“Soeki!” Merletta shoved the door open, throwing out her arms in a delighted spectacle.
The room was filled with an intense sound of buzzing that snapped against Nahata’s eardrums. It was almost the same noise that the quarries’ machines made. But inside the room it was a concentrated drone. It was almost deafening. And yet, Merletta waltzed into the room without an ounce of hesitation. Didn’t even seem to notice the obnoxious noise.
Merletta sang cheerfully, “I have a favor.”
Soeki spun around. His hair was in frazzled disarray and his eyes were somewhat red around their edges. His skin was unspeakably pale as if he had never seen the sun in his entire life. He wasn’t wearing a mask like the other Dev. In fact, he wasn’t wearing any sort of ‘clan’ attire. He was draped in clothes that were far too large for his bony frame. They also looked a decade old. “Merletta,” he groaned. “Whatever favor you ask can’t be worth my time.”
“Just a few seconds,” she jeered. “It’ll be so quick you’ll forget we were ever even here.” She stepped closer to the man and it was clearer now that they were standing beside each other how sickly thin the man was. Or Merletta was incredibly muscled and tall. “I simply want to test whether this little runt behind me is even worth my expertise.”
He gave a grunt and turned his attention back to the wall of glass and buttons before him. He moved his hands along the shimmering lights, fingers tapping and sliding every which way without missing a beat. Nahata had seen something similar although it had been much smaller in the quarry. And only the Dev ever used it. Obviously, only the Dev could read the symbols and understand how to use it.
Merletta continued in a sweet tone, “I’ll make sure the next shipment of Ardian mead finds its way... in your laboratory. What do you say?”
Soeki gave Nahata a long hard stare over his shoulder. His lips twisted into a disgusted grimace but he threw his hands up in submission all the same. “Fine. Very well.” He hobbled across the room towards a tall cylindrical machine. It was shaped with dark gray metal carved and completely covered with wires.
Merletta flicked her fingers a few times as if Nahata would simply obey like a loyal dog. Her tone also switched, hard and impatient as before. “Step inside the container and lean back. This is the fastest way to measure your magical range.”
Nahata remained where she stood. There was something about the crow that irked her. And she didn’t trust Devian technology in the least. The last time she stepped inside of a machine like that, it was used to torture her. The only sustenance she received was through a needle in the arm. It had been the longest month of her life.
Nahata watched as her trainer slowly turned around with widening eyes. The mask hid away most of Merletta’s expression but the lines deepening between her brows was enough to alert Nahata that she wasn’t all that pleased. “Don’t waste any more time. Soeki isn’t going to wait forever.”
Nahata’s brow raised in challenge.
“It’ll only be a simulation.” Merletta snapped hold of her arm and jerked her closer to the tall metal container.
“Simulation of what?” barked Nahata as she struggled to pull her arm free.
“You know very well I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“We’ll simulate combat situations.” Soeki ran his fingers across the machine’s interface until the doors began to pry open.
The metal gears were so quiet that they were almost inaudible. The machine was tall enough to fit someone seven feet or so and it was fairly spacious. Or at least more spacious than the last one she’d been forced into.
“None of the illusions are real of course but they can make you... feel like you’re in pain should you be hurt. All you really have to do is fight your hardest.”
Nahata didn’t trust Soeki either. He looked more crazed than Merletta but she supposed she trusted the man far more than she trusted the old crow. And what choice did she have? She was a servant to the empire and her trainer. The hard pressed glare in Merletta’s eyes made it clear that Nahata wasn’t leaving the room. Plus, if Soeki knew her language, then it was possible that he too had been a slave once. Had he lived among her people? Or had he been one of the Dev that ran experiments on her people?
Nahata stepped into the machine, the metal surprisingly warm as it surrounded her. She turned around and pressed her back against the wall. The machine hummed quietly. The door began to shut, the capsule vibrated as the gears turned. It wasn’t until they shut completely that she felt incredibly aware of how alone she was. She shuddered as the fear rose up inside of her.
Nahata shouted, her voice echoing back at her, “How does it work?”
Merletta grumbled, her voice muted by the metal walls, “Who cares?”
“It’s powered by technology older than the Dev themselves.” Soeki cleared his throat as he fumbled to add, “Of course, the Dev were the ones who perfected it.”
Nahata could hear Merletta’s muffled chuckle. “Don’t worry old man. I’m no loyalist.”
The dark chamber started to brighten slowly then sharply. Her eyes fluttered and brows pinched to see past the intense white light. Nahata could make out the familiar dunes of the desert and somehow she swore she could taste the dry heat in the back of her throat. She looked down at her feet, expecting to see the black metal of the chamber. But sand rolled across her boots as the desert winds swept along the empty desert.
She swallowed the sickness that burned the back of her throat. This wasn’t magic. She would have smelled and tasted magic. This was different. She didn’t understand how the machine ran. The ones in the quarry were always maintained and watched carefully by the guards.
Nahata stepped forward, sloshing through the soft sands until she heard something behind her. She spun around just as it slithered through the sand and disappeared. She held her breath, desperate to hear whatever creature was circling around her. Sand slushed and she sput again to catch a glimpse of gleaming scales.
Her skin bristled. The metallic scent of magic filled the small space and sparked inside of her nose. She wanted to get away from it; the serpent, the magic, Soeki and his strange machine. She wanted to escape but she was trapped. The fear ignited painfully inside of her heart.
The earth erupted. Sand scattered through the air in the explosion. When the sand cleared away, a tower of black scales loomed over her. Its mouth swung open and two glistening fangs unfurled. Spikes rose up from the crown of its head as it hissed at her. It lunged forward with its enormous mouth wide open.
A guttural scream clawed out of her throat. Nahata’s warm skin sharply turned to fire. Her bones splintered outwards, bursting through her flesh until her body was ripped open. Ghostly flames writhed out of her, the force of it peeling back the metal of the machine with utter ease.
The desert flickered out of view. The serpent was gone but the metal around her was sparking wildly, lightning snapping across her mutating body. The energy blooming out of began to spill out into the room.
Merletta stumbled backwards.
Even Soeki leapt away from the disaster. He raced to the other side of the room and pulled a lever which turned off the machine’s jolts of electricity. The whole room quieted and the lights dimmed.
The fire that burned inside of her crackled into ice. The writhing magic sputtered, sinking back into her bones like a sleeping beast. Nahata crumpled to the floor once the force inside of her dissipated. Her open wounds began to glow just as they had done the first time back at the workcamps. The violet lights pulsed beneath her skin and along the edges of her cracked bones. Nahata felt pain but not as intense as she thought she should. It should be worse. And yet, she was alive.
Merletta sashayed across the room as she took in Nahata’s emaciated figure. “Well, you’re not completely useless, after all. You’ve got quite the monster in you...” She kneeled down and raised her feathered mask. “Pity... you would have been so amazing had we trained you earlier...” Her fingers curled along Nahata’s chin and examined the wounds almost tenderly.
Nahata sucked a breath of air through her clenched teeth.
Soeki was the one to retort this time, words sharply leaving his tongue, “A few years and I might have my machine fixed! You owe me, Merletta! You owe me more than you can pay!”
“Yes, yes...” She stood up and waved her hand half heartedly. “If this goes according to plan... you might get yourself a research facility...” Her small mouth curled into an unnerving smirk as she glowered down at Nahata’s trembling body. “I’ll fetch someone to carry you... I’d do it myself but my outfit would be ruined. This was specially made, you know. Do be a darling and wait here.”
“As if I could leave...” Nahata hissed, her mouth coated with blood and magic, the taste forcing her to swallow it down everytime it rose up in the back of her throat.
Soeki stared for a long moment. His hands clenched and his shoulders trembled. “Monster... After the mess you made... you don’t deserve anyone’s help...”
Her eyes rolled shut, a tightness pressing in the back of their sockets. “I’m sorry about your dumb machine...”
“Machine? Is that all you think about?” He leapt forward and snatched the front of her shredded jacket. He held her up until their gaze met. “How many people did you kill to get as powerful as you are now? Hm? How many souls did you steal?”
“I haven’t...” Nahata tried to reach up and shove him away but her arms were too heavy. they hung limply at her side. “I haven’t killed anyone.” A breath of air jutted out of her lungs as she felt the heat of his stare.
It was technically a lie. She had killed a few people. But she never took anyone’s life who hadn’t tried to take her own. She’d been in work camps since she was a child and people were always willing to take advantage of children. No one else was going to protect her. The guards sure as hell weren’t.
He gritted his teeth. “Ten. You had to have killed at least ten.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You’re just like all the other Devs that spoil this place.” He hauled her towards the door, arms and legs lifelessly dragging behind her, blood smearing across the floor. Some of her wounds were ripping open even wider.
Her lips pulled taut as the screams jutted from her throat. “You know my language! You must have worked in camps so you must know how dangerous it is.”
He stalked back into the room after leaving her in the hallway.
Blood darkened the floor around her. But her wounds were still glowing, a dull and swollen heat inside of her flesh. She could feel it moving around inside of her. Her stomach was knotting itself up and she knew any moment she might vomit.
A Dev walked past, boots clamoring down the hall as he walked by her without an ounce of concern. He barely even gave her a glance.
She eased her spine into the hard tile, the cold surface a relief to the heat searing her bleeding wounds.
It wasn’t until a new set of boots came down the hall that she bothered looking. Merletta was approaching with a pair of white coated men. She looked quite pleased with herself, a little too giddy about everything. Whatever the old woman was scheming, it couldn’t be good. Merletta stopped short in the hallway, allowing the men to gather Nahata’s broken form.
She sucked in a sharp breath through her clenched teeth. She could feel their hands and fingers digging into her flesh and bones in an attempt to carry her. She tried not to struggle, knowing well enough their grasping hands would only squeeze tighter. She kept her eyes clenched shut until they finally lowered her down onto a stretcher. But the stretcher jostled all the way down the hall until reaching a bed where they rolled her sloppily into it.
She gasped at another burst of pain.
The white coated men tugged her jacket and peeled it from her body. Another white coated woman approached, pulling at Nahata’s pants without saying a word. They worked so quickly and efficiently at tossing aside her torn and tattered outfit that she barely had time to question them.
“Try not to move.” Another man approached and reached up to the machine above her bed. “This will increase your recovery speed.” He swiped his fingers across the glossy screen then pulled the metal down around her.
She glared over at Merletta off to the side. As their eyes met Merletta’s smirk returned.
Nahata took down a slow breath and clenched her hands into a fist. The machine around her brightened but that was all. There was no illusion this time. There was no beast clawing inside of her skin. She released the breath she had been holding.
The doctor returned after an allotted time and pushed the machine back into the ceiling above. He looked back at the waiting staff and gave an affirming nod. One approached with a thin garment and slid it over Nahata’s arms and chest.
“Stay in bed until morning.” The doctor turned to Merletta, voice hardening, “No sooner than that.”
“Of course, doctor,” she cooed and patted him on the shoulder as he walked past.
Nahata huffed as they left the room. “Devian hospitality at its finest...”
“Now that I know you’re not completely useless, we can help each other.” Merletta eased closer, gently posting herself at the foot of Nahata’s bed. “I earn you an apprenticeship with some high lord in the capital... and that gets me a promotion out of this wasteland.”
Nahata felt her lips pull wide, far too wide to be a smile. She almost wanted to laugh in Merletta’s face. It was too sickening to see the old crow suddenly switch to niceties. “You think I give a damn about the capital or your promotion?”
Merletta chuckled. “By your tone, I can guess you’re cursing at me. Which is fine. But let me explain.” She patted a tender hand on Nahata’s thigh. “An apprenticeship with a high lord means you’ll also be highly regarded and respected. Untouchable.” Her words were sweet but Nahata could hear the slight bitterness in the back of her throat. “Isn’t that preferable to the battlegrounds? Do you truly want to fight a war for a country you don’t even like?”
“And...” Nahata heaved out a sigh.
“It’s a win-win,” she cooed. “I can make you a general... The next emperor if you let me.”
She tossed her head back with a sharp laugh. “Like I care about ruling this shitty wasteland.”
Merletta spun around onto her feet with a jolt of energy. “I’ll see you in the morning. You should be recovered by then and ready to get to work.”
“I’m pretty sure I said no...” Nahata’s brows fell flat and her lips hardened.
“Sleep well, initiate.”
It wasn’t until Merletta left the room that Nahata felt her muscles ease into the softness of the bed, the softest bed she had ever laid upon in fact. She rolled her attention down to the thin garment the nurses had put her in. Beneath the cloth she could still see the glowing and simmering magic as it moved beneath her shredded skin. She raised her arm to look closer at the open flesh. Her red blood was tinted light purple by the magic’s light. It smelled sour and acidic, sharp inside of her nose.
Whatever beast had tried to claw out of her, it had frightened Soeki and delighted Merletta. Whatever it was, it was Devian and it was evil. She couldn’t be certain which of her parents had been Dev or even what happened to them. She didn’t remember much from her childhood. Perhaps the trauma of growing up in a work camp had erased those years mercifully.
The boy, though, back at the camp wouldn’t be so easily erased from her mind. She could still feel the weight of his hand in hers, the way it had squeezed her fingers moments before going limp. If she’d been quicker, if her powers had surfaced sooner, she might have saved him.
Nahata huffed and smirked painfully. No, she supposed. It was a nice thought but she knew she wasn’t strong enough. Not yet. It would take more time and understanding to learn how to control whatever magic lived inside of her. And then... she wasn’t sure what she would do.