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Prologue:
Shut Out The Light

The moon's my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow
-—Tom O' Bedlam's Song

 


Another day, another stupid office. Devon Mesier was a veteran of offices, of waiting rooms. They all had the same happy-happy magazines, the advertisement flyers for this or that pill to cure depression, anxiety, ADHD, ADD, and every other clinical name that shrinks had thought up to slap onto kids who didn't come up to their families' standards of appropriate behavior. He almost wished his parents would try pills on him for a change. If he didn't like what the pills did to him, he could always throw them up; one of the bulimic chicks at the last concentration camp had taught him how to throw up at will, 'cause a good way to get a "camp counselor" off you was to projectile vomit on him. And if you started throwing up, they tended to get nervous and stick you in what passed for an infirmary and leave you alone.


He was fifteen, and long before he'd gotten anywhere near "troubled teenhood" he'd seen more of shrinks' offices than a clinical psychologist four times his current age. He'd been through every kind of "give in and submit" camp, therapy, program, and counseling there was, and by now he knew they came in two kinds: the kind that put the broken kids back together, and the kind that tried to break kids that weren't broken.


Devon wasn't broken, and he didn't intend to break.


He didn't know why he and his parents had been on a collision course ever since he could remember. It wasn't that he had a deep-seated hunger to set kittens on fire, or any of the more terrible things he'd found out that other kids did once they'd started putting him into those programs and groups calculated to turn him into a Good Little Robot. But . . .


He asked questions. He always had, ever since he'd been a little kid. He'd wanted to know "why," and how people knew what they knew. Dad said that made him "insubordinate." He'd gone and looked the word up in the dictionary, and said he wasn't. Dad had refused to discuss it. Mom had (as always!) taken Dad's side. Devon had yelled. He'd been sent to his room. He'd gone out the window. He'd only been gone a few hours and a few blocks before a policeman had brought him back, and Dad had been even more furious.


He guessed he'd been seven, then. Things had never gotten any better. One of the few psychologists Devon met that he'd actually liked had told him his only problem was that he was twelve—which meant he was subject to whatever his parents determined was "best" for him, too bright for his own good—which meant he didn't just accept things passively, and didn't suffer fools gladly—which meant that when things didn't make sense to him he was always flapping his mouth about it. Unfortunately, in Devon's opinion, the world was full of fools. That headshrinker hadn't lasted long, not past the first "parent conference." Evidently the man didn't tell the 'rents what they wanted to hear.


But I can outwait them, Devon told himself grimly. Sometimes he wished he could stop fighting with his father, but he was damned if he was going to back down first. And he was double-damned if he was going to turn himself into the mindless drone his father wanted! Particularly this time.


While he'd been getting himself kicked out of the latest Stalag (for cheating—although he hadn't been; if there had been any copying going on, it was some of the others cribbing from his papers) apparently Mom had gotten Religion. He hadn't been home from Arizona a week before the behind-his-back phone calls started again—this time to something called Christian Family Intervention, which sounded pretty depressing—and then, as usual, Mom cancelled all her house showings for the afternoon and Dad came home from the office early and the three of them got into the Lexus to drive off somewhere.


Of course they didn't tell him where. It wasn't as if anyone in the Mesier family talked to anyone else. Certainly not to him. He was just supposed to do as he was told—or better yet, figure out what he was supposed to do and say by some sort of telepathy.


Screw that.


They didn't want him—they wanted their idea of him, which was something else completely—and they didn't want to let him go his own road, either. So by now Devon figured he didn't owe them very much at all.


To his vague surprise, their destination was Atlantic City, only a couple of hours away. Not a place Devon would have thought of as a hotbed of Christian family values. Casinos and Miss America. Right.


They didn't go anywhere near the Boardwalk, where most of the casinos were, and the rest of the city was pretty thud. He'd almost decided they weren't stopping in Atlantic City at all when they pulled off into a business park on the outskirts of the city that said it was the location of—get this—The Heavenly Grace Cathedral and Casino. There didn't seem to be anything else here.


Cathedral and Casino. The sign made him tilt his head to the side like a dog hearing something weird. What next? Synagogue and cathouse? What kind of Christian yahoos built themselves casinos? Holy Dice-Rollers? Maybe his parents had finally gone crazy. Maybe he could become a ward of the state.


They parked around the side of the building—to Devon's great disappointment, since he would have loved to spend more time inspecting the front of the building, with its three-story-high light-up cross that looked like it was made of LEDs, which was excellent—and went in through a perfectly normal-looking door marked "Heavenly Grace Ministries." Devon's spirits sank. He hated preaching, whatever flavor it came in, and it looked like he was in for some gold-plated holy-rolling here, and no dice involved.


But inside it was a perfectly normal office building—they weren't even playing hymns on the Muzak—and when they'd taken the elevator to their floor and found the waiting room of Christian Family Intervention, it looked like every other "family counselor's" waiting room he'd ever been in, aside from the fact that they were the only ones there. They'd barely sat down—Mom looking like she was going for a job interview, Dad looking like he was the one going to be doing the interviewing, when an inner door opened.


Devon distrusted the man who stood just on the threshold on sight. There was just something too perfectly appropriate about him: distinguished, graying, kindly, tweedy . . . he would have been the perfect headmaster for an American version of Hogwarts.


In Devon's experience, nobody was that perfect. So he was the worst sort of counselor, shrink, whatever. He was an actor. He didn't care about why the 'rents had brought Devon here, and he especially didn't care about Devon. He cared about money, and the 'rents were the ones holding the checkbook.


Something else occurred to Devon then, something one of the other inmates of the last labor-camp had told him.


Look out for the religious places. Nobody has to be certified in those, and they can get away with anything they want as long as they don't actually kill you.  


"Won't you come in?" the man said. "I'm Director Cowan, the head of Christian Family Intervention."


* * *

"Ours is a special program," Director Cowan was saying a few moments later, when the three of them were seated in his office. Devon was disgusted to see that it, too, was perfect—a little Christian (that was to be expected) but not scarily so; comfy chairs and dignified books. He'd seen offices exactly like it a thousand times before. "Normally—as our name implies—we are an intervention program, for cases in which a child is actively at risk in a hostile and dangerous environment—but Sarah—may I call you Sarah?—has eloquently convinced me that young Devon is indeed actively at risk, as much as any of the poor young souls we pluck from the streets."


Devon glowered. His father shifted uncomfortably at the mention of "poor young souls" and Devon smirked inwardly. Good! Let him suffer! It hadn't been Devon's idea to come here and get his soul saved.


"All I want is a little peace in the house," Mrs. Mesier said, sounding as if she were going for the Best Actress Award.


You've got that every time you and Dad pack me off to another boarding school, Devon thought with deadly accuracy. But that's not really "all" you want. 


"And you, young Devon, what do you want?" Director Cowan asked, smiling at him.


"What do you care?" Devon asked.


"Keep a civil tongue in your head!" his father snapped. "And answer the question!"


Devon smiled his sweetest smile. "Never to have to answer meaningless questions like that again."


"Devon—" his father began, his face darkening. Director Cowan held up a hand.


"No, Matthew—I hope I can call you Matthew—it's a fair answer. One of the things we see a lot of here at Christian Family Intervention is what I like to call 'Therapy Fatigue.' Many of the children who come to us have been failed many times before by the system, and they're understandably wary of it. In fact, I'd say that Devon's is a healthy response. It gives me hope for his healing."


"You can help him?" Mom said, just as if he were some kind of leper with six months to live. Good going, Mom. That Oscar was almost in the bag. I'd like to thank the members of the Academy . . . 


Director Cowan's smile got even wider, and now he was dripping kindliness from every pore. Another five minutes, and Devon figured he'd have diabetes from all the sweetness. "I'm certain of it, Sarah. Now, if you'll just leave Devon here with me, we can start the evaluation process. My receptionist will assist you with the financial arrangements."


So they were dumping him here, right now, didn't even pack him a bag. Typical. And now that they'd fobbed him off on another expensive problem-solver, they couldn't wait to get out of here fast enough. Probably going to hit a couple of the casinos on the way home. Devon fought back a pang of fear. As soon as they were safely out of the way, these guys were probably going to load him onto a bus and take him off to a reeducation camp somewhere: bad food and bargain-basement brainwashing techniques. He guessed it was time to try his patented jailbreak routine again, because this didn't look like anything he wanted to spend time with.


The door closed behind his parents.


Director Cowan leaned back in his chair. "It's the same old thing, isn't it?" he said, as if to himself. "Two people who never should have met—let alone married—decide, for inexplicable reasons, to produce a child—and then are utterly stunned when the child becomes a person, with a will and opinions of its own. Woe to that ill-assorted family if that child's opinions don't march with theirs. What to do? They can't send it back. They can't very well sell it—alas. The only available course of action left is to crush all resistance, which works better in some cases than in others. It doesn't seem to have worked at all well with you, my fine young halfling."


Devon stared at Director Cowan, worried now in an entirely different way. He knew honesty when he heard it, and in his experience the only times people were honest with you was either when they had nothing to lose—and Cowan had a lot to lose—or when they didn't think there was going to be any comeback.


"Still," Director Cowan said, sitting up, "there's profit to be made from other people's pain, as well as enjoyment to be taken."


Devon got to his feet and began to back slowly toward the door.


"Oh, go ahead," the director said airily, not moving from where he sat. "It's locked, but do try it. And scream if you like—the room's warded. But as I was saying—and why not, since you won't remember any of this?—when we return you to your parents after a suitable interval, you'll be everything they ever dreamed of: docile, submissive, eager to please. Not a spark of rebellion left in you. Not a spark of much of anything, frankly, but they won't notice, because they will have gotten exactly what they want, a child-shaped Neopet. And you won't remember. It's horribly painful, of course, and quite terrifying, but—" he actually shrugged "—we must have our fun, you know."


Devon had reached the door. It was locked.


He didn't waste time screaming. The last seven years had taught him that much. He looked for a weapon.


All he found was the books on the shelves, but he picked them up and threw them anyway. In his experience, if you made adults angry enough, they made mistakes.


But Director Cowan simply laughed, and raised his hand. The books stopped in midair.


"Innovative, bold, and clever," he said admiringly. He shook his head. "But . . . promised, and it does not do to disappoint them. Stupid they are, but always hungry, and with a long memory if they are cheated. Were things otherwise, little halfling, I'd find them other food, and ask my master to craft a changeling to return to your parents in your place . . . but time is short. It is time to embrace your fate."


He gestured again, rising to his feet. The books dropped to the carpet with a dull thud.


And Director Cowan . . . wasn't there anymore.


There was still someone standing behind the desk. Only now instead of a kindly headmaster type, it was . . .


An elf.  


Devon stared, feeling the bottom drop out of his world. Flowing silver hair, eyes that showed green even from the far side of the room, long pointed ears. The tweed jacket was gone, replaced by a velvet jacket with a high collar. It even wore gloves—no, gauntlets.


Unhurriedly, it moved around the desk and came toward Devon. Devon didn't move. He felt a profound despair settle over him like a coat made of lead, rendering him unable to move. Either he'd just gone deeply and completely insane, or the fundamental nature of reality was completely different from what he had always believed it to be.


And either way, there were two things he still knew for sure.


He was completely at this thing's mercy.


And it didn't like him.


Worse, it didn't like him in a completely dispassionate, impersonal way. As if he was an inconvenience that was easily dealt with, and didn't need to be considered for more than a split second.


* * *

Toirealach O'Caomhain clasped the young human's arm just above the elbow, savoring the shock and despair that radiated from him. These were the sweets that went with the tedious work among the groundlings. Alas that the greater feast was reserved for another, but so long as his liege-lord played this deep game among the mortals, Toirealach was bound to aid him in it.


As he pulled Devon toward the other door in his office, the boy roused from his stunned stupor and began to struggle, but the human had not been born who could prevail against Sidhe strength. And the creature was, after all, a mere child. Toirealach easily bore him through the door.


The room beyond was devoid of all the artful camouflage and distraction of the office. Walls, ceiling, and floor alike were grey—dull grey to mortal eyes, Toirealach supposed, though to Sidhe eyes they glittered with the feeding pen's containment spells, and the spells that would time the opening and the closing of the peu de porte that led to the pocket Domain in which the Shadows were penned. It was a place Toirealach himself never hoped to visit: he was no Magus Major, to command and constrain them. They fed upon magic itself, and upon those things similar to it: passion, creativity, will. Something like a Bard, or any Gifted mortal, those they sucked dry, leaving a husk in a state of stupor that would soon fade and die. The master never accepted children with Talent; it was too dangerous for now. Perhaps later, when they did not need to fear repercussions from parents.


If the Shadows fed lightly on a mortal without the Gift, they would leave behind a docile slave . . . but there was no light feeding when their victim was one of the Sidhe. Then, their feedings ended only in a quick and agonizing death.


Toirealach shuddered faintly.


But what they did to the unGifted mortals, now . . . there was a market for that, just as he had told young Devon. So many parents did not want a real child, only a simulacrum of one that would obey every order. His master had no use for mortal coin, of course, but providing such a useful service gave Prince Gabrevys influence here in the World Above.


And influence was power.


He flung the wildly struggling boy away from him, taking care to stun, but not hurt him. The Shadows preferred their meal alive and fighting.


Before the boy could get to his feet, Toirealach slipped out the way he had come.


* * *

Devon landed hard, all the breath knocked out of him. For a moment he lay on the floor, gasping and choking as he struggled to breathe.


Finally he sat up.


Grey room, dimly lit. The floor and the walls felt . . . rubbery. He got to his feet, struggling to breathe evenly.


Hallucinogens. Tentatively, he tried the explanation for what he'd just seen. They could have sprayed them into the air, or . . .


He stopped. He'd heard a chime, very faint.


The air was glowing.


An oval of light had appeared against the grey wall. It was the same shade of purple as an ultraviolet light, but it shimmered and swirled like smoke.


And something was coming out of it.


Devon didn't know what was coming out of the light, because the moment he saw movement, a completely irrational panic hit him between the eyes like a mallet. He didn't care what was coming at him. All that mattered was that it terrified him with a fear that was impossible to fight, and all he wanted to do was get away.


But there was nowhere to go.


He ran into a corner. He tried to claw through the wall, tears running down his face. He'd been wrong. He would break. He'd do anything his parents wanted, if they'd just come back and take him out of this room before whatever was coming out of the light touched him.


But they didn't. They wouldn't. They'd left him here, and whatever they'd left him with was going to destroy any semblance of him and leave behind a soulless husk. He knew it; he knew it with his deepest instincts, without anyone having to tell him. That one fear-fogged glance had been enough to tell him. He tried to bury himself in the wall.


Something touched him, and he screamed.


And he went on screaming for a very long time.


First from fear.


Then from pain.


By the time the chime sounded for a second time, and the peu de porte opened again to draw the Shadows away, Devon had finally stopped screaming, because by that point, he was beyond noticing or caring.


* * *

One week later—as arranged—Mr. and Mrs. Mesier returned to the offices of Christian Family Intervention.


Devon was waiting for them in Director Cowan's office. He'd been told they'd be coming today, and how to behave. That wasn't a problem. Devon liked following orders. Following orders made him feel secure, and Devon liked to feel secure. Not having orders to follow made him uncomfortable, like being hungry or thirsty.


When they came in, Devon got politely to his feet. He knew his father liked that. It showed proper respect.


"Father. Mother." He smiled, just as Cowan had told him to do. He was supposed to be glad to see his parents. He hoped they were glad to see him, because that would mean they would take him away. Cowan had told him there would be lots of orders to follow if they did.


"Devon." His father sounded cautious. That made Devon feel uncomfortable. He was supposed to show his father that everything was going to be all right now. "How are you?"


He remembered the speech he was supposed to make perfectly well. "I'm fine, sir. I feel much better now. Mr. Cowan explained a lot of things to me. I'm sorry I disappointed you all these years, both of you. I'll try to do better in the future."


His mother burst into tears. That wasn't supposed to happen and it made Devon uncomfortable, almost as uncomfortable as not having orders, but he wasn't sure what to do. No one had told him she would do something like this. His little speech was supposed to please her.


"Go to her, lad," Director Cowan said quietly. "Show your mother how much you love her." And Devon went over and put his arms around his mother.


"Mom," he said. "Everything is going to be fine, now."


Everything was going to be fine. As long as his parents were happy everything would be fine. Director Cowan had said so. He looked up at his father, simulating an expectant expression.


"Can we go home now, Dad? I'm going to be just what you want from now on. I'll never disappoint you again."


 


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Framed