That night they bed down in a meadow off the road.  Aithan lay staring up into the darkness, breathing carefully.  Red stars continued to arc across the sky and disappear into the four corners of the world as they had done each night for the past year.  He knew the magician would also be awake and watching.

“I don’t remember the sky before the red stars,” said Aithan, needing to talk about them.  “There seem to be fewer tonight,” he added hopefully.

“A bad omen,” the magician answered from the nearby blackness.  “The pieces of the tragedy are nearly in place then.”

“What tragedy?”  There was alarm in his voice.

“That I do not know,” the magician lied.

“Do you think they are the dragons?”  The dragons that had haunted Aithan’s sleep in childhood had returned to his dreams when the red stars began falling, and they were more malevolent and more real now, to the point where sleep itself had become an enemy.  He was certain that there was a sinister connection between the red stars and the blood-eyed dragons of his nightmares.

“They may as well be your accursed dragons as anything.  Whatever they are, they are certainly dangerous, and they have invited themselves into our world.”  The magician’s tone was distant, pensive.

“At least they are landing far off.”

“That won’t save us, boy.”

Dismayed and afraid of falling asleep, Aithan continued to watch the flaming stars fall one after another, until suddenly there were no more.  It took Aithan a moment to realize that once again only the peaceful white stars of the Greeks filled the sky.  Then a great vengeful star appeared, greater than all of the others, and it flared like a moon of blood, growing until it filled the entire sky with its deathly stain before it vanished behind the woods.  After that there was nothing but blackness and the dim twinkling of the ancient stars, once more restored to their rightful place. Aithan felt ill.

“I believe we will be seeing no more red stars.  Now it truly begins,” said the magician, laying unseen not far from him.  “Go to sleep.  We will reach the coast tomorrow.  Our fate can find us there as well as anywhere.”

Aithan turned onto his side, dreading the dreams he knew would come, and was surprised to see that the meadow was bright with fireflies.  Their light was warm and close and covered him like a living blanket.  As he watched them flash to their unknown song, images of the ancient grotto flickered into his mind, and now the old feeling of peace and longing mixed with this feeling of dread.  Eventually he fell into an uneasy sleep and dreamed again of the horned beast with red hungry eyes hunting him, coming for him.  He never saw the silent forms circling high in the black sky, but the magician saw them and wondered if his magic would be enough to protect them.  At least he and the boy – no, the man, he corrected himself once again, but it was no use, Aithan would always be “the boy” – he and Aithan would confront their fates together, and that thought consoled him.  Long after his slave companion had fallen asleep, the magician finally closed his eyes.  The last thing he saw was the bright dance of the fireflies, and he pondered this second omen briefly before sleep overtook him.


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