Maisie sat stiffly in her seat, grinding her teeth and wringing her hands in post-traumatic anxiety. She glanced around the cabin, wondering if anyone noticed. An arm draped over her shoulder and a sudden feeling of calm answered her question.
“Deep breaths, kid.” She heard her mentor’s voice in her head. He wasn’t looking at her, but was watching the older drake repair the ragged hole in the hull instead. She watched him for a moment longer before a realization came to her.
“Do you think he realizes that, with the old sanctuary gone, he’s now probably the oldest living non-indoctrinated drake?” She asked the old elf mentally.
“No, and it probably best not to tell him.” Maisie swore she heard a pang of remorse in his voice. “He’ll figure it out on his own.”
“Swan One to Heart of Gold, we are approaching your coordinates. We have sustained heavy damage and are transporting high-value cargo.” Jack spoke over the radio. The t-bird was rapidly approaching a massive ship on the horizon. “Requesting permission to land.”
“Roger that, Swan One.” A male voice with a slight German accent replied after a momentary pause. “You are cleared to land. Repair drones and medical personnel are on standby.”
Jack circled around the Mobius yacht to the helipad, landing as gently as the injured bird would allow and quickly shutting down the overheated engines. He lowered the rear hatch to allow the others to disembark while he finished powering the t-bird down. A dark-skinned ork with kind eyes that were just starting to show visible wrinkles greeted them on the pad with a friendly smile. She had been a crisis nurse at an Atlanta women’s center, which was exactly why Maisie had hired her. Susanna hesitated, giving the nurse a once over. Her tusks and teeth were yellowed slightly from years of copious soycaf consumption, and her thick, curly, black hair was speckled with flashes of silver. Her scrubs were bright blue with a teddy bear design, and a silver locket hung around her neck.
“It’s alright, darlin’. You’re safe here.” The sound of her southern accent was familiar to Susanna, and helped her relax. “My name’s Delilah, and I’m here to help. Is that alright?” Susanna nodded and Delilah draped her arm around the traumatized woman. She looked back to Michael. “You should come too. It’ll help to have someone she trusts.”
She led the couple down to the lower decks, part of which had been converted to a small hospital unit. The scent of medical grade disinfectants made Susanna feel oddly at home. Delilah walked ahead to a short cabinet and pulled out a hospital gown, setting it on the bed beside a folded white blanket. “Go ahead and get changed into this so I can take a better look at you. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She scurried out and shut the curtain behind her. Susanna didn’t move at first, just stared at the folded gown.
“I’ll leave if you want me to.” Michael suggested, turning away.
“No.” His wife reached out and grabbed his hand. Her voice trembled. “Please stay. I don’t want you to see what he did, but I don’t want to be alone either.”
“Ok…” He gave her hand an encouraging squeeze, and tried to force a smile. Her aura was a turbulent storm of sadness, trauma, fear, and grief. She was hurt in a way he couldn’t fix, and it ripped his heart out. “I’ll stay right here. Let’s get you changed.”
It only took a few minutes for her to change into the gown. Her sundress was nearly falling apart anyway, but Michael set it aside instead of tossing it in the trash. It took all of his willpower to not cry at the sight of her battered body. Scars covered her half-starved frame. Some looked like burns, as if a hot iron had been raked across her skin, while others looked like they had been put there by blades or claws. Some were fresh, while others had long healed. Her torso, arms, and legs were covered in bruises of varying ages, and the raw skin on her wrists still oozed slightly. Every fiber of his being wanted to heal her injuries, but they had to take pictures for evidence first. “Oh, dove…”
“We ready?” Delilah’s voice chirped from the other side of the curtain.
“Yea…” Susanna wrung the papery material of the gown between her fingers. She watched Delilah swoop in and scoop the sundress into a clear plastic bag marked with a bright red “EVIDENCE” label.
“Alright, hun. I’m going to start off by getting some vitals, ok?”
She nodded and held out her arm for the biomonitor cuff. “My dad was a doctor. I know how this all works.”
“Is that so? Well, then this should be easy!”
“Yea, Dr. Adamms.”
“Jeff Adams, from Atlanta?”
“Um, yea. How’d you know?”
“I did my clinicals at his practice way back in the day. Before you were born, I think. Either that or you were real young.” Delilah nodded up towards the stairwell. “I wonder if her majesty up top knew that when she hired me.”
“I’d bet money.” Michael replied. “Coincidences like that don’t just happen.”
Delilah picked up a different, larger device from the counter. “Alright, so this doohickey here is going to scan and record your injuries. Completely non-invasive, you won’t feel a thing.”
“Doohickey?” Michael raised an eyebrow.
“Yessir! This doohickey here is connected to that doodad over there,” She joked while pointing a thumb at the computer in the corner, bringing some much needed levity. “And it goes beep when there’s stuff. Clear as mud, right?”
Susanna giggled for the first time in months and laid back so the scanner could do its work. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Susanna…”
“What?” She opened her eyes and looked at her husband, who was watching the nurse.
“I thought I heard you say something.”
“Wasn’t me.” He squeezed her hand. “Try to relax. She’s almost done.”
She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath. “I see you, Susanna. You can’t hide from me.” This time she realized the voice was coming from inside her head. She jerked and looked around the room. Michael leaned over and smiled, but it looked wrong. The gunshot scar on his chest started bleeding profusely, pouring over her hand and the bed. His grin widened creepily. “I’ll kill them all for taking you from me.”
Her eyes darted over to the nurse, but she looked wrong too. Her skin was rotted, and maggots spilled from her empty eye sockets. Delilah looked at her and frowned. “What’s wrong, darlin?”
Susanna screamed, thrashing wildly and nearly kicking the nurse. “No, leave me alone!”
“Suzie!” Michael grabbed her wrists and held them to her chest to stop her flailing before she hurt herself. Her aura betrayed the telltale signs of ritual magic. Someone was casting an illusion on her, and a very powerful one. “Dove, snap out of it! It’s not real!”
She looked at him wide-eyed with terror and struggled to break free from his grip. “Please, please don’t hurt me! I don’t know anything!”
Michael’s attempts at counterspelling were utterly ineffective against the force of the illusion. He looked up at the frightened nurse. “This is Ghostwalker’s doing! Get Harlequin, he’s the only one who can stop this!” Delilah darted up the stairwell while he struggled to keep his wife restrained.
Tears rolled down his face as the biomonitor sounded several alarms, alerting him to the high levels of adrenaline and cortisol in her system. In her malnourished and battered condition, it was more than her heart could take, and the biomonitor flatlined. Her face blanched and she went abruptly limp. “Warning! Cardiac arrest!” The monitor spoke in a robotic monotone.
“Dove?” He shook her, to no avail. “No…no, no, no! Help!” Two other nurses in blue scrubs rushed in.
“Sir, I need you to step back.” One nurse guided him away from the bed and shut the curtain to block his view. Delilah ran past him to help with the code, and Harlequin skidded to a halt behind and slightly to the side of him.
“Was all of this for nothing?” Michael spat towards the old elf, who avoided eye contact and sighed heavily.
“I was worried about this…”
“About what?” Michael spun around and got in Harlequin’s face. “That Ghostwalker would literally scare my wife to death?”
“I got a pulse!” Delilah’s voice called out. Michael closed his eyes and inhaled sharply through his nose before continuing.
“If he can get to her here in the middle of the goddamn ocean, then he can get to her anywhere.” He stomped away, slamming his shoulder into the elf’s as he passed.
“No!” He snapped and turned around. “Just shut the fuck up, ok? That overgrown lizard has taken everything from me! My home, my family, my friends…everyone I ever cared about is gone! He even stole the woman I love away from me, leaving me with nothing but a broken shell, and has now made it clear that he can take that away too! He’s won, get it?” His voice cracked under the weight of his grief. He didn’t try to hold back the tears anymore, and they flowed freely down his face. “Ghostwalker has won.”
Harlequin let the man walk away. Michael didn’t know it, but the mad elf understood his pain all too well. The curtain snapped open, revealing a scowling Delilah. “How is she?”
“Barring any more incidents like that, she’ll live. I have her sedated for now.”
“Good, I’ll stay here just in case. Michael needs some space.” He sat beside Susanna and heard the unmistakable screech of a furious and bloodthirsty drake. He rested a hand on top of the sleeping woman’s, knowing her husband was about to do something extremely stupid. He leaned back in the chair and slipped out of his body, zipping towards a place he hadn’t dared step foot in for decades.
Michael caught a tailwind and rode it towards the Florida coast. His thought was that the surviving attackers would have to stop there to repair and refuel. As he approached the beach, he saw that his assumption was correct. He didn’t bother with an invisibility spell, he knew the drakes would see him anyway. He was outnumbered, outgunned, and didn’t give a shit. He glided headlong into the hail of gunfire and rained fire down on them, aiming for the surviving true drakes and their gunship.
Ghostwalker felt a familiar presence slip past his wards and growled. “Come to pick another fight?”
“No.” Harlequin was surprisingly calm. “I’m actually here to warn you.”
“Is that so? I’m not frightened of some young drake. He will either be indoctrinated or killed soon enough, just like the others.”
“That’s cold, even for you.”
“I have no more patience for those who refuse to accept their place in life. The drakes were created as servants.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is slaves.” A crimson thread of anger arced across Harlequin’s aura. “Do you know whose wife you just tried to murder?”
“Enlighten me.” There was sarcasm in the wyrm’s voice.
“That young drake is the son of Ryan Mercury.” He paused to gauge the dragon’s reaction, but there was none. He scowled. “He’s not exactly the type to roll over and take it, and you have imprisoned and tortured the only family he has left. You have sown the seeds of rebellion in him, like Alamais did in my kind so many millennia ago. You and I both know how that ended.” Finally, he was getting a rise out of the wizwyrm. He smirked crookedly. “You’ve started a war I can’t stop, even if I wanted to.”
“He would be a fool to fight me, just as you were.”
“You misjudge him, Dollmaker. Take his wife from him, and there will be nothing to hold back his thirst for your blood. It would behoove you to leave Susanna unmolested from now on. I mean, you wouldn’t want to lose another egg, would you?” Ghostwalker reared up in fury and unleashed a volley of spells at the impertinent immortal. By the time they hit their mark, Harlequin was long gone.
The painted elf slipped back into his body and heard muffled alarms blaring through the decks above him. He walked up to the top deck of the Heart of Gold, and barely avoided colliding with an airborne drone. Maisie was barking orders to her guards while the ship’s combat drones zipped off towards a pillar of smoke in the distance. “Whoa, what I miss?”
“It would appear as though the young Herr Mercury has gone a-snouting.” Her pronounced accent betrayed her stress at the not-entirely-unexpected turn of events. “I sent a spirit for recon, and it came back to say he’s picked a fight with Ghostie’s remaining true drakes.”
“Is he winning?” He joked. She replied with a sharp glare. “Alright, alright. I’m on it.” With a completely unnecessary snap of his fingers, he vanished.