He had no idea where they were, only that it was cold and dark and that he could feel millions of unseen eyes watching them. Could hear the creaking of tree bark, the thuds of heavy branches knocking gently against each other several hundred feet above his head as the wind played with them. Could smell the thick scent of hopelessness and the sweet scent of decay and must that only lightless places seemed to have. He whispered a soft prayer to any gods that were listening that wherever they were they got out of it and soon because he was marginally certain they didn’t stand a chance if they stayed much longer.
And he had voiced such perhaps an hour and a half back shortly after they’d entered this forest. After the Mad Qishir at their head tossed her hair, ordered they all engage night vision spells or light lanterns, and led them inside. He hadn’t been the only one of their party to speak of his concerns about being here, about choosing what had to be the creepiest forest in the Worlds to hide out in, but he had been the loudest.
But the bitch had just ignored them all. Ignored them and led them deeper into this forest with its black-barked trees and its depthless shadows, despite their clear misgivings about it. Still she led them deeper and deeper until he could no longer tell what direction they’d come from. Only knew it was no longer night because he felt the sun break over the horizon, whatever direction that was, though the daylight didn’t penetrate the thick canopy.
From what he could tell, no Dhaoine lived among the trees. But for all that the forest had the appearance of being uninhabited, the undergrowth hadn’t gotten within spitting distance of the path they were on. And the dirt of said path and those that ran parallel and perpendicular to it among the trees was packed hard from millions of feet crossing it over the centuries — or longer — that this place had existed. So while this forest may not be inhabited right now it had been.
But by what and how long ago were the two questions that plagued him the most.
Probably for longer than a few centuries, he thought as he looked up at the canopy of dark green leaves and thick branches that blocked all light from above, this places feels Old-old. And I really don’t like it. The ambient magick that dipped and twirled around them, the untouched by Dhaoine using it, felt ancient. More so than the Temple in Zhalharaq ever had which meant that this forest predated the oldest standing Greywalker City in the Worlds.
That was a World-shaking thought.
Click-chirrup. Click click chirrrruuup.
“What is that?” Jikel, Xitlali’s chambermaid, asked voice quivering with fear as her horse whinnied and stomped before settling down.
Eiod couldn’t blame her for being afraid. This place was creepy enough to make even a seasoned warrior like himself unsettled and then some.
Click-chirrup. Chiiiirruppp, click click click-chirrup.
“Nothing we need worry about, Miss Jikel,” Jerald answered with the kind of certainty only a qahllynshæ could have. Which told him that whatever was making that sound belonged at least in part to the Grey Qishir. It was a simultaneously comforting and terrifying thought. But at least something knows where we are.
Whatever hope he had died when the first haunting note of a child’s laughter pierced the never ending twilight of the forest around them because that sound he would know anywhere. When an answering mother’s wail echoed off the trees, Eiod cursed and kicked his horse into a trot to come up alongside Xitlali. Because while the bitch that had led them into this place may seem utterly unperturbed about the absolute danger that was surrounding them, he was most certainly perturbed.
And either she listened or he was going to become the literal embodiment of annoying.
“My Lady, those are Hounds tracking us. We should make haste out of here while we still can.”
The Mad Qishir turned a smile on him that was sweet enough that for half a second he thought Lulphé rode beside him. But he blinked and it was gone. And with the resemblance dispersed, he felt a fear-shiver slip down his spine like a sweat drop, and instead of feeling comforted by that smile he felt dirty. Because in the four centuries he’d been at Xitlali’s side, he’d never mistaken her for her mother. He’d mistaken Thayne, but that wasn’t too surprising given the General was a near spitting image of her mother, but Xitlali? With her scarred face, dirty eyes, and disgusting scent? Never.
What in the gods’ divine genitals is going on here?
“All is well, Eiod. They won’t attack us,” she reached over and patted his shoulder. It physically hurt to keep from striking her for the patronizing gesture. They’re Hounds, you ignore twat, how in the fuck do you think they won’t attack us? It’s what they do. Honestly. “Plus we are nearly to our intended destination,” she looked away, gesturing ahead with the hand she’d patted him with. “See?”
He followed her gaze to where the path opened into a large clearing that had to be at least fifty acres. As they drew closer he could see a sprawling multistory building that seemed to have been carved from the bark of the trees that surrounded them sitting in the very center of that clearing. It was seven stories in some places, thirteen in others, and twenty-three at tallest. The ambient magick of it felt almost sentient as it reached out and tasted each of them, lingering the longest on him and Jerald before the air shivered and the Currents sang a single note of welcome.
“What is this place?” He whispered reverently as wards he hadn’t sensed deactivated long enough to let them through as they crossed into the clearing. He looked over his shoulder to see them visibly reactivate just as a first Hound slammed into them, its snarling mouth wide and slobbering, eyes angry. Eiod swallowed hard on the shriek its sudden appearance tried to pull out of his throat and he wasn’t the only one, though only he and Jerald succeeded. It struck at the wards, paw-hands thudding against interwoven Shields before it slunk back into the shadows and out of sight, the fear it created only a whisper of a feeling against his skin versus the debilitating thing it should have been.
He swallowed for a whole other reason, throat and mouth dry, skin raised with shiver-bumps.
“This, my dear Eiod,” Xitlali began, that smile taking on a sharp edge as she spread her arms wide and looked at him, seemingly unaware of the Hound that they had just narrowly missed being attacked by, “was the seat of the last Greywalker Maestrelan to walk the Worlds, Maestrx Azhuriel, who dubbed it the Sanctuary of the Blessedly Cursed.”
He thought he had seen and heard it all.
“And it will be our new home.”
Clearly, he had been wrong. That’s dangerously close to becoming a habit.