Chapter I

Author's Note: This is a story I'm playing with right now. There will be more to come if I can find the inspiration. Any input, suggestions, or feedback would be very helpful and much appreciated, especially since I haven't written anything of significance in years. Enjoy.

Elayne hunched her shoulders moodily against the drizzling rain and hurried across the street to the shuttleport, splashing through icy puddles as she went. Warm as she was inside her thick jacket, her nose and eyes prickled with the late-winter cold, and by the time she ducked out of the street into the shuttleport's marginally warmer interior, her hair was plastered to her face and her boots were soaked through. Grumbling, she stalked past the few scattered passengers waiting for the next shuttle and dropped onto an empty but comfortlessly cold metal bench.

The shuttleport was unimpressive but not quite neglected enough to be dilapidated; the floor was wet and grimy after months of winter and weeks of the same miserable rain. Above the exit that led to the shuttle platform, an outdated screen displayed departures and arrivals. Elayne sought out her shuttle number and hissed with annoyance through her teeth when the blinking red letters told her it was late. With the irritability of being wet, cold, and tired for much too long, she plopped her bookbag onto her lap and pulled out her antiquated chemistry text to pass the time.

It hadn't been but a few tedious minutes before Elayne sensed movement and looked up to see a tall young man looming over her. With dark eyes and noble features, he could have been a princely figure except that he hunched forward as if in pain, one arm pressed close to his side. "Excuse me, miss," he began, then his voice caught and he stopped to cough. When he recovered his breath, he continued, "Would you mind if I shared your bench?"

Somewhat dumbfounded, Elayne shook her head, and the man sat down beside her with careful slowness, a little closer than Elayne would have liked. She shot the man a pointedly glare, but he took no notice of her. He sat hunched forward on the bench, his glazed eyes staring in front of him. Elayne could see little of his face now, since the hood of his rather expensive-looking coat was pulled up close over his head, but his breathing was halting, almost painfully difficult, and Elayne guiltily dropped her eyes back down to the periodic table.

Without warning, the man curled forward, half-falling off the bench as he was seized by a fit of gut-wrenching coughing. Less annoyed now than concerned, Elayne set her book aside and waited apprehensively for the man's fit to pass. When it did, he pushed himself slowly, with strange dignity, back to his place. He breathed deep and let it out with a shudder.

"I'm sorry to bother you, miss," he said suddenly, and his voice was raw and tattered, "but I believe I need your help."

"Um…sure," Elayne said, wondering if he was contagious.

He turned his face to her, and his dark eyes were lit with fire. His face was flushed with what appeared to be a fever. Elayne noticed, suddenly, that he was shivering violently.

"I need to leave the city," the man said softly, "before it happens. I can't make it out on my own."

"Before what happens?" Elayne asked.

The man smiled, sadness and irony in the gesture although his eyes blazed. "Will you help me?"

Elayne hesitated. The man watched her calmly as his dark, fire-lit gaze burned into her. Slowly she nodded.

"We'll take the number seven," the man announced, and turned away. Elayne blinked, wondering what had come over her; the seven was not quite the opposite direction from home, but it was close. She sighed; she couldn't retract a promise now.

For several minutes the two sat in silence. The man sat leaning forward, eyes closed and breathing raggedly shallow. Elayne tried to pretend to read her textbook, and put it away when she reached the end of the same page for the third time without having understood a word.

The man stirred abruptly, and was swept up by more convulsions, which Elayne could only watch helplessly. When he had recovered his breath, he slumped against the bench as if exhausted. Elayne looked away, filled with pity, but turned back when he spoke again.

"What is your name?"

"Elayne. What's yours?"

The man smiled again, eyes closed. "Kai." He swallowed painfully. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Elayne."

"Yes," Elayne replied awkwardly. "Same."

"I wish we had met under better circumstances," Kai continued, eloquent despite his broken voice. "And I assure you, if you were apprehensive…you can't catch what I have."

Elayne blushed. "Oh. I see." Feeling oddly bold, she pressed, "What do you have?"

Kai sat up, fixing her with an appraising stare. She stared stubbornly back. He smiled again, just a twitch at the corner of his mouth.


Elayne blinked, and Kai, still smiling, settled back against the bench and closed his eyes.

The seven was two minutes late, and by that time, Kai's breathing was painfully labored. He wouldn't allow Elayne to help him up from the bench when the time came to board the shuttle, but she had to support him all the way there. He was head and shoulders taller than her, and his arm in her grasp was all lithe muscle, but he was tremblingly weak, and even through his coat Elayne could feel the fierce heat of his fever, like his whole body was aflame. The thought made her shiver.

Once they made it inside the shuttle, Kai collapsed into a seat and almost immediately slumped into what appeared to be a tortured doze. Elayne sat beside him, perched nervously on the edge of her seat, and watched the grey city fly by outside the windows. The minutes ticked on, broken only by the announcement of the next stop and the hiss of the opening and closing doors. They were nearing the outskirts of the city when Kai sat up, wracked by coughing, and wiped a trickle of blood from his mouth.

"Next one," he said.

At the next stop, Elayne helped Kai out of the shuttle into the rain. They stood together for a moment as the shuttle whirred off into the gathering afternoon gloom, then Kai nodded and they started off down the sidewalk. He leaned heavily on her, his steps delicately careful; Elayne thought he might collapse at any moment.

"It's almost time," Kai said finally; Elayne looked up and down the nearly-deserted streets, lit only by the neon glow of run-down cafés and drug stores. Kai nodded in the direction of a small park across the street, and Elayne helped him across the intersection and onto the grass. As they neared the center of the park, a sudden fit seized Kai again; he collapsed, convulsing, and Elayne couldn't hold him up. He lay curled in the wet grass, coughing up blood, his skin so hot that he radiated warmth. Elayne sat by him and held onto him as he coughed, tears stinging her eyes.

Finally it passed. Kai slumped on the ground, and for a moment Elayne feared he was dead. She shook him, panic rising in her throat, and had opened her mouth to call to him when he spoke again, now in a barely audible whisper.

"I wish you could meet my sister."

Elayne had no answer for that, so she simply waited.

"I think you'd like her."

He moved to sit up, then to stand, with Elayne's assistance. He stood there, tottering, then raised his head and met Elayne's eyes.

"Thank you for your kindness. There is nothing more you can do."

Elayne rubbed furiously at her eyes, confused by the stinging of tears and the terrible knot in her throat. "What will happen?"

Kai smiled, full of sadness. "It's best if you don't see." He pressed something into her hand and pushed her away.

Slowly, reluctantly, Elayne let go of him, and Kai stood alone as she backed away, then turned and ran. At the edge of the park, she stopped and hesitated, afraid of what she might see. Turning, she caught a glimpse of Kai standing with his face tilted to the sky. As the drops hit his face, they curled away again as steam. Then in a moment he was a pillar of fire, white-hot and piercingly bright in the gloom, a human shape made of devouring light roaring against the falling rain.

Even as Elayne drew breath to scream, the fire dimmed, flickered, extinguished. Before she registered moving she was running forward, slipping on the wet grass, tears mingling with rain. Where Kai had stood was a patch of scorched earth still smoldering; no other trace remained.

Elayne stood dumbfounded until her own shock and cold jarred her into moving. The thing in her hand poked into her palm, and she numbly unfolded her fist to look. Sitting on her palm was a pendant without a chain: a sinuous golden serpent with six wings. She wiped the water out of her eyes and folded her hand again. With unsteady steps she turned her back on the curl of smoke rising from the ashes and began the long trek home.