PART FOUR: WORLD'S END
The black unconsciousness faded to bleak gray. Choking dust had settled all around, making it almost impossible to breathe the stale air. For a long time, as her eyes tried to penetrate the gloom, Lea could not decide if she was alive or dead. From the chest down, she had no sensation. From the chest up, the only thing she could feel was pain. Her breasts, her neck, her face – all felt as if they had been pummeled and abraded beyond human endurance. Underneath the thick coating of dust in her mouth, she could taste blood. Whether it was welling up from inside or merely the product of torn lips, she could not tell.
Eventually, Lea acknowledged she was not dead – or at least not completely so, not yet. She was buried alive under a mound of rubble. How deeply, she could not tell. The miniscule amount of light reaching her watering eyes illuminated nothing. It was plain she was badly injured. One of her healers had once told her that a loss of feeling in the extremities could be caused by a broken back. If that was the diagnosis for the symptoms, Lea's back was broken, likely along with other bones. Her throat was parched, but there was no way to get water.
Looking back on things, she regretted her stubbornness. Her advisors had argued that she should leave the city before the invaders arrived, rather than waiting behind to view the early phases of the battle. She had countered that the palace was strong enough to keep her safe, but no one had considered the possibility of an Apath among the quatics. The last thing she remembered was the ground giving way beneath her as she tumbled into darkness. By all rights, she should be dead. Everyone who had been with her, including her much-loved former tutor Jav, likely was.
In the distance, she thought she could hear noise, but she was unable to identify what it was, or whether it was a figment of her imagination. She considered shouting for help, but the cry died in her throat when she realized the quatics could be on the prowl. It wouldn't do for her to be rescued if her rescuers were determined to kill her. But did she have a choice? Was there a way out of her predicament?
"Father," she whispered. "I need you."
Nothing. Closing her eyes to the grayness around her, she blocked out the pain of her flesh and focused on the nebulous image of her sandy-haired father, the phantom who had visited her on previous occasions.
"I'm here, Lea," came the hollow voice. She could not see him, but she did not doubt his presence. "Summoning me is becoming easier for you."
"I'm so scared," she said. "I'm trapped. I can't move. I'm dying."
There was silence.
"Your assessment is correct. You are dying. But dying does not mean dead. You must use the powers you have inherited from your mother. They can save you, make you whole again. Remember your arm."
"Powers? What powers?"
"Be brave, my child. The most desperate hour is yet to come. And do not doubt the most incredible story of all." The voice was fading. Panic began to well up in Lea's chest.
"What powers?" she screamed. "FATHER??"
Then he was gone, and she quickly followed him into blackness. Her final thought as unconsciousness rolled in was that she would never again awaken.
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