The slow way was very, very slow.
Truthfully, it was more accurate to say that there was a lot of Night Fire tainted mana on Liam. The method Serenity used to remove residue and clean an area for a ritual was painstaking and precise but very, very slow. It wasn’t intended for this; it was intended for an area that was basically already clean or at the most had been used for a well-designed ritual that didn’t leak badly. This was almost as bad as what the summoner had left after his death.
It might even be a little worse, on second thought. It wasn’t reside from breaking a well-designed powerful spell like the one on the summoner; instead, it was nearly formless, an example of power taking the place of subtlety. That was something that worked far better if all you wanted to do was destroy than if you wanted to do anything else, which certainly didn’t make the leftovers any easier to clean up.
Serenity worked long into the night, long enough that everyone other than Blaze left. Blaze was asleep in one of the cushioned chairs when Serenity drifted off into sleep himself.
At least, he thought he was asleep. He couldn’t come up with any other reason he’d be standing on a sunny suburban street when the last thing he remembered was trying to wash the taint off of Liam.
Serenity looked around and realized he hadn’t been entirely correct. The direction he was facing was sunny, yes, but behind him was dark, as if it were night. It was a night without stars, only the wavering air from the heat of a fire, and Serenity knew what he was looking at. He was looking at Night Fire.
The door to one of the brightly-lit houses had opened while Serenity watched the Night Fire; there was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, and a child who seemed to be about six years old walking down the street towards him. The young woman seemed to have to continually corral her child, because he wanted to look at everything and wasn’t that interested in walking forward.
They were headed directly for the Night Fire.
Even if this was just a dream, Serenity didn’t want to see people move into the Night Fire. He didn’t know what it did, but the heat alone was potentially dangerous. Serenity moved to block the sidewalk. “Ma’am? You shouldn’t go this way; there’s fire-”
Neither the woman nor the child seemed to even realize Serenity was there, but he kept trying until the woman actually walked through him. Reaching out to them had the same effect; his hands went right through them both. He must truly not be there, at least in his dream.
Serenity refused to let this be a helpless dream; he knew he’d see horror if he let them walk past him unprotected and he didn’t need that. He already had more than enough nightmares without allowing a lucid dream to turn into another.
If he couldn’t get the mother and child to stop, maybe he could protect them?
Serenity reached out with his mana this time, but what he reached for was the Night Fire itself, to move it away from the path of the two innocents. It resisted, but that was exactly what Serenity hoped for: if he could touch it, he could affect it. He didn’t seem to be able to directly affect the mother or the child, but he could make a tunnel for them to walk in.
Or run in circles and dig random holes until his mother caught up with him, in the case of the child.
Shortly after the pair moved into the tunnel, the scene seemed to lose cohesion and disappear. It faded out; what faded back in was the same street, but a chill autumn day with brightly-colored trees instead of the late summer day of the first scene. This time, only a single child emerged from the house. The child was perhaps twice the age of the boy in the first scene; he wore a heavy-looking backpack and a jacket over his clothing. The boy locked the front door, then trudged down the sidewalk in the same direction as before.
Just like the previous scene, Serenity couldn’t interact with the boy. When he looked towards where the Night Fire had been, he found that it started a little farther down the street. Perhaps this was an analogy for the work he’d been doing to clear the residue from Liam? If so, then his previous actions were effective. Insufficient, maybe, but effective. If this was just a dream, on the other hand, at least it felt like he made progress.
It didn’t really matter. Either way, Serenity would rather protect the unaware boy than watch him be harmed. He pushed at the Night Fire again, creating a safe place for the boy to walk until he faded away into a new scene.
The scene repeated time after time; Serenity watched as the child became a young man, then a full adult. The house changed several times, first to another house then to a dormitory building then a series of apartments buildings. As time passed, it became more and more obvious that the man Serenity was protecting was Liam. That was what Serenity had expected, but the confirmation was nice.
Eventually, Serenity watched as Liam walked not out of but towards a building. This time, unlike most but not all of the others, he was accompanied by another person. Mike was with Liam, though Serenity didn’t see any others from the team Serenity knew would be with them.
It was made of the same stone as A’Atla’s interior, but had clearly been created to look hand-built; Serenity could see where false “joints” had been added to make it appear like stone blocks instead of the single-piece construction of A’Atla. It was relatively tall and narrow; Serenity didn’t know what it had been intended for simply by looking at it. The one thing he could say for certain, however, was that it was extremely similar to the building Liam had shown him a melted picture of. The building where Liam and Mike had probably picked up the Night Fire in the first place.
There was one other thing that drew Serenity’s attention: there was a symbol on the side of the building that Serenity didn’t remember from the photo. It was clearly a broken trident, a three-headed spear, but as Serenity watched the symbol slid off the building and buried itself in the dirt. The lack of water nearby made it unlikely the building was truly related to spear-fishing, but even he knew that the trident was Poseidon’s symbol; wasn’t he supposed to have been the primary god of Atlantis?
Or was it Poseidon that was supposed to have sunk Atlantis? Serenity couldn’t remember which it was. With his luck, it was probably both; an island belonging to the sea-god made some sort of sense, but Poseidon was also the god of earthquakes. It made sense that he’d be the one who sank Atlantis.
A’Atla wasn’t exactly Atlantis, but it did seem to be all too close to not have some relationship. Perhaps there was once a significant presence of Poseidon worshippers on the island? It would explain the symbol.
Of course, that assumed the symbol wasn’t just his own addition, an attempt to make things make sense. This was a dream, after all. He couldn’t take it literally.
The fact that the trident was broken, then fell, almost certainly meant that Poseidon was no longer involved. Or maybe he’d never been involved even if this was his property? Or perhaps it was all Serenity making up the connection and the trident falling meant he just didn’t know. Regardless, it meant Poseidon wasn’t important.
Serenity moved towards the building; it was dark inside. Darker than it should have been, even where there should have been light. He also saw the wavering air that seemed to indicate heat in this dream; the building was filled with Night Fire.
A look back told Serenity that Liam and Mike were close to the building, so Serenity did what he’d done before and created a safe tunnel for him.
This time, the scene didn’t disappear when they stepped into the protected area. Instead, Serenity had to keep fighting the Night Fire. It grew heavier, changing from the relatively simple, light weight of the previous scenes to a heavy stone, but Serenity kept the protection going. It wasn’t past his ability, after all.
The winged ape was even uglier than Serenity expected from Liam’s quick description. Its face was blue, maybe blue-green, round, and weirdly flat, almost like it was set into a bumpy blue-green plate. Its muzzle stuck forward from its flat face, with a long reddish-orange beard that matched its fur color. Other than the wings, it was so ugly it almost crossed the line back into being unique instead of ugly.
The wings, however, made the picture complete and solidified Serenity’s feelings about it. They were black, but it wasn’t the black of feathers or even a bat’s wings. Instead, it was the same black as the Night Fire. They weren’t covered in the stuff; they were made of it. The winged ape could have been beautiful other than the wings and Serenity would still have found it unpleasant to view.
The fight was, fortunately, just as fast as Liam’s description made it seem. When it finished, the ape splashed to the ground far enough away from the building that Serenity could understand why it wasn’t in the picture Liam had shown.
He turned back to the building where he was still holding the Night Fire off Liam and Mike just in time to see it burst into flame, black fire rising in lines. The two ran out, but were buried in mud that slopped over them when the stone crashed into the ground behind them. They weren’t buried deeply; while they did need help actually getting out, neither was apparently injured or buried far enough that they couldn’t breathe.
Far more important to Serenity was the wash of Night Fire that followed the wave of mud. He had to push to keep it from burying them as well. He deflected it up and away from them. Coincidentally, that also kept it away from the people who came out of nowhere in an attempt to help the two out of the muddy rubble.
The pressure vanished as the scene faded away.
The next thing Serenity knew, someone was shaking his shoulder. Was it time to wake up? “Rissa?”
The deep pitch of the laugh that followed told him that no, the person shaking his shoulder wasn’t Rissa. “Serenity? How did we get here? The last thing I remember, I was leading you back to the conference area to talk about the books.”
Serenity blinked and realized that the person talking to him was Liam. He took a moment to focus, then another moment to trigger his magesight and look at Liam. He didn’t remember finishing, but he didn’t see any sign of the extreme Night Fire contamination from earlier.
“It’s a bit of a long story,” Blaze’s voice answered from the far end of the room, “but I guess we’re all awake now.” Blaze yawned, then stood and stretched. “Did you finish, Serenity?”
Serenity pushed his Magesight active and looked more carefully. There were some final wisps of Night Fire around Liam, but they disappeared as fast as he noticed them. “It looks like it. I’m sure you want to check and make sure I didn’t mess anything up?”
Serenity really hoped he hadn’t, but the fact that he’d apparently finished in his sleep wasn’t a good sign. He’d have to be more careful to take breaks with anyone else he did this for.
“A second check never hurts,” Blaze agreed.