Chapter 4, Part 2
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 4, Part 2
~ Dare ~
I find Grayscale waiting for me in the little antechamber leading to my room. Dozing fitfully on the bench, she jumps as I open the door. The hotel had given me the Ambassador Suite, a benefit of my position. Visitors sometimes need to wait for major officials, and having people lined up in the hallway is too undignified for Elven sensibilities.
“Here to report, Elite General.” She yawns.
“We missed you at the wake.” I picture it all over again — her body being consumed from the inside, the magical plague eating her flesh. How do I fight something like that? I knot my hands into fists, my dragon claws digging into my human palm.
She nods avoiding my eyes. Instead, she sends me thoughts of Jade through the years, Jade’s smile, her laughter. My throat tightens and my vision blurs. I cough and change the topic. “How did it go with Greatfang?”
“About as expected.” Sighing, she rubs her hands down her face. I had never noticed the creases lining her mouth. The perpetual smile and constant determination to keep an upbeat attitude hid the worry and fear … until death drained it all away. “They were able to stop the bleeding and healed it as best they can, at least he is no longer in danger of dying.”
“They gave him first-class care?” Half-breed dragons are treated as expendable, but I’ll be damned if I let one of mine be treated like some broken tool that can be discarded when it no longer has any use.
She shakes her head. “It will take an Alpha Class Medimage to regrow the hand. We’ll have to wait until we get back to the Capital to find someone who can heal it completely. Thankfully, he will be asleep for a while.”
“Good. He’ll be all right then.” The Emperor will see to it. He believes in our mission as much as I do, and he knows that my team is important.
She stands, a little wobbly on her feet, and I grab her arm to steady her. She looks up at me, our gazes meeting, the years of fighting together painted in her eyes. A tear trickles down her cheek. Reaching up, she wipes the tears off my own cheek. “We survived so much. We’ll make it through this too.”
I nod, but no words come out. I don’t want to survive this anymore. I want the fighting to stop. “I don’t even know why we’re doing this anymore,” I whisper, my voice cracking on the last word.
“You know why. Who will protect them if we don’t?” She grips my hand and squeezes it before slipping out the door. The comfort only lasts a moment before the guilt and pain crash down on me again.
Alone, I walk into the suite’s bedroom and toss my gear on the bed and start stripping. I want to wash away the blood and sweat, the stink of battle, of death, off my skin. Even more, I desperately need to sleep, to renew my strength, before the battles begin again.
Gray’s right – I do know why I fight, why I’ll never give up. My father died from one of the plagues, and I don’t want anyone else to suffer like that, to lose a loved one and be left wondering. On his deathbed, he begged me to seek out the Prophecies of the Mad Emperor, claiming these forbidden documents contained the secrets to curing the plagues. I planned to fulfill those promises, and I even asked our current Emperor, my lord and liege, to allow me to read them.
The ravings of a madman, he told me. None of it makes sense, and nothing in it will help us. Believe me, I searched. What we need is to stop these humans who set these diseases against us. Stop the problem at its source.
I could feel his sincerity. As one of the best telepaths in the empire, I can’t be fooled. No one can lie with every nuance of their thoughts. Everyone has a subtext that gives them away. With utter certainty, I know the Emperor’s heart is in saving his people.
But I can’t shake the guilty feeling Jade would still be alive if I had obeyed my father and sought more vigorously to read these prophecies. Just one more way, I failed them.
Failed my brother. Failed my father. Failed Jade. Who’s next?
Turning, I head to the washroom to clean off the ash and grime from the burn earlier today, scrub away my own pain. Rubbing my hands down my face, I let out a heavy sigh. Sleep. When was the last time, I got a good night’s sleep? I towel off and head to the suite’s bedroom. Sitting on the edge of the bed, heart heavy, I feel so weary. The effort of turning off the light and crawling under the covers seems too much. I stare off into the distance as visions of the day replay in my mind.
The shadows in the corner of the bedroom shift, dragging me from my thoughts. Fear tingles along my skin. I draw my sword from its scabbard at my nightstand, I reach out with my mind and recoil at the dark alien thoughts of a faze, dark minions in the Emperor’s service. He often uses them as his personal messengers.
The faze rises out of the shadow, its immaterial body drifting toward me. There are no features in its shadowy face – no eyes, no nose, no lips. It reaches out a long finger and touches my hand.
The skin where he touches grows icy and turns blue, and I can’t grasp the sword hilt. It thuds to the floor. I take in a deep breath to calm myself.
“What do you want?”
It drifts closer.
I resist the urge to step back. “What do you want, you freak?”
“Summons.” Its raspy voice stretches the word to an almost unrecognizable moan. One oddly jointed, seven-fingered hand stretches toward my temple.
I swat it away, numbness crawling up my arm. “Dammit, can’t you just write it down? Come back in the morning.”
“Summons.” Dark ethereal fingers plunge into my skull. I slam up my mental walls as it enters my mind. Each image, jagged and distorted, slices into me. Me. The throne room. The Emperor. Reporting. Sending. Secrets. The Emperor must have a new impossible task for me to do that just can’t wait.
The pain of having this thing in my mind is excruciating. I stagger back, barely able to see through the blood streaming down my face, my eyes, ears, and nose hemorrhaging. Even after sending the images, it lingers, savoring my pain. I can feel it probing my mental walls.
I grab hold of it with my thoughts, and within its mind, I sense nothing but devotion and obedience. I dig deeper; there must be more to this … thing than that. The further I pry, the less sense of self I find and the more alien it seems.
For a moment, a larger mind stares back at me, curious and eager, hungry, salivating. Tempting me to come closer. Offering me power beyond my imagination. Showing me riches and women and anything I may desire. I shrink back, but it pulls me closer. Tendrils weave through my mind, slipping around my defenses, hooking into me like the threads of a puppet.
A hive mind, directed by a queen? What happens if this queen devours me? Am I dead? Or do I turn into a faze as well? I’ve had my fill of beings trying to control me. With a thought, I crush the faze before me, shattering its mind and my connection to its master. The semi-corporeal body explodes like some kind of inky pimple.
There’ll be hell to pay for killing the Emperor’s messenger. I hope I didn’t sign a death warrant for my flight, but then, someone seems to be trying to kill us already.