“The Emperor protects,” I repeated while wrapping my hands against my chest to form the sign of Aquila. “The Emperor protects.”
Even after shifting in my bed, the pain remained. I wanted the Emperor to save me, to end this wretched existence. Every waking moment brought torment, and the brief periods of unconsciousness, nightmares. Every day, I prayed for deliverance, whatever form it might take. And as always, the pain continued.
My chest convulsed without warning. I raised my hand barely in time to catch the violent string of coughs. Angrily, I tossed the handkerchief aside, aware of the blood now soaking through the fabric, as the familiar taste of iron lingered.
I am a child, but I am ready to die.
The room grew dim, and grotesque shadows appeared across the room.
“Please go away.”
The shadow crept closer but began to lose its form. Inhuman howls followed, as it always did.
“Stop bothering me!” I said, more out of annoyance than fear. The creature had appeared countless times but never managed to reach me, although for some reason, with each attempt, it managed to get closer.
“I don't have anything.”
Still more than three feet away, the creature disappeared with a loud pop.
A gentle kiss roused me from my nightmare. “Mother is here, and everything is going to be alright,” she whispered as her hand caressed my cheeks, the tenderness unmistakable even as her rough callouses left minor scratches on my delicate skin. Her shift down at the farm had left her drained, that much was apparent.
I glanced up to find the familiar look in her eyes, something shared by all those I have ever encountered in life. A look of disgust.
“We should leave for the treatment,” she said, and slid both hands under me. With little effort, she picked up my emaciated frame and began carrying me outside towards her car.
Despite her strength, her back arched slightly, the toll of working all those extra shifts to purchase my medicine. Despite her youth, her eyes sunk with fatigue, tormented by my constant screams at night. Despite her beauty, the suitors no longer came, disgusted by the mere sight of her cursed child.
A thin scar ran down her right cheek, a souvenir from when the local preacher attempted to deliver onto me the “Emperor's Peace.” She had stood her ground against the brutish man then, though it must have pained her to defy the will of the church. The fat bastard had backhanded her, and his manicured nails marred her perfection, yet she did not fall. Even as the blood trickled down, she refused to even flinch. The coward left that night, his mood undoubtedly spoiled. Mother cleaned her wound and did not address what had happened. But for the months that followed, in the dead of night, I would hear her weep in prayer.
“The doctor will make you feel better,” She said while unlocking her automobile.
I held my tongue.
“You'll get better,” She said, and gently strapped me into the passenger seat.
I had been ill my entire life, a fragile being with no worth. Nothing but a burden.
She reached forward to wipe the fresh blood dripping down my lips, ignoring the tears flowing down her own face.
I am ready to-
Mother leaned forward and held me tight. “You'll get better.” How she held on to her faith, I didn't understand. But she believed... in the Emperor, and in me.
“Yes, mother. I will get better,” I promised for the first time and kissed her on the cheeks.
She pulled back, surprised.
“The Emperor protects,” I assured her.
For the first time, I saw mother laugh, her face glowing with joy.