Payton made it through the next couple of weeks as best as she could, but it all just seemed like a blur to her. If anything, handling both potion making and helping Francesca in the infirmary kept her on her toes going to and fro between cleaning infected wounds and changing bandages to checking up on the simmering pot of purified unicorn blood. Of course, Francesca was ever grateful for Payton’s help and Payton was ever grateful for Francesca’s emotional support, which was the one silver lining to her ever gloomy days. It was an unusually slow day, and Payton was busy adding a dash of fluorescent mushroom powder to a potion. Payton paused for a moment when she heard something slithering across the floor and jolted when she discovered a snake with shining green scales sliding toward her.
“If you scream, I swear I’ll bite you! And I’ll have you know just one drop of my venom can kill forty men slowly and painfully,” the snake warned. The only way she could explain his ability to talk was that he must have been the result of scientific experimentation. After all, many creatures have been mutated as the result of some mad scientist. It took her a moment to regain her mental bearings and find the words to reply to the talking serpent.
“What do you want?” Payton blurted, “I really need to get back to work you know.” The snake began to slither up the desk, getting closer to Payton.
“I have a favor to ask of you.” He proceeded to crawl up her arm. She shuddered at the feeling of his cold, smooth scales sliding across her arm. The snake’s head rested right next to her ear. “I need you to find me some sort of rodent. A mouse or a rat will do just fine for me.” His tongue tickled her ear, making Payton cringe.
“Why do you need me to get a mouse for you? Why can’t you get one yourself? Don’t you get fed regularly like the rest of us anyways? Besides, I think that’s against the rules and I’m kind of a busy woman, you know. I mean umm…no disrespect or anything, but I hope you understand…” The snake hissed irritably.
“And you don’t think I’m busy too? And no, not all of us are as spoiled as you are and get fed regularly.” Payton turned around and glared at him.
“Also, Francesca told me that there are hidden bugs that capture video and audio all around the building. We’d be sure to get caught,” she whispered, hoping the audio system wouldn’t pick up on their conversation.
“Don’t worry about the bugs, darling. It’s only an intimidation tactic. Those bugs are more defective than Jackson would admit, although not all of us know that,” he reassured her with a more gentle edge to his tone. “You are right to take caution though. Just be vigilant and you’ll be fine. Now, when should I be expecting that rodent?”
“Fine,” Payton growled, “I’ll try to find you a mouse, but I can’t promise you anything. Now I need to get back to work and I’m sure you have other things you need to do.”
“I very much appreciate it, my dear. Jackson hardly feeds me enough, you know.”
“I’m sure.” Payton’s shoulders relaxed when the snake finally crawled off of her and back onto the floor. “I’ll be back for that rat in about five hours.” She closed the door behind the serpent after he left the room and breathed a sigh of relief once he was gone.
The potion Payton was working on when the serpent came in was the last item on the list to be made and Francesca already told her she wasn’t going to need her for another few hours, so when that potion was bottled up and she thoroughly cleaned the lab, Payton went to her room to relax until Francesca called her back again. The promise she made to the snake in the lab came to her mind as she laid on her bed. Of course, she only made the promise to get him to leave her alone and had no intention of keeping it. “Jackson is sure to kill him if he ever found out,” Payton mused out loud to herself.
“Payton, do you copy?” Jess’ voice rang out of her watch. Naturally, her one moment of rest would get interrupted by her manager. Payton growled and lifted the watch to her mouth, pressing down on the talk button.
“Yes,” Payton replied.
“Meet me in the lab. Now.” The curtness of the order made her heart skip a couple of beats.
“On my way,” she answered. When Payton opened up the door to the lab, she was met with a scowl in place of the satyr’s usual lascivious smirk.
“Come in,” he commanded. Payton complied and the door slid closed. Jess leaned his hip against the counter balancing a flesh colored mechanical beetle on the back of his hand that camouflaged almost perfectly with his skin tone. It dawned on Payton that the bugs that kept surveillance around the underground building hid themselves through camouflage and most likely crawled about at random so no one ever knew if or when they were being watched. Payton clenched her fists. Naturally, the snake lied to her about the bugs being ineffective. “So, there are a couple of things we need to talk about. First of all, were you deaf when you were told not to give anything to any colleague without Jackson’s or Tiffany’s permission, or are you too dense to follow simple rules?” Payton narrowed her eyes in indignation.
“If you’re referring to that foolish snake, I only told him I’d give him a rodent just to get him off my back, literally. I never actually gave him one and I never intended to.” Jess kept his eyes on the beetle as he turned his hand over to follow the movement of the bug.
“You better be telling the truth for your own sake. Nevertheless, you won’t be feeding any snake any time soon. The second thing is that we had a dissatisfied customer on my hands, thanks to you.” He squeezed the bug in his hands until it popped and sizzled, breaking into a thousand pieces. Payton figured there must have been plenty of spying bugs to spare if Jess would so easily demolish one of them. After Jess opened up his palm and let the broken pieces drop to his feet, he closed the space between him and Payton, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of the lab and into the elevator. “That sleeping potion you made two days ago? Well the client that bought it came back and said it made him hallucinate horrific things instead of knocking him out like it was supposed to,” he explained as the elevator door opened to a secret room full of dim lamps and ominous prison cells lining each side of the room. The chill from the cold cobblestone floors went up from her feet all the way to her heart as Jess dragged her deeper into the dungeon. “How long did you let the water flowers soak in the mixture? Because the instructions clearly stated three hours.”
“I-I don’t know. I may have gotten to it a little late because Francesca and I were busy administering vaccines and…”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses!” Jess snapped. “We came so close to losing his loyal business! That’s why you time these things, dumb troll!” He unlocked a prison cell and forced her into it with him, backing her into a corner. “Now, you’re going to be the one to taste your own medicine, and you’re going to ride it out in here!” He pulled the half empty bottle out of his pocket and opened it up. Payton’s heart dropped to her stomach as she watched the cork drop to her feet. Jess then pinched her nose shut with his fingers, forcing her to open her mouth to breathe. Once her mouth was open, Jess wasted no time pouring the liquid into her mouth, quickly forcing her jaw shut and tipping her head back to keep Payton from spitting it out. The failed drug slipped down her throat with sick smoothness when Payton gave in to her swallowing reflex. Jess shoved Payton against the wall and stepped away from her. “You enjoy your own mistake. Hopefully you’ll never forget to be vigilant with your creations.” Payton looked to the ground as the iron bar door slammed shut and locked with an eerie clank. Once Payton could no longer hear Jess’ footsteps, the room began to grow black. The thick, inky darkness surrounded her vision like a heavy smoke. Before she knew it, everything was pitch black to where she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face. Payton didn’t dare to move from her spot against the wall. A warm, sticky liquid drizzled down the back of her blouse. When she reached behind her to touch the liquid and put it to her nose, the strong metallic odor of blood filled her senses. Payton then peeled away from the wall with a yelp. As she attempted to gather her bearings, snakes began to hiss and slither on the ground, eventually crawling their way into every opening of her body. Everything sounded, felt, smelled, and tasted too real. Payton tried to scratch the snakes out of her body to no avail. The snakes slithering down her throat choked and gagged her as she curled up in a fetal position on the floor in silent sobs. The warm, sticky blood that was dripping down the walls began to pool around Payton, soaking her in the metallic liquid. Time itself began to dissolve and slip away from Payton as she remained paralyzed on the floor. The blood on the floor took on new life and reached out to Payton, gently wrapping its warm, wet arms around her waist. Why are you fighting it? The voices were coming from the walls. You’re one of us now. You’re one of us. Bloody fingers ran through her hair, lulling her into a dark sense of complacency. Payton’s fatigued muscles began to instinctively relax, beginning to surrender to the bloody arms caressing her as the snakes inside of her began to relax and stood still as well. Just as she was about to give in and allow herself to be fully enveloped by the blood, yet another voice broke through her mind. Payton, Lawrence whispered in her ear. The sensation of his warm breath against her ear jolted her out of her trance. “Lawrence! How did you get in here!?” Payton forced her body up to search out her brother with her arms. She finally felt his shoulders and embraced him like she never embraced anyone before. You have to go. The snake. It’s angry at you and is coming after us! You need to go! Now! His warning came too late. The sound of a giant creature slithering across the bloody floor shook her bones. She backed away, trying to use her hearing to locate the serpent. “I’m not leaving you behind. Not again,” she didn’t let go of her brother as she maneuvered throughout the space. The snake let out a nauseating hiss as it found Lawrence and wrapped itself around him, ripping him from Payton’s grip. All she could do was cry out in horror as his bones cracked under the snake’s tight grip. His screams ripped her insides to shreds until she could hear them no more. “LAWRENCE!” She yelled. Her weeping dried out her throat and burned her lungs and eyes. Hmmmm, the snake hissed, I love it when my prey is terrified. They taste better that way. She didn’t have the opportunity to scream as the snake’s mouth closed in over her and swallowed her whole. Payton’s lungs throbbed for air as the snake’s warm, slimy muscles constricted against her body, pushing her down its throat and into its stomach. The juices inside the snake’s stomach seeped its way into her mouth and filled her starving lungs. The weight was strangely comforting to her. Perhaps it would be better to just give in, she thought. Besides, it’s warm and peacefully quiet in here. This is a more humane way to die than I could have ever imagined.