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zahara lies in bed, curled in on herself, on her side unlike the sprawling claim over 2/3 of the bed that she used to stake. The rhythm of her breath slows as she sinks into sleep. Eventually, a sigh escapes her lips with unformed words. Her fingers clench and unclench in the throes of unrestful dreams.

Cerin had been late to join Zahara in bed, working on one of his many projects quite late into the night - this time his work on a new race of essence channellers. He joins her on the bed with a slightly worried look on his face, wrapping his arms around her and drifting off. When he does, he seeks out her dreams.

The obsidian castle stands atop the hill as always, its solid facade seeming impenetrable. But something is off. The black does not gleam anymore and the guardian lions, upon closer inspection, have turned their heads away from the door, their eyes and fangs carved out and thrown carelessly to the ground.

Cerin stalks deeper into the castle, and swiftly.

Ghosts line the corridors, utterly silent as they scream and writhe in various stages of mutilation and torture. Their faces are nothing but a blur. The corridors sprawl haphazardly in all directions, all the same, all lit only by the glowing ethereal forms of her victims. Down one of them, the slate around the doorway is chipped.

Cerin goes through the doorway with the chipped slate, heading for Zahara.

As he approaches, he can hear it, echoing through the dream. *THUD* *THUD* *THUD* Metal on stone. Footsteps? Heartbeats?

Cerin moves forward all the swifter, heading for the heart of the nightmare and the woman he loves.

zahara "Hello, Zahara," the voice echoes, unrecognizable. "Isn't this what you've always wanted?" A scream of anguish rises, all too recognizable. Cerin enters the room. (...)

zahara The White Room, stained with red blood, so much blood. A tall figure dwarfs the center of the room, clad in soulsteel, black hair slicked back. The jagged blade of the Grim Reminder dripping. "Yes," she whispers, sagging helplessly against the ropes that bind her to the wall. Surrounding her the wraiths of Phoenix and Thirteen appear, laughing, and she cringes, unresisting as they tear away pieces of her. Thirteen eats his,

zahara Thirteen eats his, reconsiders, and gives it to Imrama, who licks her blood off his fingers. Before her, Cerin flickers, a red cutout. He kneels and presents her heart to her, but she cannot meet his eyes, and she cannot take it back.

Cerin Cerin reacts without thinking, sketching out arcs of essence in the dream world, sending out bolts of purest sunlight through the wraithes and phantoms which surround her, making them fall apart. Then he is at her side, his knife slicing her ropes. "Zahara," he cries out as he lowers her from the wall, uncaring of the blood on him.

zahara The wraiths scream as the arrows burn them. All but the soulsteel-clad figure shatter. The figure staggers, falling to its knees and turning to look at him with Zahara's cold blue eyes. "You promised you would not kill me in this age." The chained Zahara falls into his arms, weeping, "No, put me back. I don't deserve to be free."

Cerin winces as the torturer turns on him with her eyes, holding the weeping Zahara to him with tender care. "You do not deserve this. You have never deserved this," he says softly, though his eyes are on the torturer.

zahara The formerly silent screams of the wraiths throughout the castle rise accusingly in an deafening crescendo and are cut off as one as the woman in his arms cracks into shards, falling through his fingers to glitter on the floor. The castle plunges into darkness as the wraiths disappear, whispering "Now we are free."

Cerin Cerin closes his eyes as the darkness descends and the Zahara in his arms shatters. He listens in the silence, listens for the one sound he would recognise anywhere in Creation. And then, eyes still closed, he starts to walk for Zahara's heart.

zahara The White Room blurs and melts away as Cerin moves towards the sound of her laboring heart. Behind him, he can hear the stomping again and the buzzing blend of her voice, Markuran's and Siram's rising even as it fades away. "Get up you weakling, you don't GET to die. Not yet. Not for a long time." But it has faded now, and before him, her heartbeat draws him on.

Cerin "Zahara," he whispers as he walks towards her. "What are you doing? What can I have done?" He carries on walking through the manse.

zahara The world shifts and distorts, each step feeling unnatural, as if to proceed requires pushing through the very air. Faces flit through the air, inhuman and beautiful. Direction becomes meaningless, but still he forges on. And then, he sees her. (...)

zahara She stands there, her hands wrapped around a struggling little girl. Opposite her is Tevezst in all his glory. His wrists bear shackles but they are not attached to anything. "Isn't this what you have always wanted?" She lifts the girl by the throat and paces slowly towards him. Anger, pain, sadness, need twine from her mouth and into the Faerie's maw as she whispers "Yes."

Cerin "Let her go, my love," he says softly. "This is not what you want, this is not you. This is not the actions of the woman I love."

zahara turns, startled. The little girl screams, and Zahara's warm, innocent eyes look up at him, clouded with fear. The woman speaks and her words are ice. "What I want does not matter." Tevezst turns to Cerin and laughs, "Would you offer up yourself to save her?" At his words, the woman screams, "NO!"

Cerin "You know I would, a thousand times if it were asked of me," he regards the fae with his dark eyes. "But you have no right and no power to ask that of me, faerie." He smiles a little, "Leave her alone."

zahara Tevest licks his lips, then throws back his head and laughs. The young Zahara drops from the woman's hands as she loses substance, and runs over to Tevezst. "Give it to me!" she demands and kicks him in the shin. "I need it to save him." The fae bows, and melts away in turn, coalescing into an ornate cup. She glares at Cerin, as if judging him, then runs over and presses it into his hands. "Keep it safe." And then she steps

zahara And then she steps backwards, looking upwards at a familiar wall of fire that has appeared behind him. "Do you have to go?"

Cerin takes her cup like it is the one of the most precious things he has held. He glances backwards at the flame, and then to Zahara. And then to her whole dream. And then a tear rolls down his face. "... Yes. It was the only thing that would hurt you enough for the sacrifice that was demanded."

Cerin "I am sorry, my heart, for deserting you," he whispers.

zahara "I don't want you to go." Tears run down her face, and she wraps her arms around his neck. In the way of dreams, the child is gone and the woman is back, "I am so sorry, I'll give it up again, don't go." She pulls back from him and a hooked knife appears in her hand. She starts to saw at the finger on which her sunburst tattoo starts to glow. "It's all my fault," she says despairingly.

Cerin gently but firmly takes the knife from her, throwing it away before returning his arms to hold her there, one hand around her waist, one hand stroking her hair. "I'm not going to leave you again," he whispered as he stroked her hair, tears still rolling. "It is not me you gave up," he whispers still. "It is you."

zahara sobs against him, shuddering, clinging to him. At his words, she stiffens for a moment, starts to deny it and then breaks into tears again, helplessly. "I don't know who I am. I am just a shell."

Cerin "You are Zahara Zhan, you are the Empress, you are the woman I love," he says, each phrase punctuated with a kiss. "You will have to discover afresh what that means, but none of those things will change."

zahara looks up at him, seeming so fragile, so brittle, then whispers "Yes... " The word is echoed in all the different tones of her dream selves. Those that had gone before, but could not continue to be. "This is what you have always needed."

Cerin holds her as though she is the most precious thing and kisses her softly. "Please, learn what it is to be those three things a new."

zahara kisses him back, her tears slowing, becoming more solid in his arms. "Yes," she says aloud. "I am Zahara Zhan, I am the Empress, and I love you." The wall of fire flickers and fades, replaced by the gentle wash of the ocean, sand beneath their feet. An island, their island. She leans against hom once again and draws a shuddering breath, but this time her embrace is solid, strong. "I love you," she repeats, looking up into his

zahara "I love you," she repeats, looking up into his eyes. "Forever."

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