Gilbert felt his skin flush and his stomach boil before he had time to return the cup to the floor, and he knew he had just drunk poison. He looked up at the three figures on the tattered brick balcony overhead. They were shrouded in black robes and each wore a tribal mask—horned, flame-tongued, and angry. The acolytes of the assassin cult were unmoved.
Gilbert gripped the pocked concrete under his hands. He looked at the little tray that had been left for him in the middle of the chamber. “I drank poison, didn’t I?"
“Thaloximine,” one of the figures answered. “Are you familiar with it?"
Gilbert nodded. “It’s a saurus tranquilizer.”
“Indeed,” replied the second.
“It merely sedates a forty-ton animal,” said the third. “It kills a man."
Gilbert started to feel dizzy. His mind and heart began a race neither could win. He swallowed dry.
“The poison will numb your entire body, starting with your extremities."
“Without feeling, you will lose the ability to walk."
Gilbert couldn’t see straight. He couldn’t tell who was talking anymore. “What do I have to do?” he asked, looking up at the concrete dome overhead. The abandoned remains of Hoosegow Prison were a vine-strapped hulk. As his head throbbed, it seemed as if the dome would crash in on him.
“You may be able to reach one of the causeways before the poison takes effect."
Gilbert looked around. Three large, oval causeways sloped down and away from the main floor, delving into pitch darkness. The engineer in him wondered if the room had been some kind of aqueduct.
“The antidote is inside this chamber."
“You have all you need to know."
“Your fate is in your hands."
Gilbert’s mind split. One half was aware of his actions, and it watched helplessly as the other half circled for answers. As in a dream, he was both observer and observed, trapped in his body and free.
He stumbled to his feet, then tripped and fell. His hands took the full weight of his body against the concrete, but he felt nothing. Gilbert collapsed on the ground near the tray, which clattered and shook. He realized he’d never make it three steps let alone across the hall. He began to shake and gasp.
Had they told him everything he needed? What did he know?
Everything was a ritual with the Black Hand, a test, full of innuendo and double-meaning, like the robes and the secrecy and the poison. Nothing was as it seemed.