The doctor laughed. “So, Mr. Burns, if I give you reading privileges, which book would you like to read?”
Gunz smirked. “Infernal Justice.”
“Interesting choice,” mumbled Doctor Harris, writing something in his notepad. “Why did you choose this particular book?”
Gunz raised his eyes at him, his jaw set. “Because I would prefer Infernal Justice to that of the Destiny Council.”
For a moment, Doctor Harris stared at him mortified but quickly pulled himself together and his lips stretched into a forced smile, the corners of his mouth twitching a little.
“I have no idea what this Destiny Council is. Never heard of it,” he said frostily, putting his notepad away. “Our session is over for today, Mr. Burns. I will make sure you receive the book you requested. In the meantime”—he pushed a button on the intercom—“your guard will escort you to the training facility. You’re cleared for training.”
He grabbed a piece of paper with his name printed at the top and quickly wrote something on it. Gunz heard the door open but didn’t turn around. Doctor Harris waved his hand at the guard and once he approached the desk, he offered him the paper.
“He’s cleared to begin training,” he said coldly, pointing at Gunz. “You can escort him there now and give my note to the Commander.”
The guard grabbed Gunz’s shoulder and yanked him up to his feet. A low growl rumbled in Gunz’s chest as he jerked his shoulder out of the guard’s grip. He stood staring at the man who’d been abusing and torturing him for the last—he had no idea how long—and his chest rose and fell with heavy breaths as he struggled to suppress his fire.
“Mr. Burns,” hissed the doctor, “you would do well to cool down. Literally. If you don’t want to trigger the fire suppressant system in my office, that is.” He pointed at the magic and heat detectors on the wall. “In a minute, you will be in the training facility where you can safely let out some steam.”
He quickly walked around the desk and put his hand on Gunz’s shoulder. Gunz snapped around, death staring from his eyes. But then he took a deep breath and relaxed his tense shoulders.
The doctor glowered at the guard. “Can you please take him to the training facility without insulting or abusing him?” he hissed, throwing his hands up.
“Yes, sir,” replied the guard, but his voice carried through his displeasure.
It seems like this man has something against me personally, thought Gunz as he headed toward the door.
The training facility looked like a high school gymnasium equipped with all kinds of martial arts training equipment. Gunz looked around, taking in his surroundings. About fifteen men were already training there and even without using his other sight, he could sense that except for one man, none of them were human.
Gunz stood barefoot on the hardwood floor, not in a rush to make a move. The guard who brought him here approached the man who was the only human in the room and gave him the letter from Doctor Harris. The man stopped what he was doing and took the letter, dismissing the guard with a quick flick of his wrist.
Once the guard was gone, the man approached Gunz. Standing no more than a foot away, he stared down at him, a vibe of arrogance exuding from his every pore. He glanced at the paper in his hand again and smirked.
“So, you are that infamous Zane Burns I’ve heard so much about,” he said, his voice raspy like the voice of a man who started smoking in his early teens. He gave him one more once-over and laughed, slapping himself on his thighs. “Nothing much to see, is there?” He glanced at the rest of his team that gathered behind him. Then he switched his attention back to Gunz. “So, boy, show me what you’re good for.”
Gunz met his mocking gaze calmly. Then he sighed and sat down on the floor, crossing his legs. The man looked back at his crew and snickered.
“Do we have a little rebellion on our hands?” he asked snidely and flicked his fingers at one of his fighters.
A man separated from the crowd, stepping forward. He was tall, no less than six-foot-eight, and had long white hair flowing freely down his back and shoulders. His eyes were angled and shone with an electric green light like that of a feral feline. Despite his size and considerable bulk, he moved with the grace of a dancer and his chiseled features didn’t betray his emotions as he glanced down at Gunz.
“Lucan,” said the man, “help him to his feet. Our new friend needs assistance.”
Lucan closed the distance between them in one step and easily lifted Gunz to his feet as though he weighed nothing. When he bent down, Gunz caught the sight of Lucan’s pointed ear. He’s an elf, he thought, shivers running down his back. How did they break him?
Elves possessed powerful magic only they could wield, but in the realm of humans, they were quite rare and capturing them was practically impossible, whereas breaking one into submission was unheard of. Yet, as Gunz stood slightly swaying, he had no doubt he was staring at an elf.
“Lucan,” said the commander, “would you like to try out our new recruit and have a quick sparring match with him?”
Lucan’s leaf green eyes darted to Gunz, and he shook his head.
“And why not?” asked the commander.
“He’s a Fire Salamander,” replied the elf, his voice as void of emotions as his face.
“Don’t be scared, Lucan.” The commander snickered. “Here, he is just a little man. He can’t use his magic or his element unless he wants to get a nice dose of fire suppressant.”
“My apologies, Commander Moore,” said the elf, crossing his massive arms behind his back. “As a man he is too small. Even without me using my magic, it won’t be a fight but cold-blooded murder. I’ll kill him before the fight ever begins. There is no honor in that.”
“You dare to disobey a direct order, elf?” hissed the Commander, heat rising from his thick neck to his bulldog-like face. “Who gives a damn about your honor?”
The elf froze, his angled eyes widened in unmistakable fear. Gunz smirked and sat back on the floor with his legs crossed.
“I’m not fighting for you,” he said flatly. In other circumstances, he would probably be burning with anger, but right now, he could barely speak. “You are starving me, torturing me with sleep deprivation, abusing me physically and poisoning me with halon. How the hell do you expect me to be able to move, let alone fight an elf who is almost a foot and a half taller than me?”
“First of all, we are not poisoning you with halon. The fire suppressant we use is not halon but halotron—works just as well and environmentally friendly,” grumbled the Commander sarcastically, anger almost palpable around him. “We’re all about a green earth here, you know. Second, you’re going to do as I command. You have no choice.”
“We all have a choice,” replied Gunz quietly, his eyes sliding over the faces of the fighters, “and I already made mine.”
The commander approached him and swung his arm, punching him in his jaw. Gunz cried out as he fell to the side, his weakened body not complying with the demands of his mind. His mouth filled with blood and he spat on the floor, pushing himself back up into a sitting position.
“We’ll see about that,” hissed the commander, turning toward the elf. “Lucan, since he already made up his mind, now the choice is yours. Who is going to be punished today, you or him?”
“Me,” said Lucan, dropping his head, his long hair falling over his face and chest. “I refuse to fight a man who is not in his best shape.”
“Fine,” growled the commander, distaste curving his lips. He turned to his team and waved his hand. Two more men stepped forward, their eyes glowing with a scarlet light, putting on display their vampiric nature.
Naturally, elves had pale, white skin, but as soon as the undead monsters approached Lucan, his face became ashen, bordering on blue. Nevertheless, he didn’t make a move when they put their hands on his shoulders. The vampires pushed him down to his knees, and to Gunz’s shock, the elf didn’t fight them even when they stripped his thin shirt off. One of the vamps tilted Lucan’s head to the side, exposing his jugular, and his fangs expanded.
Lucan froze in place, his eyes wide, his lips slightly parted as his chest shuddered with short breaths. Gunz shook his head, clenching his jaw. I am so going to regret this, he thought as he got up to his feet and raised his hand.
“Hey, Commander Moore,” he said as loud as he could, “stop it. I’ll spar with your elf.”
The vampires let go of Lucan, waiting for the next order. The commander nodded with a cold smirk, and both vamps walked back, joining the others. Lucan got up and approached Gunz, his heavy green gaze boring into him.
“Follow me,” he said quietly, directing him to the mats in the center of the training room.
Gunz stepped on the soft mats, bowing, but then smirked and bit his lip. Showing respect to the dojang was so deeply rooted in him that he was doing it automatically. For a moment, his memory flashed back to his training sessions at Aidan’s school and his soul bled as he thought of his friends.
At least they are safe, he thought, regarding Lucan calmly as the elf took a position facing him. Now that I’m blacklisted by the Destiny Council, they’re safer away from me.
Lucan stepped closer, placing his hand on Gunz’s shoulder. “Thank you for taking the punishment for me,” he whispered so only Gunz could hear him. “I’m deeply sorry, Salamander, but you will probably regret your decision.”
Gunz looked straight ahead, his gaze landing on the firm squares of the elf’s stomach. As he slowly raised his eyes up, he felt like he was staring at a high-rise.
“I think I already do… Jesus, man, what did they feed you when you were a kid? You’re as tall as Kal…” He scratched the back of his head, a lopsided grin crossing his face. “Do you worst?”
The elf squeezed Gunz’s shoulder, and he sensed a wave of elven magic surging through him. It felt like an adrenalin shot—his heart sped up and everything inside him came to life. He shuddered from the unexpected sensation, struggling to keep his fire under control. As his gaze fell on the magic and heat detectors under the ceiling, he wondered why the magic detectors didn’t sense the elven magic, but he couldn’t even get in touch with the Dark Codex in his mind without triggering them.
“Better?” asked Lucan quietly, and Gunz gave him a barely visible nod. The elf laughed coldly and asked loudly, “Are you ready for pain?”
Gunz smirked and quickly drove his arms up, sending his body into a backflip while he whipped his right leg, kicking the elf lightly under his chin. He didn’t intend for this kick to be hard, but rather wanted to show Lucan that despite the height difference he wasn’t an easy prey.
“Jumpy little lizard, aren’t you?” asked Lucan, rubbing his chin as excitement lit up his cat-eyes. “I’m still going to destroy you.”
“Like I said—do you worst.”
Lucan stepped back into a guarding stance, and for the first time a true smile changed his cold features.
“Fire Salamander—go!” growled the elf, turning his hip as he threw his entire body into a powerful hook.