When I wake… it's to a sound, one I can't quite place. It sounds like… bone… the cracking of bone.
Like the idols.
But when I open my eyes it's not bone. It's a fire. It's the sound of a modest flame, all I can see at its base are ashes and bones. I don't see any wood. Nothing but a rusted sword stabbed into its center.
Then it's gone, and I'm somewhere else… somewhere different
I'm not in my place I'm in is cramped. It's a cell, smaller even. Four feet by four feet. My bed can barely fit. There are stairs, five steps leading up to a set of double doors.
I get up from my bed, my body moving with a languid slowness, acting on its own, as if I'm just a passenger in my own flesh.
It's a depressingly familiar feeling. I hate it.
I feel the crunch of ash under my bare feet, see it ripple and move at my touch as I move to the rusted, moss covered iron doors.
I push… and enter another room
It's enormous. The biggest room I've ever seen, I'm not even sure it can be called a room. More like a giant dome, the ceiling is cracked, cleaved open like a wound.
I look up, through the cracks, to a sepulchral stillness in the world beyond.
I look up, as far as my eyes would take me.
Where am I?
A tower. I'm inside a tower. The base of one...
What is this place?
I wanted to call out. To speak. But no words come to me. None that left my lips
The words hit me like a slap of cold water.
And with it, another thought.
Is this my dream? Or just another of your memories?
I look, finding an opening in the far wall, ash blankets the floor here. Hell, it is the floor of this place, moving and shifting underfoot like sand on a beach.
How much burned… how many flames were stoked and fed to make all this?
I step out of the dome, throwing my eyes upwards, finding catwalks above, along with a massive sword hanging from chains that seem to hold impossibly still.
Can I get to the top?
And just like that… the murk shifts and stirs… the world falls away and I'm somewhere else… the sky is open to me even as more ash crunches underfoot.
I… there are volcanoes… active volcanoes burning along the horizon. The sky above is orange with black clouds. Already, even without looking down, I can tell I am high up…
Still, I inch towards the edge of the platform.
I wasn't high up. I was really high up. Like Empire State Building high. Maybe even more so.
I look down, into the gutted opening on the platform that let me look down into the tower itself.
No one… I couldn't see a single person or thing moving...
What the hell is this place?
The word is barely there, a whisper on the wind.
I recognize the voice…
It's mom's voice.
I hear a laugh, a giggle of childish delight, and I snarl, a stab of anger running through my mind like a red hot blade.
"Get out here!" I scream into the winds wanting to see this woman this… monster that took my mother's memory and twisted it… mutilated it in order to hurt me.
Instantly, I felt my anger cool, the hate subside. Pushed down to somewhere else, where it couldn't reach me.
"No!" I shout, pulling away from it "Stop! Get out of my head! I want to HATE YOU!"
Instantly… I feel the calming warmth vanish from my thoughts.
Wait… that worked?
What the hell?
The feeling of confusion is wholly mine… but there, tickling the back of my thoughts is something else… something complicated. I can't label it with a word. It's like… an unsure thing… surprise… wariness… confusion… even fear.
The feeling is like… I can't even describe it.
This wasn't from me
Did I… Did I scare her?
I stand there, confused inside of my own dream when… something happens.
It's like… a phantom… three of them, transparent, walking up the length of a giant chain… I can see the wind, filthy with ash, breaking over them like water flowing over a clear crystal.
They move past me, not even noticing me standing there. Their voices are distorted as they speak, like I'm hearing them at absurdly high volumes, or underwater.
As they step past me, moving over the ash dunes… something moves, hands crawl their way out from beneath the surface. A… zombie? Its armor is rusted bronze, carrying a weapon that's twice my size. It lets out a groaning grunt, it's two massive sword drawn and ready.
The ghosts draw their swords and move to fight…
What the hell is-
"Taylor wake up! Wake up!"
The words come first, the feeling of being shaken a second later, followed by the grip of a hand on my shoulder.
I thrashed about for a second, my hand smacking into cold metal before my eyes snapped wide open.
Then I'm staring up at Weld, His strange eyes staring down at me, as he held me down.
My heart was pounding under my chest, I felt hot. My hair was soaked, clinging to my face and neck.
"What… what happened?" I asked.
"You're burning up." He answered. "This room is at nearly a hundred and ten."
I blinked, turning to look at the thermostat on the wall, the AC was where I left it last night on sixty five.
"It's still on." Said a familiar voice. Dragon. "I actually increased the output when your body temperature spiked. That, and your ash moving to reach you, made it obvious something was very wrong."
I blinked. It was way too early to this. "What?" I asked. As far as I knew they didn't keep my ash on base. It was on-
"The Power Testing Center. The Rigg. Your ash was dragging the crates and boxes we store it in across the floor and grinding away at the walls to get at you. While you were having your nightmare."
Yeah that's right… I was in that dark place… In a Tower… and those ghosts, the zombie…
The ash woman's voice.
"I reached out to my ash?"
"Yes." She answered simply.
I was about to ask Weld why he was here when the answer hit me.
He was the only cape that we had on hand that could survive if it wasn't just a nightmare. I frowned.
And Dragon's voice meant she was watching closely.
How close were her fingers to the oxygen vacuum button, I wonder.
"Taylor, you doing okay?" Asked Weld, still by my side as I looked his way. Concern was laced in his eyes. I sighed rubbing my eyes and then my whole face, grimacing at the feel of slick sweat.
"I'll live… I just had a bad dream is all."
He nodded. "Do you wanna talk about it?"
I remained silent, looking his way as I looked down at my clammy hands.
What the hell do I even say? My head-case of a power decided to take me on a scenic tour of some weird ass Ghost's vs. Zombies B-movie set pieces?
Or even worse, if those things, those places, were her memories. Was it more than just a dream? And if so, why the hell was I seeing them now? And where were the memories of the Knight, Raime? Was he just some muscle she brought out to fight whenever she wanted that she could command on a whim? Could she control him like-
The thought made me stop cold.
Is this what had happened to Raime? Surtr? Was he just someone or something she got inside of before me and now had him dancing to her tune like the Pied Piper? Is that what she intended for me?
I ran my hand through my face. "Not now… Not now. I can't talk right now. Just… need to collect myself."
"It... ok. If you're sure-"
"I am." I said, suddenly sharp.
He nodded, stoic. If that was because of his mood or a side effect of his power I didn't know.
"Alright." He turned to make his way to the door. "If you need anything, let me know." He gave me a thumbs up and walked out towards the room and knocked. It slid open and I don't bother looking, to spare myself the need to see that there are upwards of a dozen of capes and personnel lined up out there.
I stand up from the bed.
"Are you alright Taylor?"
I look up to the ceiling, I never have been able to spot Dragon's cameras. Or even her speakers for that matter. "I need a bath." I declared, before looking back at my bed. I wonder if I have clean sheets. The thought of taking a shower just to jump back into a sweat soaked bed isn't at all appealing.
I shrug. One problem at a time. For now. I'll deal with the issue of my own state then deal with the bed and anything else that decided to make my life more difficult than it had to be.
When I wake up in a few hours, I realized I slept in, the clock read 9:23. Sills didn't wake me up.
I stay laying in bed for a while, my eyes closed but not really sleeping anymore. Ten. Maybe fifteen minutes before I finally decide to get up.
I opened my eyes and speak as I pull off the covers.
There's silence for a time, twenty seconds, maybe more. Long enough for me to think she's got her attention elsewhere before I hear her voice.
"Good morning Taylor. How do you feel?"
I stretched. "I'm just gonna take a wild guess and say that my little 'episode' last night put the whole base on alert." I said before walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
"...Yes " The woman said sadly. "The Director has requested that you see Yamada again today. Specifically to discuss your nightmare. Also, you will be going back to the Rigg today for more testing."
"Can I ask you something?"
"If I can answer, I will."
"Do you hate me for what I did to Armsmaster?"
It was like a bomb being dropped, the pause was marked. Felt.
"Be honest." I demanded as I leafed through my drawers for a change of clothes to wear after I shower.
"I... it's..." I can sense hesitation in her voice. "What happened to Colin was beyond your control. I know that. But when I think about it. About the fact that there isn't any way to get to the one that did this… yes. It does make me angry. So no Taylor. I don't hate you. I do however, hate the situation. And I'm not going to lie. I won't… I can't forget the image of Surtr, the damage you can do, the damage you did. I can forgive you. I can even understand you. Because you deserve that. But I have to also be prepared to fight you again and that does linger in the back of my thoughts. A distasteful reminder." She said softly.
I'm standing there listening. Processing what she was saying.
I don't answer.
"Ms. Yamada just pulled in. I'll inform them that you're getting ready."
And just like that she was gone. The feel of eyes on my head vanishing.
"Do you want to talk about the nightmare, Taylor?"
That was the first question out of her mouth.
I raised an eyebrow. "You're still keeping up that line?"
"As I've said. This is your hour. You only have to talk about, what you want to talk about." She answered.
I snorted. "Oh come on. They called you down here today, specifically to talk about that. If I were to go read a book right now they're just gonna send you back down here to actually get me to talk. 'She didn't wanna talk' won't fly."
"I'll lie." She answered simply, smiling just a bit. "I can actually do that from time to time as you suspect. I am human."
"Really?" I ask. "Won't you be out of a job if you get caught?"
"I'm unsure. It would depend on the director. If it was under Piggot that would certainly be a possibility. I don't have as firm a read on Dollerant..."
I stare at this woman, as though I was trying to study her. She looked back, her features losing the small, amused smirk to once more regain their usual placid patience.
I considered doing just as I'd said, picking up a book, keeping to my own thoughts now just like I had with Weld.
But… what the hell would be the point?
Nothing else I've done, or not done, has helped. It's not like the ash woman has gone anywhere. Hell… it's getting worse. Last night proved that...
And this is what we've been waiting for right? All the testing, all of the endless hours, Dragon's freaking drones. All of it was just to get her to do something.
Well… she's finally done something, I guess.
"I was in a tower..." I finally begin. "It was… strange."
"Massive." I answer. "Twice as tall as the empire state building easy. Like, into the clouds and beyond. Suits of armor thirty to fifty feet tall hung on chains and everything, absolutely everything, was covered with ash." I saw Yamada lean forward, intrigued. She wasn't even looking at her hands as she wrote down notes. I had her full, undivided attention.
I worked my jaw, wondering how I could word this.
"I got angry." I said. "I got angry and she tried to use her power. Make it go away like she did before."
I nodded. "Not sure what happened. One second she's trying to use her power, the next she's pulling back like her hand got burned. It actually felt like she was afraid."
"You can resist it?" There was a clear note of hopefulness in the woman's voice.
"I'm not sure." I admitted. "It didn't so much feel like I pushed her away rather than her deciding to pull back for some reason that scared her."
She nodded. "I see. Did anything else happen?"
Yeah. The ghosts, the zombies… the fact that I think this wasn't just a dream but rather, one of her memories.
But that… that I'd keep to myself.
"No." I answer. "Nothing… I woke up after." I pause, turning my head to look at the clock. Still forty minutes to go.
"The last time we talked, you mentioned I didn't trust anyone."
She nodded, changing gears into this conversation without missing a beat. "I did yes."
"So. What do we do about it? Hold hands? Sing a song? Talk about boys?" I snarked.
"...You won't like the answer." She warned.
I rolled my eyes. "Story of my life then. Go ahead, what is it."
"To start. You need to speak to your father and tell him everything."
I blinked. She was right. I didn't like that answer.
"Why?" I asked, incredulity bleeding into my voice.
"Causation wise, he is arguably one of, maybe even the, single most responsible individual person that you can confront."
"Why in the hell even bother? It's my issue. And what am I supposed to say, 'Well dad just want you to know you've been a pretty shitty father these last few years and I turned out this way because you can't do shit. Good talk, thanks for listening.' How in the world does that help anyone?"
"You have to tell him." She said. "The whole reason you didn't trust him with your situation with Winslow is because you didn't trust him enough to recover or manage his inability to help you. You have to tell him and trust him enough to have the ability to deal with it."
"And when he doesn't?" I can feel my lip curl. "When he doesn't deal with it? Or manage it? What exactly are you gonna do about it? Sit him down to talk about his problems before trying it again for round two?"
"Right now your relationship with your father is that of two people walking around each other. Of two people avoiding everything that could disturb the other. You with a fear of damaging him, and he with a great many more concerns. It would hurt him to know what you think of him. I won't deny that. But people need to fall down before they can stand back up. Any relationship you build now will be a steel colossus with feet of clay. You need to break it down, and then rebuild it from the ground up. Rebuild the rapport you have with your family in a way that's honest and open, with the both of you able to speak about things freely rather than be dancing around each other for fear of the others perceived frailties."
"That's all real pretty. But it doesn't work that way." I said.
There was a silence between us for a time.
Then, she nodded. "Alright."
I blinked. "Alright? That's it?"
"I am only here to help you Taylor. I can't force you to take my advice. Otherwise it won't be advice will it?"
I turned my eyes to the clock. Still a while left to go.
I took a breath. "Fine. Let's see if we have better luck behind door number two. What other 'red flags' are in that file of yours? Or mine. As the case may be?"
Yamada took a moment before she finally spoke. "Would you allow me to… deviate for a moment?"
I shrugged. "Sure."
"Which one of your teammates would you say you trust the most?"
I raised an eyebrow, a little caught off guard by the question.
I had to stop and think for a moment.
"Missy." I finally answered after a minute. "Maybe Chris or Dean."
"Why Missy?" She asked.
I thought. The answer came to me…
After a second… I shrugged. "I… don't know. Maybe because she was the only girl? Maybe because she was so excited to meet me when we first met? My first patrol partner? I… I just don't know."
"If you're willing. I'd like you to think about why that is. You're more than welcome to get back to me on that."
I nodded, the answer I'd held back twisting in my gut, tasting like acid at the back of my throat.