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Korin opened his eyes to pitch darkness. And cold. And silence.

Was this a dream? It had to be. No matter how real it felt, it couldn’t be. Korin had gone to sleep in his room, in his bed, Ádan’s arms wrapped around him.

So this had to be a dream, no matter that Korin vividly felt the cold air moving over his skin, or that he could hear the rough echo of his breath in the unnatural stillness.

Korin summoned a light—and froze. He knew where he was. He’d been here before. Once.

He was underground, in a cavern of cold stone. His light couldn’t reach all the way to the ceiling, but Korin knew where it was. Just as he knew that above him was a walkway, a place where someone could stand and look down at the cavern floor where Korin knelt. If someone had been up there, they would have been able to see him on his knees.

Before the tree.

A dream, Korin reminded himself. He was asleep in his room, with Ádan beside him. This wasn’t real.

The snake, night-black and thick as Korin’s thigh slithered down from the high branches. You’ve been trying to avoid me.

“You took me to him.” To Loukanos.

He can help you. He can teach you.

“No.” Korin got to his feet and backed away. “There’s nothing I want to learn from him. Why would you think that? And if that’s what you want…”

What I want. The snake reared back, it’s tongue flicking out to taste the air. What I want. She sounded…confused. Maybe even lost.

Korin knew that feeling well enough. “What do you want?”

The snake dropped lower, wrapping herself around the lowest branch before reaching out to him, her head bobbing back and forth. Korin lifted his hand to meet her and her head brushed his wrist, slid around his arm and up until her head was before his face. She leaned in, and her tongue flicked against his nose, his lips. Her snake head darted in, like she was aiming for a kiss, but she slid between his lips, into his mouth—

Korin jerked awake, felt Ádan’s arms tighten around him, then release as soon as he started to struggle. Korin rolled out of bed, needing to stand, needing to breathe.

“Bad dreams again?” Ádan asked, blurry with sleep. He sat up, rubbing at his eyes.

He looked so tired. What was he doing to make him so tired? Korin almost asked, before better sense overrode his instinct to be concerned. Opening the floor to questions right now was a bad idea. So instead, he said, “I’m sorry for waking you up.”

“It’s all right.” Ádan stood up, grimaced as he stretched. “I should go, anyway. I didn’t mean to fall asleep like that.”

You needed it, Korin thought, but didn’t say. “I’m glad you came by.”

Ádan stepped into him, slid a finger under Korin’s chin. “I like seeing you. I…” He took a deep breath, and his lips spread into a familiar, bright smile. “I’ll see you again soon.”

“Promise,” Korin said.

Ádan leaned in and kissed him, soft and lingering. “Promise,” he whispered against Korin’s lips.

After he left, Korin lay back down. Feeling guilty for not asking questions, for the secrets he was keeping. Feeling worried. Feeling…

It had only lasted a moment, the connection between Korin and the knife. A moment no longer than a heartbeat where she’d pushed into him and he’d felt…everything.

So much pain. So much loneliness. So much…fear? Yes, fear. The knife was afraid. Of what? Korin had no idea. But he’d felt it. He’d felt the depths of everything—the power. It had been overwhelming. It had been terrifying.

That hadn’t been all. The pain had been the worst, but it hadn’t been everything. Korin had felt something else. Just as strong, just as desperate.

Korin had felt love.

He didn’t know what to think or how to respond. Or even if any of what she’d shared had answered the question of what the knife wanted.

All he knew was that the answers, if they existed at all, weren’t going to be easy ones.

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Barbara J Webb

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