Rhyshladlyn felt the wards snap like glass breaking around him as he leapt over the wall. He grinned as the City let out a sharp note of elation, every single golden surface glowing with a brilliance that sent several Shiranites scrambling for cover effectively keeping his arrival hidden. It also kept anyone from noticing the way the wards fell and left the City unprotected against magickal infiltration. He grin went crooked.
Nice work, Shiran. By the time Father realizes what happened he won’t be in Shiran anymore.
Shiran gave a soft coo in response as he sailed towards the ground, executing a roll mid-air to slow his descent so he landed in a crouch on the street below, hands pressed against the rough cobblestones, wings flaring briefly to either side to keep him balanced before he stowed them away. He held the position until he felt Thae’a’s magick ripple to life around him. Held it while that magick read him, tasted him, and draped over his shoulders like a lover before it moved on, leaving him wobbling while vertigo and nausea assaulted his senses. He closed his eyes and didn’t move until that magick had put several blocks between it and him. And even then he only moved once the feeling of extreme vertigo and nausea had passed enough for him to feel safe moving. Opening his eyes as he lifted his head, his jaw dropped at what he saw and he slowly rose to his feet, turning in a tight circle to take in his surroundings.
He’d landed in Shiran City and stood up somewhere that was definitely not Shiran, not in looks at least. The City had become overrun with trees and thick grass, buildings covered in vines, wild flowers sprouting up in patches along what had once been the street in front of him. Piercing the skies were at least five obelisks — that he could see — each one a slick, gleaming black surface with veins of gold encircling them that glowed faintly through the veins that scaled them. Those pointed structures were nearly hidden among the canopy created by trees as tall as the spires, trees that hid all but the North Tower of the Palace and the Temple Dome at its center. What buildings he could see through the foliage and growth that covered them looked dilapidated, crumbling, as though he stood in a City ravaged by war and then left to the mercies of Time. And Time had not been kind to it.
Is this what Shiran City would look like if the war had truly hit Shiraniqi Desert? The thought alone was unnerving.
The trees’ bark was blacker than night, stealing what light was given off by the glowing retaining wall behind him and the the veins of gold that ran up what solid pieces of the streets and buildings still existed and gave none of it back. None of the flora around him cast a single shadow, though the structures it covered did. An eerie silence had fallen over the City, drowning out the constant hum it had given off his entire life. It was eerie in a way he hadn’t expected, but he still felt safe, still felt at home, among these black-barked trees and dark green leaves and vines, among the black-petaled wild flowers that grew like weeds in patterns that held no rhyme or reason. It was like the Gardens in the Great Temple had had enough of being confined and broke free of the Temple to take over the City and become a great forest that ate Shiran’s magick and became its own sentient being, making an oasis in the heart of Shiraniqi Desert.
The analogy that his mind came up with for what Shiran City looked like under the guise of Thae’a’s Weave did nothing to erase the thought of what the second largest collection of Dhaoine would look like when the war exploded into a Worlds War and swept across Fènwa. Shiran City was large, but it wasn’t a metropolis like Zhalharaq. By the gods, it was dwarfed by Ikqir two hundred leagues to the southeast in Fiykorae Province on the border of Imèn World. But still, the thought that this is what Shiran City could become once the war truly touched it was terrifying.
If he didn’t still feel Shiran’s pulsing awareness against his skin, if he didn’t feel Azriel so close by, if he hadn’t felt Thae’a’s magick and known what it meant from the start, he would think he’d jumped through a Gateway into one of the Old Cities rumored to be lost to Time and nature. And even knowing that what he saw wasn’t real, that this wasn’t the true Shiran City, but rather something out of Thae’a’s mind, created by her, he almost fell for it. Almost voiced the thought of, where the fuck am I? And if he had, the Weave would have completely taken him over.
“No matter what happens once it settles, you must not forget that you are actually in Shiran City, that what you see, feel, taste, smell, and hear isn’t real. The second you forget that? You become fully immersed in the Weaving and the risks increase.”
He stared at the Dreamweaver while she easily rattled off all the warnings with the ease of someone who had spoken them so many times before. He narrowed his eyes at her.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, is it?” he asked, interrupting her before she could begin the next set of disclaimers.
Brown eyes lifted from the tea she was stirring sugar and milk into, wide and filled with secrets. He raised an eyebrow at her and watched her gulp before those eyes darted away from him.
“No, it’s not the first time,” she answered at length and took a long sip of her tea before sighing and setting the cup back on the counter of his cabin’s kitchen. She seemed like she belonged in the large kitchen, he had no problem imagining her moving around Azriel and Nhulynolyn while the three prepared a meal for the Court and his chest went tight. “I’m just hoping that this time goes better than the last one did.”
He shook his head as he felt the air begin to displace beside him signalling his twin’s arrival.
*Holy fuck, she’s good,* Nhulynolyn commented with awe as he took on his corporeal form to his right. *No wonder Dreamweavers were so feared.*
Understatement that. Hopefully the entire City believes it’s real, especially Father, he replied as he caught his bearings and took off in the direction of where the Great Temple had been before the Weave had fallen over the City.
*D’you really think it’s possible this plan will work?* Nhulynolyn asked as he kept pace with him, the fingers of his left hand flipping a disc made of shadowfire over the back of his knuckles, eyes roving over every inch of their surroundings as his power flared out behind them to keep watch for dangers approaching from behind.
He shrugged one shoulder, watching as the Shiranites that had taken cover when he’d landed looked around with fear and shock and wonderment. The latter of the three dominant emotions worried him. For it told him that they hadn’t fallen completely for the Weave’s false reality, that they were likely a risk to the entire plan before it even really got off the ground. He nudged Nhulynolyn with his elbow.
*I’m already trackin’m an’ sendin’ the info to Xhesh who is updating Thae’a.*
You’re a godsend, you know that? He snickered when Nhulynolyn blushed and threw a glare his way. Give me that look all you want, brother, doesn’t change the truth of my words.
He just snickered harder when the Other grumbled and flicked a spark of shadowfire at him which he swatted away with ease. He knew his twin meant no harm by it even if Nhulynolyn tried to make it seem like he did. It was just banter meant to keep them from developing tunnel vision while traversing what had become of Shiran City. It was something they had perfected over the years since he’d first learned about his Otherborn twin. It was part of what made him so deadly on the Fields; that and the fact that often Nhulynolyn fought back to back with him, just incorporeal, watching for dangers from all his blind spots, making it so that he had none. Though it wasn’t always what they did, it was still rather frequent.
Shaking himself from the thought derailment, he focused back in on his surroundings, taking stock of where they were and how the Weave had made things look different. With each jogging step he took, the more amazed he became at just how real everything felt. Cautiously he reached out and brushed his hand along a particularly thick vein that had strung itself between the lantern poles that dotted the street every thirty feet or so and nearly lost his footing at the way it leaned into his touch, the way it felt just like every thick, velvety vine he’d ever laid his hands on. It was as though his earlier thought regarding what the City looked like now, more sentient forest than City, was an accurate description. And that thought made breathing a little harder to do as anxiety warmed his blood.
Nameless prevailing, she goes all out with this shit. I wonder if every Woven World is like this. He observed, rubbing his fingers together while he stared at that vine for a few moments more before looking away. But he wasn’t able to shake the sense that it was calling out for him, wanting his hand back on it, like a demanding snakat wanting attention. He shuddered. I don’t know whether to be impressed or freaked out. Though I’m leaning more towards the latter.
*I’ll be sure t’remin’you to ask her when we finish here,* Nhulynolyn remarked distractedly. *Though I’m defin’ly both o’those,* his twin added with a glance at him that spoke volumes as they slowed from a light jog to a brisk walk by mutual unspoken agreement.
They’d arrived in the merchant’s district that spread from five blocks inside the main gates eastward all the way to the Sparkling River that bisected Shiran City thirty blocks in at the nearest point from the main gate. The district was just ten blocks and one bridge hop from the Great Temple. But one wouldn’t know that by looking around anymore.
What stalls were still visible looked ancient and crumbling into dust, the wood rotted and pierced by vines, the goods that had been displayed scattered like discarded confetti all over the ground. A few trees grew straight up from the street, cobblestones scattered among their wide-reaching roots like gravestones. A cool wind blew against them, dispelling the sweat from the heat of the real world that had beaded on his skin and sending the branches of those black-barked trees to dancing far above their heads, the sound of their leaves rustling like the distant singing of children. As a slow moving fog rolled over the ground and clung to shadowed doorways of buildings that lined the western edge of the district, he caught sight of what looked like a body ten feet away lying half-under a pile of vines and flattening some of the wild flowers and thick, dark green grass that had grown up through the cracks in the cobblestones. He flicked his fingers towards that lumped form when Nhulynolyn looked up at his aborted gasp. The Other had to fight back his own sound when he saw what Rhyshladlyn had pointed out.
*Tell me that ain’t a body,* Nhulynolyn muttered, sounding less upset than he knew the Other was feeling, their connection blown open wide while they walked through the Woven World that had descended around them. *An’ please tell me that this is what y’had in min’ when y’spoke to Tee ’bout settin’ this up.*
It was something like this… just… not quite this this.
*Nat’rally.* The Other cursed softly. *I ser’sly hate this godsdamn City.*
Even if he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to disagree with his twin. Because he’d felt safe from the moment he landed, but that feeling of safety was rapidly dissipating.
The further into the City they went, the darker the not-forest-forest around them became.
With each block they put between themselves and the City wall, the more certain he became that the foliage around them, the vines in particular, were shifting closer, straining to reach him with their limited range of movement, cooing softly, almost like they begged for him to reach out and touch them again.
As they grew closer to where he was sure the true Heart Watchtower stood, closer to the Sparkling River that lay between them and the Temple, the more lumpy piles that looked far too suspiciously like bodies they saw. Only now some of them were shifting and moving, wet sounds that were too much like a creature eating something emanating from them. He didn’t get close enough to see if those lumps were in fact Shiranites and that that was why he was seeing less and less of them. Didn’t get close enough to see if the foliage was eating them.
He didn’t know and had no want to know. He didn’t care that much.
All he cared about at that exact moment was that the longer they walked, the greater the sense of danger that shook his nerves became. A sense that had nothing to do with their mission and everything to do with the way his back prickled and his wings twitched with the unmistakable feeling that they were being watched, that they were being hunted, and not just by the weirdly cognizant flora that surrounded them. Feeling jumpy and like he had when he was a fledgling and Anis had told him his first Old Story, he glanced over his shoulder and stopped walking when a flash of gold and a large, lanky shadow darted down an alley a hundred feet back the way they’d come.
*Yeah, I feel it, too.*
It’s more than that. Someone, or something, is stalking us.
I just saw something dart down an alley hundred feet back, he answered and shared the memory of what he’d seen.
*Shit. Any ideas?* Nhulynolyn asked, staring with more intensity at the shadows ahead of them.
Not really. I don’t know what the fuck kinda things Thae’a could have added to this to keep Anislanzir busy and if they would actually try and harm us, too. He felt like there was something he was forgetting as he spoke but when he tried to reach for it, it slipped out of his reach. He had other shit more important to focus on and let it go.
*Fair ‘nough point. So, d’we run or fight?*
Blink ourselves the rest of the way? He offered a shrug when his twin raised an eyebrow at him. Doubt there’s is anything in the Worlds that can follow us if we did that. And it’d make us less vulnerable to an attack.
*I wouldn’t do that,* Nhulynolyn replied with a shake of his head as he began moving to put his back against his. *No tellin’ how much effect our own personal magick will have on the Weave beyond what it’s already done.*
You know something I don’t about this shit? He tried not to snap the question at the Other. But by the Nameless’ cock, if there was something he should have known before going into this and he hadn’t been told, he was going to be pissed.
Nhulynolyn lifted one shoulder in a distracted shrug, never once ceasing his roving watch of their surroundings though his fingers had stopped playing with that shadowfire disc.
*Only that Weavin’ of this magnitude is rare an’ that the act itself ain’t an exact Workin’. The Dreamweaver lays the foundation, how the Weavin’ acts once it’s begun is dependent on the target.*
Oh, is that all? He snarked, peeved that such information was only now being passed along. Fantastic.
*Oi, don’t toss your shit-stained knicks at me, bro. I ain’t the one who wanted this shit done,* Nhulynolyn snapped back at him. *If Tee didn’t give you the full run down, that isn’t my fault. I didn’t know what she told you an’ didn’t tell you.*
He sighed gustily and brought his hands up to rub at his face before dropping them back to his sides, trying to roll the tension out of his shoulders and upper back with marginal success. I know. Sorry, Nul. I’m just on edge cuz something doesn’t feel right.
*Does an’a’thin’ we ever experience in this cursed City?* Nhulynolyn countered.
They walked in silence for several more blocks until they could just make out the domed towers of the Great Temple and the vine-wrapped façade of the Watchtower the stood at its center over the tops of the buildings, the rushing sounds of the Sparkling River confirming that they were close. Before they could round the next corner that should open up to the bridge and the square beyond it that the Temple sat in, he stopped and turned to look back the way they’d come, frowning as he watched the flickering glow of the distant City wall through the fog. He could have sworn he’d heard what sounded like claws clacking over the cobblestones but couldn’t see any movement. An ominous knot of anxiety bloomed fully in his gut, instincts giving off a soft whine of ‘we really don’t fucking like this‘. Not that he could blame them, he just wished he knew why they were flipping out. Just wish he knew what that shadowy figure was that had flashed gold as it ducked into an alley and why he hadn’t seen it since. Just wished he knew what the entire fuck was going on and why everything was so fucking quiet.
It had been way longer than the ten minutes Xheshmaryú had been instructed to wait before fetching Adïmshyl and Thae’a into the City to join him and Nhulynolyn. Tee and them should have joined us by now, he observed, squinting at that shifting, rolling fog, one hand raising to rub at his torso just over his diaphragm as that knot of anxiety began to spread, the whine of his instincts growing all the louder.
*Maybe they landed in a dif’rent area?* Nhulynolyn offered. *Who knows how it works when enterin’ an already acti-*
Whatever the Other had been planning to say was cut off abruptly as he went flying into a building several feet away with a sickening crunch that made him wince. The Other slid down that wall to the ground where he landed in a boneless heap, leaving a body-sized smear of blood in his wake.
He just stared in shock for several heartbeats before running towards his fallen Other but stopped short when the haunting sound of a parent who has lost their child echoed off the walls. Felt fear rocket down his spine as the eerie sound of a child laughing answered that cry.
Xhesh! Shadi! Nully is down! Where the fuck are Tee and Adïm? he thundered along their shared consciousness. He whirled to face what had thrown his twin without warning, neither having sensed its approach, praying as he did so that he was wrong about what it was. That his memory of what those sounds belonged to was wrong.
When he saw what it was he knew it wasn’t. Knew they were fucked if he didn’t get backup immediately. Knew that even if he did get backup, the chance of surviving was minimal.
Fuck! he yelled along that link as his hands flew up to grip the handles of Beannacht and Mallacht as he called them in, unsheathing them in one fluid move as he faced off against the nightmarish creatures. We’ve got Hounds! Xhesh? Shadi?! Where are you?
But no response came, only a deafening silence that set his teeth on edge as he watched the nightmarish form of what had once been a Dhaoine slink across the ground towards him, its head twisted around so its chin pointed skyward, neck long like the body of a snake. A mouth that was filled with way more razor-sharp teeth than what should be able to fit within a humanoid mouth was slack-jawed and salivating. Where its spittle hit, the grass and wild flowers shriveled and died, the stone bared beneath them chipping and cracking. Its paws were nothing more than Dhaoinic hands with bone-thin finger-toes and talons that could slice through stone like it was melted butter. It shuffled on all fours but he knew it could stand upright on its back legs and walk like a Dhaoine could. Knew that it was just as deadly on two legs as it was on four, though not nearly as fast. Gold eyes that showed no sign of a Self behind them, only a malevolence that sent true fear — the kind that could kill a Dhaoine — skittering along one’s nerves, regarded its prey with a cold, calm sort of detachment. A tongue that was black with rot lolled out of that slack-jawed, teeth-infested mouth and hung down between its eyes over the sunken area where its nose should have been, the tip nearly touching the ground three feet below its head. Even on all fours its back was of a height with his waist, its head able to easily reach his chest.
One Hound was bad enough but as he spun in a circle while backing towards Nhulynolyn’s still motionless form, he counted no less than seven. Though that was an inaccurate count if the flashes of gold in the shadows and the flickers of movement in the fog were anything to go by.
Fuck. Nully! Wake up, brother! I need you! Come on! He tossed power down their link at his twin but the male didn’t budge. He was alive, that much was obvious. He wouldn’t have kept his corporeal form if he wasn’t and his door would have disappeared, but he got no response from either Nhulynolyn or Shadiranamen or Xheshmaryú. The silence and feeling of being alone was deafening and terrifying in equal measure. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!
The only reason he stood any chance of surviving was because he had fought Hounds when he was younger. If Anislanzir hadn’t wanted to see if he was skilled enough to take on such a hellish creature and live, he would be well and truly fucked. For once he was grateful the un-male had pitted him against one of his prized Hounds, a bitch he had bred, nurtured from a pup to an adult, and trained himself. Was grateful that the cruelty his father had imparted on him in the act was serving some greater purpose than for him to suffer for the un-male’s amusement.
He had killed that Hound within an hour but not before the beast had broken one of his wings at the connector joint, compound fractured his left femur, and shattered all the bones in his left hand. But he had still won. It wasn’t the only time he’d fought a Hound but he’d never fought more than one at a time. But with each fight he’d learned more about the creatures. With each fight, he’d gotten better at fighting them, gotten better at coming away with minimal to no wounds. Much to the chagrin of his father.
Anislanzir had kept the ones that lived past the hour mark and he had killed those that didn’t. So he knew how the fuckers fought, knew the dangers of their saliva and their teeth, knew their speed. He knew they communicated with each other in the same way a kè did with their Others which made them especially deadly when around their own kind. Knew that the sounds they made verbally were designed to strike at a Dhaoine’s adrenal glands, to send them into overdrive.
He knew that when faced off against a Hound a Dhaoine was just as likely to die of fear as they were of the wounds made by the Hound. Hounds were nature’s ultimate predator.
So he wasn’t helpless against them, not really. Not as much as he would have been had his father not been a sadistic, twisted, insane cunt who wanted nature’s worst creation as a pet. But there was still a chance he wouldn’t make it out of this alive. He was alone and there were at least seven of them. And judging by the the way they reacted to seeing him? To scenting him?
They were the ones that he hadn’t managed to kill. They were the ones who had watched him kill their mates and their pups and their siblings over the course of his lifetime at the behest of his father. And they wanted to return the favor.
Nameless See me. He didn’t seriously let them out of their cages… did he? Even he isn’t that fucking stupid. But it didn’t matter how they’d gotten out, why they were roaming the streets. All that mattered was that they were moving as one mass towards him now, ground rumbling under their paws. All that mattered was that he roared defiantly at them, refusing to let the fear they induced cripple him.
He threw out a Call for aid that made the Woven reality around him whine and ripple. He knew they were real when the dilapidation of the buildings and the weird flora distorted with his Call, but they didn’t. If anything they became more solid, more real, when the Woven reality around him snapped back into place and held.
The yipping laughter of the Hounds as the first one reached him was the only Answer he could hear.