As he lay upon the bed, Niko could feel the silk sheets quiver beneath him. With dulled perceptions, he fought to turn his head. He regretted it the moment he did so. The sheets of the bed were gone, only to be replaced by the undulating coils of a thousand snakes. Their scales were of flame and ash, rippling in an endless wave of flesh and hunger. Questing tongues, wet with vemon, sear his skin as they explored every crevice, every curve of his body. Their violent hissing made his ears bleed, dark rivulets of blood began to trickle over his neck and shoulders.
Above him, he could see Akerke staring down at him as if from very far away. He felt small, so small; nothing more than a single ember within a vast conflagration. Weakly he lifted his hand toward her, only to find charring flesh and blackened sinew where his fingers had once been. His body was being devoured by the snakes. A cutting wind stirred their flames higher, driving them on and on, turning his flesh to soot, his bones to smoke.
Only Akerke's cool, glassy eyes offered him solace. "Come to me, soqura öri. Fall into me. Seek your fire before it consumes you." He found himself falling up into those glassy eyes, those pits of midnight. He was so small and they were so infinite. He fell and fell, as if into an endless tunnel, spiraling down, down. And as their cool darkness swallowed him, Niko was no more.
A raven's caw. Distant. Intrusive against the horizon of silence.
Niko blinked open his eyes, squinting against the bitter light. Beyond his blurred vision, the world was grey and white. Snow he realized. He'd almost forgotten what it looked like. But here he was in a field of it, as vast as the Dothraki Sea. Featureless, the endless plain pressed in on him with a sense of pure desolation.
The raven's caw came again from behind him. He turned to find the black bird perched at the top of a ragged banner. Without wind to stir it, the banner hung loosely like dried skin. A tower of some sort was emblazoned upon the faded fabric. But he didn't focus on this long. The pyre before which the banner had been placed drew his attention.
A simple mass of sticks and twigs had been erected for the dead. A simple sheet had been laid over the body, its golden fabric stained with blood and horse manure. The body was so small, but obviously held a sword beneath its stained shroud. An ignoble grave for a warrior.
A single torch burned beside the grave, as if offering this lost soul relief if only guided by someone's hand.
"Is this what you seek, Soqura öri?" Akerke said, nearby. He turned to find a woman standing beside him. She wore Westeros garb; a noblewoman's gown that clung to her and dripped with rank water. Ice frosted her golden hair and skin. Her bare feet were badly frostbitten by the snow. But if she noticed, she did not show it. He didn't recognize the face, but Akerke's eyes were unmistakable.
A boy, alone, comes to know fear. The choice is only whether fear will be his companion or his end- his motivation or his limitation. So it was that Niko had come to embrace and overcome it- to thrive where many others would have faltered. It was not a matter of skill, though that was a part of it. It was not a matter of luck, though that had played it's part. It was a matter of determination- to go on when the unknown beckoned- when there was nothing before him other than a black yawning pit, with nothing to promise other than nothingness. Many judged him to be overconfident, with a skill brought about because he thought he was invincible. It was exactly the opposite. He'd lived with the fear, and made it a part of him, so much so that death held nothing for him. Truly the measure of his torment had been found in the measure of his youth- nothing was left for him for he knew the worst too young!
But in truth, a large part of the reason he had been able to do so- to give himself so fully to death- was that he had never been faced by it personally. It was as if his gods that he missed so much here in a land with scant trees still watched over him, for he had never taken a truly serious wound unto death, and so he was in some way convinced of his own immortality.
But to be faced with it *so*....
He thrashed in his fevered vision. Tried to answer- tried to say words of denial. He was covered in a sheen of sweat, the burning liquid stinging his eyes. But for some reason he could not raise a hand to wipe it away; he couldn't even blink. He couldn't seem to move anything, and even his tongue seemed swollen in his unresponsive mouth, his lips cracked.
In the nightmare, the wraith with Akerke's eyes smiled, her white teeth flashing like icicles. "Why do I doubt your conviction?" it said softly. A wisp of wind swirled the snow around her skeletally thin ankles. How could she survive in this frozen waste? Was she even alive at all?
The cold bit into Niko's flesh, even as the sweat dripped down his face. How could he survive out here, for that matter? He appeared destined to join this loss soul in an eternal vigil.
She stepped closer, her cold fingers griping his hands and lifting them to her dead lips. As she kissed each fingertip, she whispered, "If this is not what you desire, Soqura öri, then what is?"
The wind rose and the torch's flame guttered, threatening to go out. Perhaps forever.