They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
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Riley ~ 15 years ago
I clutch the baby elemental, called a pod, to my chest as I cower in a darkened corner. All around me, monsters scream in pain, and feet pound deeper into the dungeon as the prisoners I set loose try to escape and guards chase them down.
Hopefully, nobody will notice one Doppelganger creeping down a back hallway with a water pod and elemental … mother? Father? Elementals have no gender. Like starfish, they separate a part of themselves to produce something that looks like a ball of water with blue eyes — no iris, no pupils, no sclera, only a blue fathomless expanse.
“This way.” I take a step forward, but the elemental grabs my arm, leaving a wet handprint.
“Something. A ward, maybe?” The voice burbles like a stream as it sways, gazing both at me and through me. “Ward, yes. A demon will run into it and tear it down. No. Dragon. A dragon comes to contend with the sorcerer.”
Every cell in my body is tense. I want to move before the sorcerer finds us, but it would be foolish to ignore the precog. “We wait then.”
“We must return to my spring.” The words are not a statement of impatience or even an argument about waiting. Maybe the elemental is trying to be conversational? Hard to tell when both face and voice are so emotionless. “It is undefended. It is weak and alone. I must be there. I must tend it, nurture it, protect it.”
“What is your name?” I ask.
“My stream is named Feyrun. It is strong even in the summer heat, and the peryton and wargs alike lap at its banks.”
“We will wait, Feyrun, and when you tell me it is safe, I will deliver you to your stream.”
Feyrun nods, fingering the iron collar wrapped around the blue throat. “Wait. Wait. Then home. Then broken chains.”
Something smelling like decaying rats squishes under my shoe, and blood drip-drip-drips somewhere behind me. My master’s magic still wraps around my chest, squeezing me. I can feel him summoning me, and every ounce of me yearns to obey. My muscles quiver at the effort to stay where I am, and a bead of sweat drips down my forehead into my eyes.
I take a ragged breath, trying to relieve the pressure building in my chest, wrapping around me like a constrictor. Technically, I don’t need to breathe, and I don’t sweat either. I’m a magical construct made of clay, but the effort to disobey makes it hard to maintain my shape.
Staggering, I crumple to my knees, but the elemental grabs my arm and hauls me back up.
“I see inside you,” it says. “He has tried to destroy your courage, but your heart is stronger than you think.”
I look down at the pod in my arms to remind myself why I am doing this. My orders were to retrieve the pod from the dungeons and deliver it to my master’s sacrificial chambers where he would devour it, stealing the gift of sight for a brief time. Once I picked it up and held it in my arms, I couldn’t do it. Its eyes were so full of wonder and innocence. It needs to be free, dancing in its river.
The sorcerer, my master, feeds on pain and fear, and everything in his care withers and dies. For an elemental to birth a pod, it must thrive. After the effort he made to find one ready and then to enslave it, he won’t just kill me, unmake me. He will take his torturous time punishing me first. Fear shivers down my spine before I can clamp down on the emotion.
His magic perks up, scenting my fear like a shark tracking blood through the ocean. I swallow the lump in my throat.
“We have to move. Now.” Scrounging up every last ounce of strength, I grab Feyrun’s hand and sprint toward the exit.
Not daring to look back, I clutch the baby and ram a lone guard who came around the corner. Since he hadn’t expected me, it’s easy to shove him to the ground.
“They’re here,” he calls.
I knee him in the head as I pass, but it’s already too late. He sounded the alarm. Footsteps of more guards pummel the stone floor behind us. I can outrun them, outwit them. But not my master.
With each step, I can feel him growing closer. No matter how fast I go, no matter what shortcuts I take, no matter how I dodge the guards coming at us, there’s no way I can make it to the compound’s gate before he catches us, tears us apart, consumes the pod and its gift of sight.
No, no, no. I won’t give up. He can’t have us. He can’t have the pod because it is more precious than his desire for power or his hunger to devour.
It’s time someone defied him.
Faster, faster, we race around one corner and the next, my feet pounding, Feyrun’s splashing on the cobbled stone.
“Here.” Feyrun snatches my arm before I dart around the last corner and pulls me into an alcove hidden in the shadows. Footsteps come from the opposite way.
“I heard them. Where’d they go?” a woman says.
“Did you get her?” The other guards who had chased us now stomp up the hall. The two groups congregate outside our hiding spot to discuss where to look next. Only a bit of shadow and the optical illusion of the stone are all that keeps us from being found.
“Shh, shh,” Feyrun says a moment before the pod begins to scream like it’s being torn apart.
Oh Creator, what is the master doing to the baby? We need to be away from here before he catches up or we will never make it out the front gates.
“Did you hear that?”
“It’s coming from over here.”
I thrust the baby into Feyrun’s arms and plunge into the group of thugs. Wanting to build the perfect spy, the master trained me in the arts of infiltration, assassination, and seduction. Doppelgangers also make the excellent bodyguards since we were designed with no free will, so fighting was also an important skill the master included in my education.
Some shapes are better for fighting. What to choose? Giants might be too big for the tunnels, but I bet I could fit a rock troll in here. I shift, my body roiling and struggling, the hard armored skin of a rock troll shredding my clothes.
Leaping from my hiding place, I knock down two guards with my left arm and use the right to grab a blonde sorceress with a scar — one of the master’s three apprentices — by the throat with my enormous rocky hand. I lift her up so that our eyes are face to face.
I show her my big troll teeth designed for crushing bones. “Remember when you abused that helpless old man? I’m going to stop you from ever doing it again.”
She makes a choked sob as I squeeze.
More guards and another sorceress apprentice — this one a brunette with chunks of hair missing from her short-cropped hair — round the corner and almost barrel into us. I swivel to face them, lifting ‘Scar-girl’ as a shield while ‘Patches’ (the brunette sorceress) launches a jet of acid at me. The blonde’s screams are muffled from the pressure on her throat but get louder as I throw her at the third sorcerer, a teenage boy who shoots some sort of webbing at me.
The last guard, a tiger-scorpion-human chimera, comes at me fast and hard, launching a series of kicks mixed with sword strikes while his tail whips and stings. My rock armor makes him little more than an annoyance, but he pushes me back, giving the sorcerers a chance to recover. The first two guards, a red-skinned orc and a truly ugly ogre, get to their feet. This is about to get interesting.
‘Ugly’ stumbles as water fountains from his mouth and nose. He makes a gurgling sound, his limbs flailing, before he goes still. One down, many more to go.
‘Red’ tries to attack me from behind, leaping to latch onto my back. Waiting until he is airborne, I twist out of the way, grabbing the chimera’s scorpion tail and swinging him like a flail into the orc. They connect with a sickening crunch of bone. Both of them smash into the tunnel walls in limp bundles.
Patches turns to run. I can’t let her get away to report to the master. I scoop up the manticore’s blade and hurl it at her back. The force of the throw pins her to the wall like a butterfly in a science lab. She squirms, blood pumping from the wound, before going limp.
Showing my yellow troll teeth, I grin at the two remaining apprentices. They look a little uncertain, the teenage boy more so. My master likes them young because they’re easier to break and remold, but that also means they quickly become hollow shells.
Scar-girl hurls a blast of dark flame at me. It washes over me, burning away the last shreds of my clothes, but my Doppelganger immunity to fire makes it feel like nothing more than a light tickle. Her eyes widen in realization of what she faces. Then she too starts to choke as water fills her lungs.
The sorcerer boy stares at me, his eyes shifting back and forth as he tries to find a better option than the other two apprentices. Nothing has worked on me so far, and he’s the last one standing.
I laugh. “Come on, princess. Let’s get this over with.”
His face twists into a snarl, and he lifts his hands, spraying a tarry black substance at me.
Ready for his attack, I roll under the arc of the tar blast and curl into the trademark boulder shape that gained the rock troll its name. The boy’s head makes a wet smack on the stone wall behind him, and he doesn’t stir.
Breathing heavy, I look around at the piles of bodies around me. Nobody moves. No feet pound up the cave. No threats jumping out at me. I can only feel my master approaching steadily, a few turns back.
Feyrun points to the drowned sorceress. “Take her clothes. You will need it then.”
Great, that clears it right up.
“Change. Human.” She points at the clothes again.
“This is a better fighting form, and there’s not enough time. He’s almost here.”
She says nothing, still pointing.
I don’t have time to think before I start to shrink down, so I settle into a physical form that feels the most comfortable — a female with dark hair, light skin. I grab the sorceress’s robe, and as I slip it on, my master comes around the corner.
“You.” He stops, standing at the end of the passage, and takes me in from head to foot, his mouth agape, as I tie the robe closed. “Not possible. You should not be able to remember that form.”
Fear and apprehension stir in his eyes, and strength pours through my limbs as I realize that, for the first time, the master sorcerer isn’t in control.
Feyrun shoves the pod into my arms. “Go. Feyrun will protect the waters.”
“We can’t leave you. Your child needs you.”
“I am Feyrun. Feyrun is me. We protect our river.”
The elemental catches the master by surprise, sending a torrent of water at him, punching him from his feet and pushing him down the hallway behind us.
His face white with anger, he stalks toward us. Whatever upper hand I had a moment ago is gone. Clutching the pod, I race for the exit, leaving the elemental to slow him down. Should be only two more turns, maybe three, to get to the gate.
I round the first bend, and the twisting corridors break the master’s line of sight, less chance of him casting something.
A left turn and then another, and at last the doors to the surface come into sight. Fifty yards to the gates leading out but the wards are still burning on the door, glyphs of inky darkness pulsing with malice. I could probably get through with my magic immunity, but the pod would be torn apart. I slow a step.
I hear Feyrun screaming behind me. I grit my teeth and cast a glance at the empty hallway. I hate myself for leaving the elemental behind, but I couldn’t have saved the pod otherwise.
Ten yards from the door. The screams have stopped. He’ll be following behind me.
The glyphs flare; red cracks appear in their midst spreading rapidly, the wards splintering like glass shards across the stone floor. A blast wave of released energy knocks me off our feet. The doors crash open, ripped half off their hinges.
A twelve-year-old boy stands on the shattered doorway. His hair is a dirty, sandy blond that often darkens to brown in adulthood, and his eyes look like they’re on fire. His face, puffy and red as if with tears, is full of pain, but the rage within him pushes against my mind.
“Where is he!” An unseen force grips my body, dragging me to him. He looks straight into me. Inside his eyes, I see a dragon staring back, ready to devour me with the slightest provocation. I can feel him in my mind. That shouldn’t be possible — I’m not really alive — but his thoughts scorch me like an inferno. I drown in the flames.
I am going to die; he is unmaking me. Lights dance before my eyes like fireflies. What will happen when I die? I don’t even have a soul. I’m just a tool for the master, to use for his evil plans. Death could mean my freedom.
But I don’t want to die.
I want to swim in Feyrun’s stream. I want to see the world, help people, save this baby elemental. I want to be alive and free.
He releases me and sets me down.
The fury around him is more steady now, more focused, more deadly. “Go. I’m going to kill him.”
He turns his back to us striding toward the dungeons, a child marching into battle like a man. His clothes burst open. Silver scales ripple out over his body. Wings rip from his back. His claws gouge the stone floor.
A mental roar rattles my teeth, and I grab my head in pain.
“Sorcerer, you demon-spawn son of a whore! I’m going to kill you!” A young, very pissed-off dragon charges down the dungeon corridors.