They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
~ Kage ~
Kage inhales, tasting the misery in the air. It smells delicious — fear mingling with the aroma of blood and feces, pain lacing through the screams and whimpers of his victims, the hoarse pleading for mercy, the insane mutterings of those whose minds have been consumed by the horror of his labs.
He dips a hand into the dragon’s blood, watches the red liquid ooze down his arm, and licks it. “Your pain is so sweet. Your fear is a savory morsel. Oh mighty dragon, how you have fallen.”
The dragon chained to the marble slab, now not much more than a husk of a skeleton and scarred scales, squirms as Kage brings the knife laced with dragon’s bane up to the eyebrow ridge. The thin line between scales is a perfect place for a blade to slice through the tough hide, and with the poison, diluted just enough not to kill, each cut will burn, bringing the dragon agony deep in its flesh.
<Please,> it gasps, its once proud and commanding voice reduced to a raspy whisper. “It” because the male anatomy had been painfully ripped away long ago. Funny how losing gender makes a creature feel as though they lost all identity.
What a true pleasure to break this dragon, a proud general who believed in its own importance to the Empire. Torture is a form of art, requiring months of work to produce even a single masterpiece. Using a sensory deprivation chamber for six months, Kage ensured the only time it was allowed to feel was when he brought it out for torture sessions. So delicious when they begin to embrace the agony just so they can feel.
“I think you are ready for the next step, don’t you?”
“You want to please me, of course?”
“Good. Then you must stay alive through to the end of the ritual. Promise me.”
Kage loves when they are putty in his hands, how they come to enjoy their pain, their sessions with him. Leaning close, he murmurs intimately, “Say it.”
<I promise not to die, master.> The dragon’s head, once covered in dazzling golden scales, red eyes like brilliant rubies now gone, barely lifts as it says the words. Those eyes had tasted of fear and pain, so delectable.
“Bring the girl,” Kage calls to the doppelgangers at the door.
Elven girls are hard to come by. The elves reproduce so slowly that watch over their young with an almost paranoid vigilance, living together in tight communities for mutual protection. The effort it took to snatch one makes this a truly delicious sacrifice.
“What are you going to do to me?” the elven girl says, her voice shaky but strong and clear.
He licks his lips. This was one of his favorite parts, when their innocence turns to terror, as he explains what horror he will do to his latest victim. His hands shake with the desire to devour her fear, to taste her pain.
“Don’t move.” He stabs the twisted blade into her palm and rips up her arm. She screams, trying to scramble away from him, but he clamps her wrist tight in his grip. In time to her heartbeat, blood pulses up from the jagged wound. With her hot, sticky blood all over his hand, he begins to paint the runes over her delicate face. Red smudges color her pale hair.
“I’m going to take your soul out of your body,” Kage tells her, “and put you in the dragon’s.”
She stares at him as if she didn’t understand a word he said.
“Ask me why. That’s the best part.”
She only stares at him.
He shakes her. “Ask me why.”
“Why?” she says in a small voice.
“Because you’re expendable and I am not. When I finally do this for myself, I want to be sure I do it right, and you want to help me with that, don’t you?”
Her large doe eyes stare at him.
Oh, he wants this so much. As a dragon, he would know everyone’s darkest secrets and their worst fears. A dragon could walk into anyone’s mind and inspire fear, devour their exhilarating pain, make their nightmares come true in a way he cannot do now. He would have so much power over people.
Once the blood runes cover her skin, Kage sets the girl in a magical circle and begins to chant, pacing in a figure eight around the girl and the dragon. Born with magic, Kage was raised in a wizarding family and taught the meticulous arts of crafting spells, but when Kage’s younger brother Jakob turned into a prodigy and their parents exulted in Jakob’s every achievement, Kage’s jealousy led him to making a dark pact with a demon. When he learned that the only requirement was to sacrifice his brother, he never hesitated.
But the newfound power wasn’t enough. Kage made more pacts, killing his father, then his mother, then his betrothed, then countless others, until he became the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Even now, he can feel the demons on their chains, their thirst to devour the girl, their hunger to destroy, the need to reap devastation on the world.
The elven girl’s spirit, a green slip of light, rises into the air and floats toward the dragon whose own soul, not much more than a tattered and worn shadow, hovers over its body. The two spirits collide with a clash of smoke. Thunder rumbles through the room, and the ground quakes beneath their feet.
Clouds swirl in a roiling mass, and lightning crackles around the room. Kage ducks to avoid lab equipment sucked up into the maelstrom.
Magic explodes. Stones tumble from the ceiling, and a pillar slams into the wall. With the one last violent spasm, Kage is thrown to the floor.
Kage stumbles up, gripping his head. The half-melted dragon, fused with elven parts, smolders in the center of the room. A human mouth attached to a dragon foot whimpers hoarsely.
A dragon snout, sticking out of a half-melted arm, asks, “Did it work, master?”
Kage grits his teeth, lips curled in an angry sneer. His demons turn on him, clawing at his skin, ripping at the shreds of his soul, and his hands shake like an addict on withdrawal. Even the pain of the victims in his failed experiment wasn’t enough to feed all of them.
What went wrong? He followed the instructions explicitly — the symbols painted perfectly in blood on the child, the dragon restrained in silver barbed manacles, the correct words chanted. He could feel the dark magic filling the room; he saw the ritual taking place, the souls melding. And then this —
“Sir, Lord K-k-kage –” A slave enters the room, cowering inside the doorway. “The Emperor is here to see you.”
Kage whirls on the lad, probably no more than twelve years old. Magic explodes from his fingers into the boy’s chest, ripping out his heart. The still beating organ streaks into Kage’s hand, he crushes it with great satisfaction. The terror, the ripping pain, the horrible realization of imminent death, the fading light in the boy’s eyes — Kage soaks it all up, devours every tasty morsel of misery as the heartbeat slowly fades. Crimson tendrils of magic hold the boy up keeping him alive for just a little longer as his demons feed. The blood turns black and the body rots. The body sighs and falls limp. Kage shudders in ecstasy before slowly breathing in and opening his eyes.
“Now, was that necessary?” Emperor Nyzald, in elven form, steps around the body. “For shame, the poor thing isn’t even fit for consumption anymore, such a waste.” His golden robe drags along the cold, stone floor. Covered in protection runes embroidered in red and purple thread, it brushes against the blood pooling around the slave boy, but not a single drop of blood soaks into the pristine fabric.
It really was a shame. The boy would have made a good candidate to become a Doppelganger or maybe to be used as the next sacrifice in a ritual to meld a soul into a dragon. Oh well, as the humans say, you can’t make an omelet without crushing a few heads.
Behind him, a Doppelganger hands him a towel, and Kage wipes his hands clean before taking the Emperor’s right hand and kissing his signet ring.
“Forgive me, your Imperial Majesty.” Kage bows. “You have caught me at a bad time.”
“I requested your presence at the palace. Most men would be dragged from their homes by my soldiers and torn apart for such an infraction.”
Kage inclines his head. “Forgive me. I was out of town when your summons came. The work I do for you does not keep me idle.”
Following up on a rumor concerning his missing doppelganger is not really work for the Empire, but to cover the lie, Kage focuses his mind on his recent efforts to uncover Resistance activity — in case the Emperor listened to his thoughts. Last thing he wants is for anyone to learn he lost control of one of his devout minions. Bad enough he hasn’t recovered his property in fifteen years of searching.
“I can see you are busy.” The Emperor says, eyeing the remains. “If you had answered my summons, you would know I have read your reports of some Fae and Wyld creatures escaping to the human world through some hidden portal. I expect you to put stop to it.”
“Find it. Stop it. This temporary escape is giving the people hope, and I will not tolerate that.”
“Of course, I will send two of my best.”
“Kage, you cannot allow a failure to turn into an obsession.” The Emperor gestures to the remains of his experiment. “When the time comes, I will personally help you steal Dare’s body and power. In the meantime, I expect better results from you.”
Disgusted with himself, Kage glares at the twisted body. One shameful failure after another. These wasted experiments. His search for his missing doppelganger that he never should have lost in the first place. His neglected spy work.
He knew he should have already taken care of these reported escapes. To think the Emperor had to come out here to remind him of his duties.
“You do still want Dare’s power and position, don’t you? Or should I find another?” The Emperor’s voice is quiet, not much more than a hiss in his ear.
Kage can almost taste it — the power of a dragon. Imagine, telepathy and dragon fear, the ability to rip someone’s secrets from their minds. Nobody could stop him. “Yes, my liege, no need to look any further. What do you require of me?”
“I want you to investigate this breach personally. Discover the extent of the exodus and set up security around the portal.”
“Of course, your Majesty.” Kage shivers, his craving for power prickling down his spine. “When will you give me Dare’s body for my own? When will you tell me how to complete this ritual?”
The dragon chortles. “I have promised you that the elite general will be yours, and yet you question me. Do you not believe I will do what I have promised?”
“I only want to know when, my liege.”
“Dare is not ready. His will is too strong.”
“I can break him.” Kage’s mouth waters.
“You would not want to take over a maimed, emaciated body, would you? This requires a … different approach. Dare needs loss, heartache, and despair more than pain.” A slow, vicious smile spreads across his chiseled face. “How would you like to have one of Dare’s flight members? A one-armed half-orc is of no use in my army.”
“Yes, my liege.” Kage rubs his hands together. “I will find this portal as you ask.”