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The large undulating cloud spread across the fields, its hunger almost palpable. Food was near, food and entertainment. Thousands of them, all gathered directly in itspath. Lightning flashed through the cloud from its eager anticipation.
Long tentacle-like appendages touched the tall city walls, as if caressing a lover, as the cloud glided upwards along its surface. The scent of prey was near.
A resounding gong filled the night as a lone foodling spotted it and called to others in alarm. Yes, make it ring. Call your brethren to the feast.
More foodlings appeared, some in their protective shells of metal and others not. It went over the wall, satisfied and reached out to begin the fun.
Screams echoed in the night as its acid touch ate through their shells to sear the flesh beneath. Ah, the smell of it. The eons it and its fellows had dreamt of this. Their time was finally here.
The foodlings’ attempts to foil its progress sent ripples of amusement through it. Their puny metal weapons bounced off its tentacles without effect. Those foolish enough to enter it screeched in agony and then were abruptly silenced-tasty snacks before the main meal.
The cloud did not slow, but flowed down the other side of the wall, expanding as it went. Like a wave, lights flickered on across the city as it engulfed the nearest homes, the horrified cries of those within waking those without who were still asleep. It could feel the panic rolling before it, frightened foodlings leaving their homes in a vain attempt to avoid its advance.
A lamp fell and shattered inside a shop and flames attacked the wood within reach. The cloud was not bothered by heat or cold and enjoyed the extra fear the fire inspired in its fleeing meal.
The blaze and the hunger closed in about the city until soon there was nothing left but the taste of death.
La’tiera sat up, her eyes wide with horror. The green luminous aura surrounding her dimmed, shrinking back unnoticed to outline the birthmark of a closed eye on her chest. Her damp golden hair falling about her like a veil, she leaned forward, shaking, trying to catch her breath.
She’d had another horrid vision-this one more vivid, more terrible than the last. Feeling cold at the memory, she quickly reminded herself it wouldn’t be long now-it wouldn’t be long before she would never have one of these troubling dreams again.
Grabbing her robe from the end of the lavish bed, she stood and wrapped it around her. She doubted she would be sleeping again this night.
She silently crossed the fur rugs strewn over the cold stone floor and made her way to one of the small stained-glass windows, her heart gradually slowing within her breast. Opening it, she stared out into the darkness toward the east.
Beyond the low wall at the edge of the manor’s back garden, past the large stone ramparts encircling the estate and the hidden city beyond it, she could see the lightening of the sky proclaiming the coming of the dawn. Wistfully, she turned her gaze upwards, looking for any signs of the Herald. The comet was there, barely visible but growing larger each day, its tail not yet noticeable. But it would be soon, that much she was sure of. And then the nightmares would stop.
La’tiera retreated from the window, a sudden desire not to be alone welling through her. Knowing her uncle was usually up before the sun, she left her rooms to go searching for him.
The high, long hallway was quiet except for the padding of her naked feet. It was a familiar silence, one she was used to whether it be the height of day or at night, for little to no sound of the outside world ever reached here. Hugging herself for warmth, the terror of her dreams still lying within, she passed the doors to her library, the dining area, the sewing room, the stairs leading down into the garden and finally reached her uncle’s study.
Stopping before the domineering double doors, she tied her robe on straight, brushed her thick hair with her hands and straightened her shoulders. At this stage of things, she had no intention of rushing into his room like a frightened child. Not when her nineteenth birthday was so close at hand.
Feeling slightly more dignified, she raised her hand and rapped on the closest door.
Smiling for a moment in relief at the sound of her uncle’s voice, La’tiera eagerly reached to open the door.
Within was a broad room jammed with books, papers and shelves of curios from around the world. A dark ironwood desk resided on the far side, an ample leather chair behind it. She loved this
room. It, more than anything else, encapsulated her uncle’s personality for her, yet it was more than that. In some ways it was as if the room and its contents encapsulated the world as well. Fertility statues from the Barbarian Reaches, masks from the hunter tribes in Gaya, purported demon skulls, strange insects trapped in amber, prayer wheels, curved knives, stuffed animals from faraway jungles-she never tired of looking at these things, of touching them. Gathered over her uncle’s lifetime and some by his ancestors before him, these things gave her a glance at the people and places she would never see.
In the corner, facing a tall shelf of books, she found the one she sought. Though taller than she was, her uncle was not a large man but rather thin and wiry. His white hair thickly ringed the sides of his head, which was otherwise bald. Age spots covered much of his exposed skin and a slight stoop hunched his shoulders. He leaned heavily on a thick cane with a silver head while holding an open book in his free hand.
Yet all his age was belied by the bright energy and intensity of his gaze.
She saw the familiar brightness now as he finished the passage in the book he was holding and glanced toward her.
“La’tiera?” He let the book close and set it back on the shelf. “You’re not normally up this early. Is something amiss?”
Seeing his welcomed concern, she suddenly found it hard to keep her previously contrived calm. “I…”
“You’ve had another nightmare.”
Her thin veneer suffered another crack. “Yes, I did.” Her voice shook. “It was awful.”
Her uncle’s lined face softened and he held his arms out to her. “Come, child.”
As if it were a blow rather than an offer of comfort, her veneer shattered and tears sprang to her eyes as she quickly crossed the room to fall into the offered embrace. She felt his thin arms wrap around her.
“It was terrible. A whole city was destroyed. So many people died!” She hid her face in his thick robe, trying not to sob.
“Shush, it’s all right.” He held her, softly caressing her hair as he sometimes had when she was a child. “Everything is all right now.”
La’tiera tried to pull herself together but was having a hard time of it.
“Here, wipe your face.”
From a pocket, he produced a handkerchief and handed it to her. She took it, not meeting his eyes as he moved away from her to settle gingerly in the large chair. Wiping her face, she sat down on the cold floor beside him and laid her head on his knees.
“I’m sorry. I really don’t mean to be a bother to you.”
With a slight smile, he caressed her cheek, his right hand appearing like a talon so wracked it was by age. She thought it wonderful.
“Nonsense, you’re my treasure and could never bother me. I’m only sorry the Eye burdens you with such visions-especially since you already know how important your mission is.”
Yes, her mission, her whole reason for existence.
“You won’t have to put up with them much longer.”
Though she already knew this, it was comforting to hear him say so.
“I’ll try not to let them bother me,” she said, looking up. “As long as they’re only visions and don’t come true, it’ll be worth it.”
“Yes, and it will all be thanks to you.” He lifted her head so she could sit up, a soft smile on his face until he looked down at her. “La’tiera…”
She stiffened slightly, familiar with the chastising tone. “What is it?”
“What have I spoken to you about before?”
She pulled back for a moment, not sure what he meant until she noticed her robe had come slightly apart near the collar.
“The Eye!” Unbidden, her delicate hand shot up to her chest to cover the strange birthmark housed there. It was what set her aside from all others and gave her a purpose in life. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” She quickly stood and arranged her robe to keep it from view.
“You know how important it is for no one to know you who you are. It’s why I had your necklace made.” His voice turned very serious. “And why it is important that you never take it off.”
La’tiera bowed her head in apology. If only the necklace weren’t so heavy. It made it very difficult to sleep at times.
“I’ll try to do better.”
“I’m sure you will.” His expression lightened. “By the way, it seems we will have entertainment this evening. A traveling troupe arrived in town yesterday afternoon. If nothing untoward is learned about them today, they will be allowed into the manor.” He shot her a sly look. “Unless you’d rather not see them, of course.”
La’tiera felt a bolt of excitement shoot through her. “No! I mean, I would welcome the distraction, if you would permit it, Your Excellency.”
She gave him a small curtsy. Her uncle was the viscount of the area and in all things he held the final say. And she so hungered for things from the outside.
He laughed at her sudden formality. “Yes, of course, pending their approval. Now, run along so an old man can get back to his studies.”
“Thank you, Uncle.” She curtsied to him again, her excitement growing by the moment. Still, she managed to take ladylike steps to the door and let herself out.
Once in the hallway, however, she let out a small squeal of pleasure and took off for her suite. Her bare feet slapped against the floor, echoing off the stone walls.
Out of breath by the time she got there, she crossed her spacious bedroom and jumped into her bed, snuggling into the thick covers. A performing troupe would be coming by tonight! It was too delicious. New music, new faces-it would be wonderful. It would also be a sweet pain to have to wait for it until the evening. She’d have to make as much of it as she could. She wouldn’t have much longer to take advantage of such opportunities.
A smile on her face, she didn’t mind too much as she reached to her nightstand for the necklace bearing the viscount’s family crest and placed the heavy thing around her neck, hiding from view her reason for being.