She knew these streets.
Knew them as well as she knew her own body and the forms it could take. Knew them as well as the memories that still haunted her of a father that had abandoned them after he spent half her life and all of her little brother’s beating them down and making them feel like they were less. Knew them as well as the sound of Nhulynolyn’s laughter when she told a joke she knew wasn’t particularly funny but he somehow found hilarious.
But knowing the streets of Shiran City meant shit when she had flown over the wall and found not the golden buildings and cobblestone streets she’d expected but something entirely different.
Knowing the streets of her childhood home meant shit when it looked nothing like that, when it barely even held a ghostly whisper of what it once was.
What the fuck is this?
She looked around with wide eyes at the seven obelisks that pierced the skies above the City nearly hidden by the largest trees she’d ever seen in her life, at the vines that covered buildings that were half crumbling. What pieces hadn’t fallen off the buildings around her were likely held together by those odd vines that made her skin crawl just looking at them. Tree roots sprouted up through the streets, reaching for nearly entire blocks from what she could see, the cobblestones those roots displaced looking like haphazardly placed gravestones. A warning thrummed down her spine and she shivered hard. Whatever had happened to Shiran City she didn’t like it at all.
Rubbing at the shiver-bumps on her arms, she stepped wide around a root that seemed to be trembling and tried to look past the flora that covered nearly every inch of the City, tried to orient herself. But try as she night, she couldn’t see a scrap of the City she’d grown up in, not without closing her eyes to block out the changes. But she didn’t want to close them because something told her that if she did, she’d never open them again. Something told her that the fog hid secrets and dangers, that so long as it was there, she would find no safety in Shiran City.
That was when the first cry pierced the too quiet, too still air, where are all the people? and she jumped to hear it. Fear, thick and disabling, filled her like a river breaking free of the dam that had held it in check. A defiant war howl followed that first cry and its answer; the sounds like a parent mourning the loss of a child as–
Her mother screamed, the sound full of grief and loss, rattling along her bones and bringing tears to her eyes that had nothing to do with the fact that she had just watched her brother’s limp and lifeless body fall to the street and everything to do with the fact that her mother’s grief was palpable and she acted as though her living child, her first born, wasn’t still in just as much danger as her second born had been.
D’anwi fought against the guards that held her, trying desperately to get back to her son’s side, her hands glowing with the power of a Healer, all swirls of white and silver. Bayls knew that if their mother could get to her little brother that she’d be able to save him.
But as the blood pool around his body grew steadily with each second that she and D’anwi were held back, she knew that Parq’r was never waking up again. Knew that even as the guards finally let Mother go and she dropped to her knees in his blood, babbling prayers to the gods, hands pressing over his wounds, that it was too late.
Knew it was too late even before D’anwi threw back her head and screamed one long, mournful cry that vaguely formed around her brother’s name, a cry that several voices echoed from the open doorways and windows of the buildings that lined the street. She knew that she had lost not just her brother but her mother even before she lifted her head and watched as Mother was roughly pulled to her feet and dragged away. No one lifted a hand to help her, despite her screaming, despite her pleas.
And in the distance–
–the sound of children laughing answered.
Her blood ran cold as the fear that filled her threatened to swallow her whole. A tickling sense at the base of her skull told her to follow those sounds, that if she did she’d find Rhyshladlyn. Without questioning it, she turned east and ran, tucking her wings into her body, altering her course with each new yipping laugh, each new mournful cry.
She felt the Call for aid settle around her, nearly making her stumble and lose her footing. Around her the reality of the trees and the vines and the crumbling buildings whined and rippled under the weight of the desperation and terror that was that Call. In the areas where the reality failed she saw the real Shiran poking through and she frowned at it. But in less than an eye-blink’s time, it snapped back into place and the Shiran she knew disappeared from sight again. She shook her head to clear it as she slowed to a stop at a four way and looked around, the sounds she had been following gone silent. Which way do I go now? Looking at each street she huffed, hands coming to rest on her hips, lips twisted in annoyance, one fang worrying at her bottom lip. I could look for Rhys’ signature. Whatever this false reality is, it wouldn’t have fucked with that. She lifted a hand to gnaw on a finger nail instead of her lip. But if I do that… I’ll have to close my eyes to focus on finding him. Shit. Rhys, you really need to stop getting into messes, bro. I swear to the gods.
Taking a deep breath to steady her resolve, she reached up to pull her blade from its scabbard on her back, the ring of the steel loud in the stifling silence. Twirling it once around her hand she let that breath out slow, eyes dropping closed despite her instincts telling her to keep them open. But she didn’t have any other choice, keeping them open was making her blind and right now she needed to be able to see.
“Open your eyes!” he snarled, his own wide and filled with an angry passion that simply terrified her.
“They are open, the fuck,” she muttered testily, rubbing her neck where he had landed an open-handed smack to it while she had been focused on parrying his blade.
Rhyshladlyn huffed. “No, they are not. You have your lids raised but your eyes are not open. You do not See, you are Blind, and so long as you do not See everything on the battlefield, you will die and take down several others with you that aren’t your enemies.”
A smile curled her lips at the memory and she threw her awareness out as far as it would go, searching for the Qishir and Nhulynolyn, searching for their unique, loud magickal signatures. She jumped when a howl of rage and pain sent the Currents to tumbling with screams of fright and woeful cries of sympathy. As another howl rang out, she turned to the southeast, locked onto Rhyshladlyn’s signature as another Call shivered across her skin, and grinned wide, eyes flying open as she shifted her grip on her sword so the blade laid flat against the underside of her forearm and took the street to her right. Found you.
The ground rumbled and shook beneath her feet as she ran, as she leapt over vines that were nearly as thick around as her thigh, dodged around black-barked trees, slipped under branches and roots that hung at head and waist height. The air grew thick and hard to breathe, as though the fog that made everything muted and fuzzy was becoming solid. Those sobbing cries and the yipping laughter that answered them grew in number and intensity with each block she put behind her. The closer she got to them, the louder her instincts screamed to run the other way, the greater that fear became. But she couldn’t leave, she wouldn’t leave. Rhyshladlyn needed her, Nhulynolyn needed her.
She had failed one brother already in her life, she wasn’t about to fail another one. And she’d be damned if the one she loved died when she could have saved him, if he died because she had ignored a Vision.
Because Visions never lied.
“Don’t be afraid,” Parq’r whispered as he draped his arms over her shoulders from behind while she sat in the chair facing their shared bedroom’s door, listening to Jere scream and throw things, listening to D’anwi’s begging and profuse apologies.
“I’m not afraid,” she snapped.
“Uh huh, so you cold then?”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, glaring at him over her shoulder before looking back at the door.
“You’re shaking, sis,” was the simple response. She leaned back against him and huffed a sigh, one hand coming up to grip his wrist. “It’s okay if you feel fear, but don’t be afraid.”
“They’re the same thing, Parq,” she muttered testily, not remotely in the mood for one of his attempts at sounding wise and philosophical.
“No,” he replied, tone making it clear he wasn’t playing around, “they’re not.”
“Okay, how are they not the same then?” she barely kept from rolling her eyes, her free hand tightening around the handle of the dagger she’d stolen from Jere’s trunk that morning when a particularly loud thud shook the walls.
“Fear is only crippling if you’re afraid,” he answered sounding far older than he was and she raised an eyebrow at him. “Fear is the emotion, afraid is being unable to do anything because of the emotion. So… don’t be afraid.”
No matter how strong the fear that filled her was, no matter how loudly her instincts screamed for her to run away, to get out of the City before catastrophe hit, she refused to be afraid. Because her brother had been right despite being so young, despite never having really stepped foot outside of the house except to go to school and Temple. If she was afraid, she would be crippled by it. But if she felt fear and only felt it? Then she could use it as a weapon.
You were right, Parq, she swallowed hard against the tears that threatened to fall at the realization that she had never gotten to tell him that, that she never would. She pushed aside the pang of homesickness, of longing, to deal with later. Always later. She’d mourn when Anislanzir was dead.
She ran five more blocks towards the Temple when she heard it: the sounds of steel on armor, of defensive and offensive magick. Gurgles of the dying, the defiant snarls of the nearly dead, and those ethereal sounds that made her blood run cold now that there was no buildings left to dampen them. Picking up speed she rounded a bend in the street and stopped abruptly at the sight that greeted her. It was like she had run from a weird dream straight into a nightmare.
For long minutes she stood frozen in place, staring at the melee, wondering why the Dhaoine he fought weren’t falling and staying down. Because Rhyshladlyn was wielding his blades with the deadly accuracy she was used to seeing at this point, an accuracy that no longer surprised her as much as it used to, but that accuracy wasn’t showing against his opponents. If anything, it barely seemed to be keeping them at bay, barely seemed to be keeping them from dealing a death blow to him.
A particularly vicious swipe of Rhyshladlyn’s wings dispelled the fog around him for long enough that she saw that what the Qishir fought wasn’t Dhaoine like she had originally assumed but monsters. She slapped her free hand to her mouth to keep the shrill sound that bubbled in her throat at the sight from escaping and bringing those nightmarish things down on her. Her sword arm went limp, the tip of her blade clinking softly against the stones beneath her feet.
As a large once-was-a-Dhaoine creature flew at Rhyshladlyn, he planted his feet and leaned back so his spine was parallel to the street, ducking beneath it and stabbed both sword tips into its chest. Its momentum carried it along those sword tips, effectively gutting it in one long swipe before Rhyshladlyn tossed it up and away from him. Straightening up with a shiver that shook the gore and steaming blood from his body, he let out a whoop at his success and turned to face his next opponent. He fought two more at a time, taking only slightly longer to fight them off before he pierced the chest of one and severed the head from the shoulders of the other, the appendage going tumbling crown over nape, its fiery red hair like a Festival of Flesh streamer as it sailed through the air. It landed only a handful of feet away from her, its vacant gold eyes going dark as its life faded away completely, a pool of black blood spreading around it. The cobblestones groaned beneath it as that blood ate into and corroded them. Holy shit what the entire fuck are these things?
Rhyshladlyn snarled low and dangerously, the barest rumble of an attend swirling around the sound. Her attention snapped back to him as her skin rose with bumps, every tiny hair on her body standing on end. “Come on, you fucks,” the Qishir hissed, voice a vicious rumble as he flicked his blades to remove the corrosive blood that covered them, bare chest splattered with his blood, open wounds across his torso seeping new spurts of blood as his chest heaved, wings shifting and rustling with the movement. “I know you’ve got better than this. Come on. Come on.”
Why are you fucking goading them, you fucking idiot? Why aren’t you running?
She caught movement behind Rhyshladlyn and noticed a body-sized blood smear down the wall of the building the Qishir stood in front of. Following that smear, she saw Nhulynolyn shifting, likely waking up from where he’d fallen in a boneless heap after being flung against the wall by whatever those things were and it suddenly made sense why Rhyshladlyn hadn’t just run full tilt for the Temple. He couldn’t, because judging by that blood smear, his twin couldn’t move without being carried.
“If our corporeal form is damaged badly enough we can’t shed it and rejoin Rhys. The body has to heal up first. It’s inconvenient and annoying.”
Glancing back at Rhyshladlyn she watched him drop one, two, three, and four more of those things in quick succession. Each Hound managed to get in a blow that made a new wound, a new bruise, snapped another bone, before it was felled for good. But no matter how many Rhyshladlyn killed, it didn’t seem to matter. For every two he dropped, four more appeared out of the shadows and the fog.
She wanted to wade in and help him, could see he needed it, could tell by the way he dripped sweat and was breathing heavily, skin flushed, that he needed help. But the way those creatures moved, the way they seemed to coordinate their attacks, moving lightning quick, striking in twos or threes and occasionally solo? She’d be cut down in minutes if not seconds. She had no chance of surviving a fight against them. By the Cliffs, it was a wonder that Rhyshladlyn had lasted so long against so many. Great Mother and Father, See and Hear us.
Her hand fell from her mouth as she glanced back at Nhulynolyn and saw him looking at her with wide eyes, fear the likes of which she had only ever seen on Rhyshladlyn’s face when he worried for Azriel’s life contorting those beautiful features. It was the type of fear one felt when they couldn’t defend the one they loved from danger. Her stomach fell to ping between her knees as she fought to calm her heart that had kicked into high gear at the proof that Nhulynolyn loved her written so plainly across his face.
Because if that fear was on his face that meant Fuck. He can’t fight. I’ve gotta get him out of here.
Carefully and quietly she sheathed her sword and looked around, trying to get her bearings once more, tried to remember what these buildings had been, what cover they could offer, what hidden passages they might contain. Because while she couldn’t fight alongside Rhyshladlyn against those things, she could get Nhulynolyn out of the way, could get him to safety, and give the Qishir one less thing to worry about. Because they were running out of time.
But none of the secret passages were in this area, they were too close to the Temple. Double fuck. Her only option was to run in, swoop Nhulynolyn up and fly off before those things could catch on and pull her down. She was a helluva fast flier and she knew she could support Nhulynolyn’s weight, at least long enough to get them over the wall and to safety. But… what if I can’t? She bit her lip as she looked over the fight scene before her and felt that fear threaten to make her afraid but she beat it back. With a deep breath, she nodded once to herself and looked back at the Other who had not taken his eyes off her once.
“I need you to stand up and push about five feet away from the wall,” she mouthed slowly and carefully, mixing Sinxhët hand signs into it, praying that he would be able to understand her.
At his narrowed eyes and head shake, she guessed he did and had figured she was planning to get him out of there and wasn’t accepting it. She curled her lip up at him.
“Get up, move about five feet off the wall, and do it now,” she repeated with short, deliberate, borderline angry movements. He just blinked at her. “Please, Nully. Please. If you stay there, you’ll die and so will Rhys. Let me do this.”
His response was slow coming but come it did, “Alright. When?”
She held up three fingers and he nodded.
She dropped one and he slowly, carefully, stood up and she jogged backwards several feet.
She dropped two and he pushed away from the wall, swaying on his feet before he steadied. She jerked her head at Rhyshladlyn and Nhulynolyn nodded in understanding.
She dropped three and sprinted at him, her wings exploding from her back before she took to the air and rocketed towards him.
Rhyshladlyn’s yelled, “Get yourselves to safety, I’ll be fine!” was all she heard over the wind whistling past her ears before she collided with the Other.
Her arms encircled Nhulynolyn’s waist, the force of her forward momentum picking him up off his feet and propelling them both past the buildings and over the Sparkling River. With a powerful pump of her wings before gravity could regain hold on them, she ascended rapidly higher. Once several hundred feet in the air, she flipped over so her back was towards the ground and shifted Nhulynolyn so his arms were around her neck, body flush with hers, his nose buried in against her shoulder, before turning over again. After a brief moment of hesitation, she changed course to fly back the way she’d come, aiming for the merchant district and the glowing walls that lay beyond it. I have to put as much distance as possible between me and those things.
Her wings furiously pumped the air, the muscles in her back straining to carry her weight and Nhulynolyn’s, but she didn’t dare focus on it. Didn’t dare focus on the whispers of self doubt that darkened the edges of her mind. Didn’t dare focus on the way it hurt to draw breath, the air burning in her lungs, as she pushed her body to its limit, hit that limit, then propelled herself passed it.
Because if she did focus on any of that? She’d fail to keep them airborne and they’d both drop out of the skies. Nhulynolyn’s head tilted back suddenly, eyes narrowed as though he’d caught hint of a sound she hadn’t. With his head tilted backwards he looked down at the City that flew by below them. They were five blocks from the wall when he spoke for the first time.
“Bank down, Bay!” he called over the wind that whistled around them. “Tee and Adïm are down there.”
With a frown, she looked down, following his line of sight, and sure enough she saw Thae’a and Adïmshyl standing with their arms waving to get her attention. Shifting so her feet were aimed at the ground, she pulled her wings to her body, and let gravity take full affect. Twenty feet from the street she threw her wings out to their full span, tilted them to catch an updraft and slowed them just enough that while the landing was a bit rougher than she’d like, they didn’t crash.
Soon as she’d landed Nhulynolyn was out of her arms and swinging around to face Thae’a. The brief glance she’d caught of his face before his back was to her was a riot of fear, anger, incredulity, and accusation.
“What did you do?” the Other demanded, advancing half a step, stopping only when Bayls shot out a hand and wrapped it around his elbow just as Adïmshyl’s warning growl echoed around them as the Lupherinre stepped half in front of his mate. “What did you do!” he barked when no answer came.
“Calm down, Otherborn,” Adïmshyl countered. “She did exactly what Ka’ahne told her to do.”
“Really? So he told her to make that?” Nhulynolyn growled, voice barely in the vocal range as he threw his hand back behind him. He would have hit her in the face if she hadn’t been short enough for his arm to go right over her head. Never thought I’d be thankful I was so short. Damn.
Thae’a just stared at him with wide, confusion filled eyes. Though for a moment Bayls thought she saw a flash of guilt.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Nully,” Thae’a whispered, the confusion in her eyes echoed by her voice.
The curse that slipped out of the Other’s mouth then was the most vicious she’d heard in her life and she flinched while Adïmshyl hissed and Thae’a gasped. None of them understood the word he’d spoken, but they could tell it was a curse and that it was bad.
“Nully, what is wrong?” she asked when the silence stretched, stepping up to his side, hand slipping up his arm to his shoulder when he didn’t respond, didn’t even move. “What was that back there that had you so upset?”
“Hounds,” he whispered and she jerked back in surprise, seeing Thae’a do the same in her peripheral vision, heard Adïmshyl’s whispered prayer. Those clear blue eyes turned to her and her heart broke at the fear that swirled there, that made them darker around the edges. “Rhys is fighting Hounds.”
“That’s impossible,” Thae’a gasped out, shaking her head. “Those don’t exist here, not in this Woven World and definitely not in Fènwa. How are they here?”
Bayls watched as Nhulynolyn tossed his hands up in the air, face twisting with an emotion she couldn’t exactly name.
“If I knew that, Tee, d’you think I’d fuckin’ be here right now?” he barked at her. “Do you think I’d be demandin’ to know what in the Nameless’ great saggy balls you did?”
None of them responded to that. There wasn’t anything they could say so they didn’t even bother to try.
“Nul…” she whispered, raising both eyebrows when he turned to look at her, deciding it was probably best to change to a slightly safer problem, one they could actually solve. “We need to get you out of here.”
He frowned at her.
“You’re bleeding, badly,” she added at his look.
Before he could shake his head Adïmshyl spoke up, “Aye, Qaeniri is right, Otherborn. You’re dripping with it,” the Lupherinre gestured at the ground and Nhulynolyn’s eyes went wide when he saw the pool of blood that had gathered around his feet.
“Tee?” she asked, looking at the Dreamweaver who shook herself and turned to her, “where’s Xhesh?”
Thae’a jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the wall. “Back outside, per Rhys’ orders that only himself, Nully, me, and Adïm were to come into the City once my Weave settled.”
“This is yours?” she spluttered and Thae’a blushed and nodded. “You Wove this reality?” Thae’a nodded again and she saw everything in a new light. “Okay, so… the Hounds weren’t part of this forested reality…”
Nhulynolyn muttered something that sounded sarcastic under his breath but she ignored him.
“No, they weren’t,” Thae’a picked up where she’d trailed off, responding like she was answering a question. “Rhys had asked just for a forest that looked like the trees, fog, and vines you see all around us. He asked for me to make false Watchtowers throughout the City to try and disorient the Lord King. That was all.” She lifted a hand to rub at her lips and sighed, looking perplexed and guilty. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Nhulynolyn cut in, his accent thick, but he spoke with the same cultured enunciation that his twin was more known for. “I can’t reach Xhesh or Shadi, and Rhys’ connection with me is strained.”
He swayed on his feet and she slipped up against his side, one arm wrapping around his waist as she tucked her shoulder against his ribs, too short to rest her shoulder in his armpit. He gave her an appreciative look, a barely-there smile flicking at the corners of his lips, before he spoke to Thae’a again.
“I need you to stop the Weave, Thae’a. I need you to stop it now because it’s interfering with my ability to communicate with my kè and my fellows. And I need to alert them that Rhys needs backup. He can’t fight those things for long. Not alone.”
Thae’a didn’t have to answer for Bayls to see that the answer to that was that she couldn’t. It was written on her face, shouted from the expression of guilt and fear that twisted her features, sighed out in the breath that caught in her lungs and came out shaky. It was plain to see even in the perpetual twilight and thick fog that surrounded them.
As Thae’a found her voice and opened her mouth, Nhulynolyn went stiff against her side, shaking his head, the hand that wasn’t gripping her shoulder cutting through the air. But it didn’t stop Thae’a from speaking.
“I can’t, Nully,” the Dreamweaver’s voice was quiet and judging by the look Adïmshyl shot her he was just as shocked as the rest of them. “If creatures such as Hounds have been unleashed within the City walls after the Weave took effect? Then it’s broken from my control. It will go until the designated stop point that I placed when I began it.”
“And that will happen when?” Bayls asked as Nhulynolyn’s breathing became labored, eyes drooping closed.
“When Rhys gets Azriel safely out of the City.”
Whatever response the Other beside her would have given never came as he passed out, going completely limp against her. Cursing she fought to hold him up but her muscles were too weakened from the strain of carrying him across the City. Just as they were about to hit the ground, Adïmshyl was there, picking the Other up effortlessly and draping him over one broad shoulder.
“Tee will continue onward to get to Ka’ahne. You and I will get Otherborn out of the City to the Nochresi Otherborn and get him to the Healers,” Adïmshyl’s tone left no room for argument. “If he needs to be taken back to camp, I will escort him while you remain with the Healers as previously planned.”
She snorted, unable to help it. “Figured you’d scold me for not staying with them in the first place.”
Adïmshyl glanced at Thae’a before he shrugged at her. “I would but I know that whatever made you leave your post had to have been important and if you hadn’t, Otherborn here would likely be dead, so no scolding. This time.”
“Babe, go. You’re wasting time we don’t have,” Thae’a admonished gently as she walked up and gave the Lupherinre a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Wait, how will you know where you’re going?” Bayls asked as Adïmshyl turned and headed towards the wall at a brisk jog.
The Dreamweaver grinned crookedly. “I may not be able to end this,” she waved a hand at the the City around them, “but I can see through it. It is my reality, after all. And I may be able to make a secondary Weave within this one to distract the Hounds.”
She glanced at the retreating back of Adïmshyl, at the way Nhulynolyn’s limp form bounced against that broad back and bit her lip.
“Bayls,” Thae’a said, kind voice far closer than she had been, making the Sinner jump as she turned to face her, “go. Everything will be fine. We’ll see you soon.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Parq’r whispered.
With a nod, she gave Thae’a a quick hug before she turned and took off after Adïmshyl.
As she ran, she tried not to feel guilty that she hadn’t spoken of the Vision that had made her leave her post outside the City in the first place, tried not to focus on the sinking feeling that bloomed in her gut that chittered at her that by keeping it to herself she had somehow damned them all.
As she ran, she tried not to think about how that hug had felt like a goodbye.
I’ll try not to be, little brother. I’ll try not to be.