We saw it from the NYPD headquarters as just a bright flash of light. Blindingly bright, like a miniature sun had been brought into being above Riker’s Island. All it did was hover for a second or two, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell where exactly it was in the sky just because of the glare. Then it descended, touched down, and disappeared. I’m telling you, there was nothing. Almost as if the light that had, for just a moment, consumed the entire city had just been spontaneously generated by some unknown force, and then just as quickly shut off. Like flicking a goddamn light switch, except with the sun.
We didn’t know what it was but we knew it had something to do with Nayeli. What else could it have been? Weird supernatural shit happens all the time here in the Big Apple, but not like this. Magic on this scale either meant we were all gonna die, or that the government was somehow involved. Sometimes, both. Given that we were all still breathing after five minutes, fears of smiting and of giant monsters quickly gave way to the realization that the Untouchables had just paid us a visit. And, no doubt, they’d brought Nayeli with them.
Riker’s Island. Formerly owned by a particularly ballsy Dutch settler who had the sheer fucking audacity to name an island after himself, the land remained in the possession of his family for nearly two and a half centuries before they were forced to sell it to the state of New York for a pittance sum of $180000 in 1884. And just like that, two hundred years of history and an entire island changed hands, becoming a Civil War training ground in 1861, a workhouse in 1884 upon the eve of its purchase, and finally a prison for demihumans and magic users in 1925. That last one’s what people still know it as. They call it the Cairn.
That’s not it’s real name of course. Matter of fact the island’s home to a dozen different correctional facilities, some of them housing demihumans and some not, but seeing as how every one of those facilities is buried deep underneath what may as well be a gigantic burial mound, the name is fitting. They built it like that to keep some of the rowdier inmates from destroying the prison, of course. Having a few millions tons of dirt hanging over your head ready to bury you alive at the slightest sign of trouble is a great motivator to not cause trouble in the first place.
Marq insisted we leave right away, even before Annie had finished or before Cavvy knew we had left. Bastard practically dragged me along by the collar the whole way there. When we got there though, I saw Marq’s fears, and my assumptions, had not been at all incorrect. The media was amassing around the Cairn like flies, fittingly enough, buzzing and swarming around the stone tower atop the mound that was the only way in and out of the prison. Lights atop the stone structure speared through the cloudy evening twilight like thunderbolts, momentarily illuminating a crowd that seemed like it could fill Grand Central Station shoulder to shoulder and then some. I shuddered in the crisp dark sea breeze.
“Outta my way, coming through!” Marq said as he abruptly started pushing and shoving his way through the crowd. “Official legal representative here! Make way, make way! I said ‘make way’, asshole!”
For a moment I panicked. If I lost him in this crowd, I might get fucking trampled.
“Sonuva-… Marq, wait for me!” I yelled pathetically as I clumsily tried to wade through the rapidly shrinking wake he left behind him. Unfamiliar shoulders bumped into me every step of the way, and I raised my arms to protect my head from the swinging of wayward fists and cameras, hands grasping for hair to grab on to, raking past me for blood and ink.
At last we made it to the front of the crowd, Marq looking pristinely untroubled compared to the beaten up mess I’d become after emerging from that island-sized mosh pit. Looking annoyed, he rapped the glass window of the empty booth where a guard should have been minding the door. Poor bastard must have come to the reasonable conclusion that now was as good a time as any to clock out and be on the next boat home.
“Hey,” Marq began.
“Go away!” a voice said from inside. “Visiting hours are over! We’re not taking any more questions!”
“Cool it pally, we’re not with the vultures,” Marq said. A timid-looking guard who’d sequestered himself in hiding from the mob slowly un-sequestered himself from his hiding spot, crawling out of the fetal position he’d assumed under the counter. He looked at Marq, trying and failing to project an image of calm.
“P-Please state your business then.”
“I’m here to see someone new you’ve got locked up. Name should be ‘Nayeli Knossos’-”
“Weekend visiting hours are from seven am to two pm,” the guard insisted robotically, reading off a mental checklist. “All visits must finish by four pm. If you want to come back tomorrow or on Wednesday or Thursday, visiting hours will be-”
“I’m not her family, I’m her fucking lawyer.”
That shut him up, or at least interrupted his meticulously rehearsed list of responses. He stared at us with the same look as a deer in the headlights as Marq waited for him to say something, anything that’d move things along. I got the feeling this guy didn’t do too well in high-stress situations. What a job to pick.
Marq continued to stare at him. He stared back.
The guard snapped out of it and started fumbling with the phone in the back of the booth, the one that (presumably) connected him to his boss. After a brief exchange he hung up, and gave us two tickets printed from some sort of hand-cranked machine. Moments later, the colossal doors behind him creaked open, flood lights framing the unforgiving darkness that lay behind the gates.
“Well that’s not fucking ominous…” I muttered under my breath. But my quiet complaints were drowned out by the sounds of hundreds of reporters scrambling and squeezing past us to get at the door, like they thought it contained some kinda free candy and ice cream buffet instead of the literal army of murderers, rapists and thieves it actually held. A goddamn stampede is what it was. I guess reporters really are animals.
Thankfully at least for us, the prison had a handy dandy little system for dealing with such situations. They prefer not to use it unless they have to (or so I’m told), but once you see it, you can’t deny its effectiveness. The exact moment the first reporter made it past the gates, he fell over and immediately began puking, wrought with the kind of sickness that makes you believe in the existence of an angry God (that’s with a capital G, because we already know we have plenty of the angry lowercase ones). From what I’m told, the effect is caused by a curse barrier that inflicts acute delirium and disorientation, the kind that gives you ringing in your ears and makes it impossible to stand. It’s nonlethal, but… messy. Useful for preventing escapes and unwanted entrances though.
The wave crashed into the doorway, and dozens of others met the first reporter’s same fate, all of them collapsing onto the floor in a giant vomit circlejerk. Marq and I took a step back, then I took two more. Ceiling sprinklers turned on above them, washing the upchuck down into little drains I’d just noticed were spread evenly throughout the doorway.
“Sorry about that,” the guard said apologetically. “Happens everytime. Oh, but you two are okay! Just grab those tickets I gave you and hold on to them tight when you’re passing through the doorway.”
I looked at my ticket and saw little glyphs and symbols had been printed on it, the most prominent being a large stylized eye. So they were charms then.
Marq nodded, holding on to his ticket. “Thanks.”
The guard turned and waved to us as we passed through the door, dodging the wayward jets of high velocity vomit. “Have a nice visit!”
Uh huh. We’ll do that, pally.
The descent into the prisons was a long one, broken up by a bunch of small stops. Our first few took us through the ground-floor facilities meant to hold the human prisoners. Mages, witches, wizards and warlocks of all stripes. Shamans, priests and faith healers galore. Nearly all of them were being kept in straightjackets behind enchanted and magically reinforced bars suffused with a trace amount of orichalcum. Dwarf-forged, of course. That was the bare minimum in prisons these days. Keeping the inmates from causing trouble had understandably become more complicated now that a pre-war prison cell could be escaped by gnawing off one of your fingernails and drawing a sigil in blood.
Of course prisons aren’t made of money and with the astronomical crime rates these days, they’re gonna cut corners wherever possible. In a perfect world, every cell would be its own atelier, perfectly inescapable from the inside while simultaneously providing the ne’er dowells with something to tinker with. But because ateliers are expensive and time-consuming to make, that kind of high-security imprisonment is usually reserved for the worst of the worst. It was my guess that we’d start seeing more of those the deeper we went, and probably where we’d find Nayeli.
But aside from the security measures that would’ve seemed downright draconian twenty years ago (had they even been able to conceive of some of these things back then), everything seemed normal and pretty above board on the “ground” levels. For the big house, I mean. Things were being kept clean and well lit, relatively speaking. The prisoners didn’t show any obvious signs of being mistreated, and some of the model inmates were even outside of their cells playing cards and reading the news in a small communal area. Good behavior in here earns you extra time each day that you can spend outside your cell without wearing a straightjacket, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never quite been on this level of lock-up before, due to Marq’s good graces.
For a while there I was starting to think that some of the horror stories I’d heard about the Cairn were baloney. Things didn’t seem too bad here. Kinda like a regular jail, just without windows. Then we started descending again, and I realized this was just Level 1. Minimum security. The human part of the prison. Things changed when we started moving down into the parts of the prison where they kept the demihuman prisoners.
As we moved on from the minor assaults and petty thefts down into the belly of the Cairn, the well-lit facade of the ground levels started to bleed away like the edges of a painting. The modern facility lit by halogen lamps and presided over by relaxed guards and genial prisoners disappeared, slowly at first, until we were plunged into a full on medieval oubliette. The kind designed to hold monsters. This is where they kept the demihumans. And this was where our journey started getting difficult.
You see, turns out they’d endeavored to make the whole underground complex as maze-like as possible to further stall and prevent escapes. To add to that, the only light in the whole place came from dimly lit bulbs of foxfire that gave the whole place the air of crawling through some vast, ensnaring cave or root system, one which only got darker the deeper you went. The giant tunnels even stretched out like gnarled roots, branching out into dead ends and smaller capillaries whose entrances were hidden by the shadows. I swore I heard some of them growling. Images of dragons or minotaurs shackled to the tunnel walls, waiting to be fed by the next hapless wanderer, were all I could think about, and I stuck close to Marq. I remember almost jumping when I felt a moist droplet of condensation drip onto my shoulder. All around us, I thought I could hear crying and the faint screams of tortured inmates reverberating through the walls into the endless darkness. The Cairn was starting to look more and more like it had earned its name.
If it weren’t for the tickets we held, which provided a crude map and a source of light beyond the mushrooms growing on the walls, we would have been all but blind. That didn’t mean, however, that it was easy for us. Reaching the checkpoints that marked the entrances to the various facilities and the individual cell blocks required a lot of backtracking out of dead ends and diverging tunnels, and even the guards who manned the checkpoints were suspicious and unhelpful until we presented our tickets. The whole miserable experience made me feel more like a spelunker than a gangster, and the morale of the expedition was not at all being helped by Marq’s mood.
“Keeping in a place like this… like she’s some sort of animal… I swear to fucking god if they’ve harmed a hair on her head…” he mumbled, fists clenched.
“Uhhhh, I think they’d kinda have to, Marq. You really think Nayeli’s the type to just let herself be taken in quietly? Besides, at least it’s not as bad as Alcatraz.”
“God… don’t even joke about that, Al. Sending people to Tartarus wouldn’t be as bad as Alcatraz. At least people have escaped from Tartarus. Not that I think the Titans really count as people…”
We finally reached it. Cell block 19. I had no idea if it was the last cell block or not, but by this point, we were deep. Had to be at least a couple hundred feet underground, not counting the fifty or sixty feet of the prison that was still above ground. The guard checked our tickets, nodded to us, then led us to one of those wire birdcage elevators. A satchel of TNT was wired to the roof, with the detonation cord extending all the way back to the guard’s station.
Pulling the door open, the guard beckoned for us to enter. He slowly closed the door again, like someone closing the lid on a coffin. I was willing to bet my bottom clam most of the people who rode this elevator down probably never got to ride it back up. The look on the guard’s face seemed to agree.
He pulled a lever, and then we were gone. Vanishing down the vertical shaft into cell block 19. The smooth walls roared past us like the slimy gullet of some giant creature, expanding and contracting in the dim light of the elevator. Nervously, I checked the TNT satchel above our heads.
Then finally we made it. The doors opened, and I realized with a sickening sensation of clarity that it was so, so much worse than I’d imagined.
The cave-like aesthetic of the underground prison continued out from the tunnels and into the cell block, except now it lacked even foxfire to illuminate it. The tickets were the only source of light in the entire cavernous block, and it immediately garnered us the lion’s share of attention. Hundreds of reflective, predatory eyes lit up in the darkness. Screams, both angry, pleading, desperate, and blinded by the sudden appearance of light, nearly caused us to go deaf. Bars rattled, and the whole prison felt alive with hate. Now I knew where those noises I’d been hearing came from.
“Come on,” Marq said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “It says it’s this way.”
We began walking, surveying each cell as we passed it. I looked around, and almost jumped out of my skin the first time one of the inmates tried to gank me. He didn’t get far of course. Some of the cells were completely open to the air, and this I realized was where they kept the high profile cons. In the ateliers. The guy who tried pouncing at me bounced off an invisible barrier as soon as he got too close to the door of his cell, and he scurried back into the darkness of his room, hiding beneath his bed. But I saw enough of him. He was wiry, pale, and malnourished, skin stretched over a loose, elongated set of brittle bones. It looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal in years, and he’d long ago gone blind. His prison uniform resembled nothing much more than rags, perhaps a tribal loincloth, and his behavior indicated the presence of an animal rather than a man. In the corner of the cell, far from what could possibly described as a bed, the man had made a neat pile of his own turds. Flies buzzed around it. I wanted to barf.
As we continued down the line, we started to see this was the norm for this place rather than the exception. People, far be they from innocent people but people nonetheless, had long ago lost their minds down here, eating rats to satiate their hunger and mutilating themselves just to provide themselves with some sort of sensory input to remind themselves they had a body in this vast, unforgiving darkness. Regenerators, at least the clever ones, had long ago realized that their own dismembered body parts could be used as an emergency stash of food, or better yet, bait to attract the rats and other things they could eat, and had piled them up against the walls. Some people had just flat out died in their cells, and nobody had come to clean them out yet.
It was all true. Everything I’d heard about the Cairn was true.
“This is fucking inhumane…” I whispered. Then, we found her.