In which dreams are disturbing, and Naj dives in head first.
He dreamed of fire.
This was hardly surprising—more so than any other red-natured serpent, the red cobras ruled over flame with the same sovereignty that the king cobras held over all serpent-kin. Li’Daea had blessed all cobras with the right to rule when they’d been the first to answer her call to dance with her in the firelight. Who or what had blessed the first red cobra with flames, Naj could not say, but fire was his birthright.
But this flame… This was not the fire of utility he had served his master with all these years. Such searing passion had no place in the cold ranks of the Ahn’Ki Dai—a flame you could not control would only burn you down. This heat… This heat burned Naj in a way that no fire ever had. Not since…
Naj shrunk away from the memory of those first flames to ever burn him, the ones that had burned down everyone and everything he had ever known or loved. The fire in his dreams roared higher, burning hotter and hotter, until Naj had no choice but to flee into the Whispering Dark.
Il’m was stillness, il’m was peace. The Whispering Darkness, the realm of the Dark God, Il’Dao. Though no longer bound to it or his master, the years of service had left their stain on Naj’s magic, and soothing murmurs would always call to him from the sweet stillness of il’m. As counterpart to Li’Daea’s fiery abandon, Il’Dao offered respite from the frenzied dance. From the madness of love, and the pain that could only come from love lost. Of love taken. Naj cried out in his sleep, names his waking mind could not remember, but his heart would never forget.
The il’m promised to help him forget, promised to take away their names and their faces and the pain of their loss, the pain of all loss. The Whispering Dark was always just a breath away, welcome and waiting, just on the other side of the Il’Rhea, the dark waters of death. There was peace in the darkness, in burdens laid down, released to flow down the river to some other distant shore, let go and forgotten. The il’m promised rest, promised sleep free of dreams, far away from the searing flames.
Naj found himself far below the surface of the water, the flickering fire a distant wavering light. The inferno that had threatened to consume him could not reach him here, here beneath the dark waters that had welcomed him so gently, he had not even noticed his descent.
And that was how the mighty were fallen. As Li’Daea’s light came with fire that could comfort or consume, so Il’Dao’s darkness came with coolness that could soothe or smother. Power came with a price, strength that built until it overcame the soul, gifts that became a curse. Balance was needed to survive, and it was that balance that led the Dai to create the serpent lords in the first place. Power to move unchecked within the darkness, to cheat death, power to blaze forth with searing light, to ignite and inspire.
Naj drifted beneath the water, knowing he must surface, must breathe, or risk losing himself to the magic of il’m forever. But surely he could rest for just a moment longer… No. One moment became another, and another, until moments no longer existed, until time would no longer pass, because days were measured by the passing of the sun, and here there was only darkness.
Naj kicked his way back toward the surface, back toward that blinding light that blazed now more brightly than ever. The flames met the water with an angry hiss, steam billowing up in great clouds to mingle with the smoke of all that burned. The river flowed colder in icy defiance, freezing to Naj’s skin as he emerged from the depths. Crystals melted instantly into steam, fire engulfing his skin the instant it was dry enough to burn. Pain drove Naj into the simpler mind and form of his serpent, but even still the fire and ice ate at him, each burning in their own dreadful way.
The cobra thrashed on the growing ice, writhing in search of the peaceful waters he had fled. But there was only ice, and fire.
Naj could burn, or he could take command. Some serpents, like the white-natured vipers of his clan, could control both elements instinctively, but for Naj, it had taken centuries of practice to master the delicate balance of the il’li. The cobra’s fire raged within him, hot anger willing the ice to part, but Li’Daea’s magic had no call over the waters of Il’Rhea. That was Il’Dao’s domain. Naj reached for the stillness within him, the quiet center that allowed him to serve his master, allowed Il’Dao’s power to find purchase in his cobra’s heart. He willed that stillness to fill him, to cool the raging flames. But he held on to the pain and the fury of his memories, to keep him from sinking back beneath the melting ice. He would not yield, nor would he be consumed. He would burn, but he would not be burnt up. He blanketed the flames with his very will, bending them, taming them, chasing them back into the memories he could not allow himself to dream, and could not allow himself to forget. The flames subsided, dying down, heat sinking into the white sandy banks of the dark river, warmth to carry through the long, dark night.
As he slept, Naj turned to face Marie, a hand coming to rest on the small girl’s hip. From his touch spread coolness, and peace.
Marie could hear nothing but the rushing blood in her ears, every step jarring the internal screaming that kept repeating she was going to be too late.
She was always too late.
Her lungs burned as she ran down the sidewalk, trying to run faster as if this time would be different. Hope was a nasty liar that lived in her throat, choking her with what ifs and maybes.
What if she’d spoken to Nat sooner? What if she’d found the note on the floor a little earlier, then maybe, maybe…
Maybe she was wrong and this wasn’t… He wouldn’t…
When she turned the corner and saw the alley, the sound suddenly cut out. The rushing in her ears just stopped until everything was a strange, staticky silence without even her heartbeat.
The gray sky cast a blurred shadow over everything she saw. She pushed past the people blocking the entrance to the alley, her feet carrying her until she could see Jax.
He was the only clear detail in the scene. He was in his demi form, legs halfway lost to a tail, lashing and flailing against the brick wall and asphalt. His arms were seeking, mouth wide as he threatened to strike.
His eyes were gobs of crimson ruin on his cheeks. Blood was everywhere, more vivid than she remembered. In real life, the darkness of his scales, of the road, had hidden much of the evidence. Now, the bright splashes of red seemed to glow against the dim surroundings, crying out to be seen.
She stumbled forward. If she could reach him, could get him home to Kain, then maybe…
Maybe it would all be okay.
Her hand brushed his arm.
She never saw him move. Blinding pain shot up her arm. Everything was red and white with flickers of black. Her arm burned. Burned! She’d never felt pain like this before. She didn’t know that pain could burn hotter than fire, race faster than flames. No matter how she clutched it, how she screamed, nothing relieved the cramping pain in her arm.
Even the sharp cracks that filled the air couldn’t distract her from the hot, swollen limb at her side.
It crept up her arm and the throb entered her chest, cutting off her ability to scream.
And then suddenly, the fire began to ebb. Cool relief slipped along her hip, traveling swiftly to her arm and stealing away the worst of the pain. The respite brought her thoughts into sudden clarity and she realized the dream for what it was—
The dream shattered around her and she woke, eyes wide in the dark. Little flicks of twinkling light filled her vision, as if she could actually see traces of the dream fragments floating around her. Another blink and they were gone.
She was in her bed, one arm twisted in the blankets. Marie turned her head to the side, drawn by a cool touch on her hip. Naj had reached out for her.
Tears tickled at her lashes and she huddled against him, grateful for the reprieve from her nightmare. It wasn’t long until sleep called to her again and she slid into a more peaceful darkness.
Kain paused outside Marie and Nat’s room. The little fox’s mind was a whirlwind of fire and grief. It caught at the edges of his own mind, jagged and painful. His shoulders slumped slightly and he leaned against the wall just outside her room. He’d been so hopeful that she’d gotten past these nightmares.
No episode for nearly six months…
It must be due to the appearance of another serpent. Of course his presence would bring Jax’s memory to the forefront of her mind.
As Kain began to reach for her, to soothe her mind and ease her into a dreamless state, a cool touch preceded him.
He startled, eyes wide in the dim hallway. Who… Or what? Someone else was affecting her dream, dissipating the hot pain that was tormenting her.
The chill of ice and rasp of scales met his thoughts. He withdrew, his thoughts tumbling over this newest curiosity. The serpent. He hadn’t recognized the alien mental signature, but the stranger was indeed acting on Marie’s magic. Which was fortunate, since Marie was known to suddenly catch ablaze with the worst of her nightmares. It could make for a rather rude awakening.
Kain pushed off the wall, stepping forward to glance through the open doorway. He could barely discern the three forms tangled in the pillows and sheets. He’d dimmed the hall lights before making his nightly rounds and little light breached the bedroom.
He stepped past the doorway, leaving Marie to the serpent’s guidance.
A serpent with magic. A red cobra. Trained by the Ahn’Ki Dai… Connected to Aezir.
More than he’d bargained for, but sometimes Fate wove strange threads. It had been a long time since he’d felt the tapestry around him stir. For better or worse, it seemed the shuttle was in motion once more.