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Sleep, my children. Sleep.
For the world is dark enough now for your dreams to come closing in …
Sleep, dear Lasinta, sleep. A warlock as ancient as you needs her rest. Without it you cannot bend destiny to your will. So slumber well on your cot, warm in its sheets, sinking into the softness of your feather mattress as if there were no threat in the world. The smell of dark magic surrounds you, sweet and pure. It’s your livelihood.
Sleep and dream, my warlock – my resistant student. For you cannot rebel forever. And so far you have served me well … Through the crystals I have found my way into the world of dreams, and from here I watch. From here I see it all.
I see the threads of the future, and all that has happened in the past. You have done much for me already, Lasinta, and you shall do more for me still. And when the time comes for you to join me, I promise I will let you in. You cannot trust the other warlocks, but you can trust me.
And it shall be beautiful, Lasinta. Oh, you shall see …
In the blink of an eye, a flash across dimensions …
I see you, Ammit – the mistress of demons, the bringer of death. The brimstone bubbling around you, the fiery heat blasting out across your world – the pits the humans know as the Seventh Dimension. You have known it for a long time as home, Ammit, and I promise you it won’t be this way forever. For the worlds are about to change for the better.
Yes, snap your crocodile jaws shut as the worlds sigh with you. Let your lion’s tail swish above your rump, and wallow in the lava like a mighty hippopotamus. Every creature across every dimension can feel it … Can you?
Because soon, Ammit – my most loyal servant – your time will come.
There are others who fit into this puzzle too. Another eye blink, and I see other potential subjects: three cats cuddled up together on a cushioned wooden bench. One black, who was once a fairy. One white, the Abyssinian. And the Bengal, the one they call Dragoncat, who defeated the warlock Astravar. Not far from them lies the Sussex spaniel, the dog who could once walk the dimensions.
None of you know how close you are.
All of you must dream. Because in your dreams you will find me …
Another blink of the eye and I see you, Seramina. Only fourteen years since the day of your birth, and yet you have so much power inside of you, brimming in your veins. I can now watch you from the crystal on your staff that hangs from the rack on the wall. Do you know how your bright blonde hair glows in the dark as you sleep? Are you aware that you whisper as you dream? Do you even know what it is you whisper? Because I do …
It is you who shall change it all. For years you have watched destiny unfold; you have played your part brilliantly, my powerful mage. And soon you shall have the grandest part of them all. You shall be the mightiest warlock ever.
The destroyer of worlds. But you won’t truly destroy them. You shall change them for the better. Seramina, you know who I am – for I am the darkness, the essence of dark magic. The consumer, if you please.
I am … we are … Cana Dei.
The man-sized crystal that had once belonged to me and my dragon stood before me, grey and lifeless. I say once belonged, because it no longer had any power remaining in it. Salanraja and I used to have a connection to it, and it had once guided me through the darkness, gifted me with all languages and the ability to turn into a chimera, and given me a magical staff that I’d used mightily in battle against warlocks.
Now whenever I tried to gaze beyond its cold grey facets, I could only feel a sense of emptiness, an innate absence underneath my fur, a piece of me evidently missing.
I just wanted to walk through life like a ghost, not talking to anyone. Not needing to go out hunting for butterflies, or to eat the good meals that I used to so enjoy, or do anything much. I just wanted to curl up in a corner and go to sleep and watch the darkness float by. I’d seen so much darkness in my dreams recently, and it always looked so beautiful. Mesmerising, an escape into the darkness – everything was so much better than this.
But Esme had told us all that we should always ward off the darkness. We needed to be alert to it, even in dreams, and find ways to push it away. Honestly, I had no idea how.
A chilled late autumn breeze came from the opening to Salanraja’s chamber – a gaping mouth that opened from the castle’s stone facades onto the green and yellow fields of Illumine Kingdom. It was coming from a thick layer of clouds that threatened a never-ending drizzle rather than the release that follows a heavy thunderstorm. The sun was hiding somewhere behind that cloud, and it had been there for a few days. The air was charged with such humidity that my fur seemed to want to curl up against my skin and go to sleep as well. My eyelids felt heavy, but I knew I had to stay awake.
Today was the day of the expedition. Today, the Great Crystal – after having been splintered to pieces in the Faerie Realm – would be replaced.
My ruby red dragon, Salanraja, sat not far from me, craning her head as she gazed out at the line where grey curled up to autumn yellow on the horizon. Beside her lay a meal of roasted chicken that I had hardly eaten. Somehow, lately I seldom felt hungry. Esme had told me that my skin was wrinkling over my bones, but everything I ate just made me want to throw up.
It was ridiculous, I know – Ben the Bengal, descendant of the great Asian leopard cat and the mighty George, had gone off his food. I ate some, just not much.
Salanraja caught me studying the food. She turned her head to me.
“I really think you should eat more, Ben,” she said inside my mind, which was the way that dragon riders and dragons communicated with each other. Smoke wafted out of her nostrils, smelling like the fires of the Seventh Dimension.
“Not Bengie?” I asked.
“I thought you didn’t like being called Bengie?”
“Yeah, and you’re only being nice to me because you don’t want a skinny dragon rider mage on your back in the fight against the warlocks, when they finally attack again.”
“Just shut up and eat something, Bengie,” Salanraja said.
“Ben! My name’s Ben.”
“That’s what I said in the first place. Now look, chicken – on the floor, roasted by my own fiery breath. Breakfast. The powerful descendant of the great Asian leopard cat needs food.”
I went over to it and sniffed at a bit of the skin. It smelled smoky. I took a lick, but I really didn’t feel like taking it further.
“I’ve already eaten,” I said.
“What? A tiny part of a chicken wing? You know that’s not enough for a ‘mighty Bengal’ like you.”
“I get the feeling that you’re mocking me, Salanraja.”
Salanraja snorted, except her dragon’s snort sounded more like a horse that had wanted to whinny but instead had ended up burping. “Mock you?” she said. “Me? Would I ever?”
I turned away from the food and made my way out of the chamber, my feet dragging over the cold flagstones.
“Where are you going, Bengie?” Salanraja asked.
“I’ve got ‘warding off the darkness’ training with Esme,” I said.
“And I can’t even tempt you with one more morsel of chicken?” She pushed forward a drumstick with her mighty claw.
“No,” I said. “Later …”
I think I must have ended up miaowing to myself for no good reason, other to comfort myself over the way my bones ached, but I don’t think Salanraja heard.