Farden was dreaming again. He stood in the shadow of a black mountain. A hot breeze lashed his bare skin and the dust stung his eyes, and he found himself wearing only his vambraces. He could feel the sand between his toes.
The mage looked behind him and saw razor-sharp crags of rock hanging over him, a bare, faceless cliff of jet and obsidian coming straight out of the sand and towering into the sky. Shadows played in the darkness. The wind whistled through the rocks, making an eerie sound like a faraway horn crying for help, or a wounded animal wailing away its last few hours. Even in the dry heat, Farden shuddered. He looked out, away from the mountain, where the sun shone and the heat waves danced. He watched the bare earth stretch on for leagues, further than even his eyes could see. The horizon shuddered and wobbled.
Farden looked up at the sky, that pure empty sky, and felt a tranquility he had never felt before suddenly wash over him. The mage felt as though he could melt into it, into the vast blueness of it, and never have to wake up again. He could forget about the council, the book, everything, and just melt away.
A black shape fluttered in his peripheral vision, and Farden turned his head. A crow, or a raven, some sort of black bird, flapped aimlessly around the rocky ledges of the black cliff, trying to stay out of reach of a skinny black cat that danced below it on its hindlegs. The bird dithered in midair, narrowly avoiding the clawing swipes of the mangy cat, and desperately tried to find a safe place between the rocks. The cat crouched and watched its prey. Farden tried to shout and scare either of the animals away, but the hot wind snatched the words from his lips, and he yelled in complete silence. The cat hunkered down and its haunches twitched and wiggled, until suddenly, choosing its perfect moment, the cat shot into the air and dragged the bird to the sand. The thing flapped and cried, but the cat was merciless. It pinned the crow-thing to the ground with one paw and sunk its yellow teeth into its neck until it moved no more. The bird’s head sagged and its beak lay open and motionless. Farden tried to move, to try to chase the cat away from the corpse, but his legs and arms refused to shift. He was glued to the sand. Something flitted from rock to rock above him, and a cackle floated on the wind. Farden looked at the cat, and saw her staring back at him with those obsidian eyes. Blood dripped from her fangs, and a black feather hovered at the corner of her mouth. The sand had become a red pool. She ripped some more flesh from the birds neck, and chewed, slowly, staring at him without emotion or even a hint of remorse. She threw her head back, swallowed, and then made a howling whining sound deep in her throat. As quickly as it had began it stopped, and the cat took a slow step forward towards him.
You’re between a rock and a hard place… So to speak, it said, an echoing voice in the back of his head. Farden tried to answer, but no sound came from his mouth. The cat continued to move forward. Blood decorated her chin. Things moved and flapped above him.
They’ve got you all in a flap, came the next cliché. The flapping became the sound of a landslide of wings. Black shapes and beady eyes hid behind the crags and watched him. Farden struggled in vain. He looked at the desert behind him, and it had become a desert of fire. The wind blew hot dusty air in his face, and whipped his naked skin. Shapes began to fill the empty sky above him and the mountain became a black whirlwind of even darker birds, wheeling and careening through the blueness and cackling hideously. The cat had come to a halt in front of him, and she threw a curious look up at the storm of wings and beaks and claws flooding his dream. They filled every space on the rock face, stood on every inch of rock and crag. A thousand of them flapped around him.
It’s you they want, just as they once wanted me. A talon sliced across his back and he felt the drip of hot blood down his skin. Farden winced, and tried with all his strength to move. Another claw across his thigh and a beak tore a hole in his side. Wings buffeted his face. Claws ripped flesh from bone.
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