In the darkness she stirred from her long slumber. A pleasant feeling filled her mind as she took a deep breath and released it. She lost herself in a deep stretch and smiled. Soon she would fly again over the mountains and valleys she loved. The rest had been necessary, but now she longed to glide over the mountains and trumpet her return.
She drew another breath and released it slowly. There was a taste to the air that she did not recognize. It was a sulfurous, almost acrid flavor. ‘This is not right,’ she thought to herself. ‘It should be sweet with a hint of rain.’
She paused. Straining her ears to hear the music she had fallen asleep to. There was no sound. No birds, no laughter, no waterfalls. ‘What has happened to the world?’ she wondered as a slight panic crept into her thoughts. Suddenly the fear of what had happened overrode her desire to wake slowly.
She pushed herself up from the rocks that had kept her warm and safe during her slumber. Suddenly she had to get out of the enclosed area. It was no longer a comforting warren but more of a tomb. She had to get out.
Nothing she could have imagined would have prepared her for the site that greeted her. Nothing in their imagination could have prepared the residents of Nan King for the trumpeting arrival of the Great Eastern Dragon.
She sat perched on the mountainside. Calling out repeatedly, but when no answer came she launched herself skyward. Reports of her arrival varied, but they were dutifully filed and sent to the capital, where it was dismissed as a fanciful hallucination. People just weren’t ready to deal with the possibility, and so it was dismissed by all but one individual.
He had waited for her return for a very long time, and now the time had come. He called by her name, but she was too distressed to answer. He would see her again, but for now, there was too much work for him to do.
As always, it would have to wait.
“Minhaillreth,” the rumbling voice called. Minh cringed at the tone in her brother’s voice. It grated on her nerves like everything else he did. ‘So imperious, so self righteous.’
‘I hear,’ she answered as she rose from her couch and joined him in the Great Hall.
“Why are you not with Kai,” he asked. “He is still just a child. With Mheretha ill, it is your responsibility to oversee his education.”
“He is with the humans,” she answered, she didn’t mean for the disgust she felt to creep into her voice, but it did.
Her lack of control was not lost on Yung. “Minhaillreth. Now more than ever, these people need us,” he told her. “You will soon be Matriarch. It is our job to protect them, and you could not care less about them.”
“Is that so wrong?” she asked angrily. “They are killing themselves, destroying the world. Does it really matter what we do any more. They have broken with the ways of our kind. It is well past time we did the same with them. They do not live up their end of the agreement, why then are we still bound by it?”
She held her breath as Yung stared at her in disbelief. She could see him searching her soul for any regret in what she’d said. When he bowed his head she knew he’d found none. They did not deserve her pity or the pain she had suffered on their behalf for that matter. They had destroyed everything that was important to her. They had broken their vows, it was time she did the same.
“I am sorry you feel that way,” Yung told her. “As Keeper of the Celestial Gate, I cannot afford to have the Matriarch of our clan go against our ways.”
“Fine,” she answered. “Find another replacement for the Great Lady. I do not wish to embarrass you or the clan.”
“There is no replacement,” he answered. “We have been training you, concentrating on you... there is no time to find a new one. Therefore, it is up to me to help you find that which you lost.”
“I?” she demanded angrily. “Find what I lost? Don’t you mean ‘find what the humans destroyed’?” She shook her head fiercely. “I have suffered enough because of them!”
Yung bowed deeply as the Four arrived and entered the Great Hall. As he looked up they smiled at him.
“We are truly sorry for what has happened,” Gabriel stated, speaking for his brothers. “Mheretha, was truly a great lady.”
Yung nodded. “But this was not unforseen,” he answered. “She was not well before, and after this awakening, I believe the change was too great for her.”
“What of Minhaillreth?” Auri asked as he noted that only the ancients watched. There was no sign of the Matriarch’s successor.
“That is why I have asked you to our hall,” he answered sadly. “I fear that she has fallen from the way.”
He paused, noticing the look exchanged by the brothers. “Fallen?” Rafe asked worriedly.
Yung shook his head reassuringly. “Not fallen, that was a poor choice of words on my part,” he answered. “More like she has broken with our ways. She has lost her faith.”
“In us?” Gabriel asked.
AgainYung shook his head. “No, in the humans.”
“But the Celestial Long have always protected them,” Auri countered.
Yung nodded. “I am afraid our need is great, and we may be forced to resort to dire methods.”
“What are you proposing,” Gabriel asked softly.
“She must learn what it is to be human, to be frail, to be... vulnerable.”
The Four exchanged looks as they realized the implication of his request. It had been a very long time since the Four had been called upon to deliver a curse upon one of the Celestial Long. It was not something they took lightly, but they could tell from Yung’s expression, it had taken him a long time to reach his conclusions and ask for their help.
“We will take it under advisement,” Auri stated at the Four turned and left.
Yung bowed his head, afraid of what was to come. Even if the Four agreed, there was no guarantee that this would prove the solution to their current problem.
Minhaillreth screamed as her form twisted and was reshaped. Her scales melted, changing from golden armor to frail skin. As the power swirled around her, she heard the four chant. Gabriel, then Auri, then Michael, then Rafe. Their faces were emotionless masks as they placed the curse upon her.
“Minhaillreth,” Gabriel declared. “We cast you out of the Celestial realm.”
“We take your form.”
“We take your power.”
“We take your strength.”
“Thus you shall remain, until the debt is paid,”
“You will suffer as they suffer”
“You will feel as they feel.”
“You will live as they live.”
“We await your return.”
“When you have learned to understand.”
“When you have learned compassion”
“When you have learned their strength.”
“Until mercy finds its way to your heart”
“Until you understand their sorrow”
“Until you understand their burden.”
“Until you believe again.”
As the final word was uttered, Minhaillreth was no more. In her place stood Minh. Yung tried to talk to her one last time, but she turned and walked away.
Yung had sent me out, for I had lost my faith in human-kind. He ordered me to live among them until I regained my compassion. I had seen so much that I loved destroyed by them, and his assignment was truly a curse to me, for until I completed the task he had set for me, I would be forced to live among them, as one of them.
My beautiful scales were melded into their weak flesh, my eyes would see as their’s did, and until my heart saw as they did, I would not be able to claim that which was mine. It was a cold cruel trick, but the elders knew what they were doing. Yung knew, perhaps that is what annoyed me more than anything, for Yung always seemed to know more than any of us.
My brother is not the eldest of our clan, but his chi, his spirit, is far older than any of us. His power is great, but that is because he has lived with the celestials far longer than any of us. He has learned much from them. And through them, he is much changed and isolated from us.
That was the first thing I felt when the change took place. How isolated I was.
“Move it ‘Toots!” the man at the counter told her. “I’m on a tight schedule.”
Minh muttered under her breath. They were always on a ‘tight schedule.’ As she picked up the heavily laden tray, the cook smiled at her.
“It gets better hon,” he’d tell her. He always told her that, but it never did. The customers were always in a hurry or hell bent for making her life miserable. It didn’t help that the man calling her ‘toots’ would be back later in the day, drunk and ‘friendly.’
It didn’t matter how many times she asked him, begged him or avoided him, he would always be drunk and ‘friendly.’ He would paw at her and try to proposition her, and if she complained to the owner, he would tell her that she was being a trouble maker.
Two hours later, when she was on break, she would watch Myrna escape through chemicals and Alex slowly kill himself with tobacco and gin. ‘Was this what I was supposed to learn?’ she wondered.
There had to be something more, but each time she moved on, the scenario would repeat itself. It would be a different drunk, Myrna and Alex wouldn’t be there, but there would be others who took their place in the dance of misery.
None of them remembered the Way. They were dull and lifeless. Then there was Eliza. The Eliza’s were rare, but she had met a few. Their lives were as hopeless as Myrna’s and Alex’s, but they still tried. Eliza had two children and she was struggling to support them. She never gave up except that she never tried to move on either.
And these were the good one’s she’d met. Even the drunk would try and give her a little extra when he’d been especially offensive. Then there were the ‘others.’ People like Reese Danvers.
The Reese Danvers of the world would come here ‘slum’ it. They had money, they had escaped the boredom and helplessness, only to replace it with cruelty and excess. The would belittle her and the others, make them feel like worms with their games, knowing full well that the promise of a healthy tip would buy their tolerance.
And they would push it. They were petty and cruel, but because they had the money, they would have their way.
She could almost pity Myrna and Alex, but they had given up. The Eliza’s of the world were kind enough, but they never really saw beyond their own struggle. And the Reese Danvers of the world could all die tomorrow and the world would breath a sigh of relief.
But there was no relief, it simply continued. The dancers would change, but the dance was repeated over and over, and so it continued.
Looking in the mirror, she realized it was time to move on. She had been in the city for almost 5 years with no change. The city had proved no better than the small towns she had moved through for the last twenty some odd years. The humans had not only destroyed their world, they had destroyed themselves. They were nothing more than lifeless husks from what she had seen: lifeless husks, or parasites.
She would never be free. Yung had sent her to find compassion, but there was nothing left. She hadn’t met even one human that was even vaguely alive. She’d seen the Myrnas and Alexes and Reeses of the world. Not one of them had been worthy of her time.
She packed her few belongings and checked her credits. She had enough to move on, and have one good meal before she did.
She went to the club district, and that was where her luck changed.
I was a fool. Too much brandy, too much of everything, it made me giddy and I forgot to look for the warning signs.
I was having my dinner, a going away celebration I was having for myself, when he arrived. He came up to me, said all the right things and swept me off my feet. For the remainder of the night, I was the only thing that existed. He made me feel special. He made me feel alive.
If I had had my ‘powers’ I would have seen through his suave exterior. But that was part of the curse. I had only what a human would have. Scant magic, and no way to protect anybody but myself. Worse, I wasn’t even allowed to truly protect myself, only to prevent my own death. Comfort had no place in the scheme of things.
Again it was ‘for my own good.’ I would be forced to endure what they endured, learn not only what they suffered, but how it felt to watch someone you cared about die, and being completely helpless to do anything for them.
But that night it didn’t matter, and at that point, I had yet to find somebody I cared about. I thought perhaps he, Victor, would be different. He was, but not the way I expected.
Minh sat staring at her steak and thought back, far back. She thought about the music and the laughter that would greet her in the mornings; how everyone would look at her then, even the younger brothers of the Four would admire her. As she took a bite of the steak, she closed her eyes and sighed.
She wished she could eat like this more often. It was the closest she had felt to being alive in ten years. Sometimes she wondered if Myrna had the right idea, if you cannot have a life, at least the illusion of a life offered something.
She was broken out of her musings when a man stopped at her table.
“Excuse me,” he told her. “But I noticed you eating alone, and I feel it is a shame that such a beautiful woman must dine alone on such a wondrous night.”
Minh looked up and smiled at him. It was the first time in a very long time that a stranger had said something nice to her. He smiled at her, and his smile was so open and bright that she soon forgot everything else.
By the end of the evening, she had been wined, dined and taken dancing. He acted as if she was the only thing that mattered to him, and she believed him. She had no reason not to. Victor Rollins was very well practiced at this game.
He offered her a ride to the train station and she accepted. After all, he had driven her all over town, why would she not have trusted him. She barely had time to scream as he hit her with a stun charge. It wasn’t enough to knock her out, just enough to paralyze her.
And then he whispered in her ear. “No one will miss you.” His voice was cold and cruel. “Now my pretty, you belong to me.”
She had no idea how long he’d driven, or even where. The trip was a study in misery. Whenever the stun would start to wear off, he would hit her again. The pain was incredible, but the charge was never enough to take her away from the pain, only enough to add to it and keep her helpless.
When he arrived at his ‘base.’ he reset the controls and hit her again. It set every nerve on fire, but she was unable to scream and it continued for a very long time. When he was finished, he turned the dial up and gave her a final stun. This one, finally giving her the relief on unconsciousness.
Azra was furious. He agreed that Minh needed to re-find what she had lost, but this wasn’t working. He tried to get the others to recant, but then she was in no danger. Now she was in far greater danger then any of them had believed possible. Worse, there was nothing any of them could do for her.
“We had to,” Auri told him patiently. “She must know what their lives are like.”
“With no direction, no plan?” Azra growled. “You just threw her into it.”
“There was no other choice,” Auri answered. “She wouldn’t listen to any of us.”
“She would have listened to me,” Azra countered. “Did you think about that? Now we can’t help her and we will loose her.”
“He will not kill her,” Auri stated. “He cannot.”
“He will destroy her soul,” Azra told him. “And isn’t that what you were trying to save?”
“It is out of our hands.”
“Such a pat answer,” Azra countered. “We’ve done all we can, its up to someone else to fix things...”
“Have patience,” Auri told him. “And perhaps a little faith.”
I used to believe that nothing happened without a reason. It gave me some sense of control. I have learned that control is an illusion. It was actually the first useful thing I learned as a human. It just took me too long to learn it.
I did not know how long the ‘visits’ from Victor were to continue, only that I could not take it anymore. I was now a victim, a statistic, nothing more. Any hope I hadn’t given up, was now taken from me....
Victor smiled to himself. Things were going well all around. His newest acquisition was learning her place, and the score of a lifetime was waiting for him.
He knew that his tastes were rather extravagant and that sooner or later, he’d have to pay for them. He had tried to economize, but it was difficult.
He knew his newest prisoner would prove interesting: he could feel it. True, like the others she had no ties, no one that would look for her, but there was something in her carriage that told him she was used to taking care of herself. ‘A challenge,’ he thought to himself. Victor loved challenges.
As for paying for his habits, well, instead of selling his newest arms, he had made... other arrangements. Once the pieces were in place, he would signal his agent to make the call and the world would be at his feet. In the mean time, he would amuse himself with his ‘toys.’
He turned on the camera in the ‘examination’ room. It was set for low-light and the greenish cast made him smile.
She was struggling against the restraints. It was only a matter of time now, and time was his friend in this. Soon she would grow tired and lay still again, her chest heaving. Then she would start to imagine things. After that her mind would become her own enemy, imagining what was to happen.
He figured that one day laying there helpless and alone would suffice, then he would begin training her in earnest.
Minh groaned as she tried to sit up and found she couldn’t. As she tried to move something flopped over onto her head. It took her a few minutes to realize that it was her own arm. Pain shot through it as circulation returned.
She took a startled breath when she realized that she was no longer tied to the table. Something moved nearby : she was not alone.
“Take it easy,” a voice urged softly. “Just rest and stay quiet.”
“What?” Minh asked softly.
“I can’t truthfully say ‘you’re safe’,” the voice answered. “Would you accept, you’re safe for now?”
Minh tried to collect her thoughts but everything was a jumble. Giving up she concentrated on the voice. It was slightly high, but there was also a fearful quality to it.
“What has happened?” Minh finally managed to ask. She tensed slightly as she felt someone touch her, but the hands were soft, gently and comforting.
“Easy,” the woman told her again, this time lifting her head and propping her up.
It took Minh a moment to realize that the girl was now supporting her with her own body. “What you’re feeling is only natural.”
“I cannot see,” Minh commented disjointedly.
“That’ll go away too, unfortunately.”
Now she could hear the fearful, almost bitter sound in the voice. “What...”
“If there is truly a heaven and hell,” the woman told her. “You’ve ended up in the closest approximation of hell available on this plane.”
As Minh sat trying to piece together what had happened, the woman shuddered.
“What is wrong child,” Minh asked.
“He’s coming,” she whispered in shock and disbelief. “Oh god, he’s coming.”
She could hear a door open and felt his eyes upon her, if only for a minute. “Come along pet, its time for you and I to have a talk.”
The voice filled Minh with rage. As she tried to get up, the woman patted her gently. “Its okay,” she whispered. “After a while, you don’t even notice any more.”
The woman eased Minh’s head back down as she stood and walked towards the door. “Rest while you can,” she urged.
What he did to that child, what he did to each of us... it was unspeakable. It is odd that I began to learn compassion from such a soulless beast, but it is true. I also learned to truly hate.
If only there was something I could have done then, but I was his prisoner, and he relished just how helpless I was. Fortunately for me, he had no idea who, or what he was dealing with. For if he had, I knew that things would have been much worse.