Ey shouldn’t have come here, to this place where millions of eyes watched em, where shadows that had a sentience no shadow should followed em down the paths, slinking from tree to tree. Shouldn’t have come here where soft clicking chirrups of anticipation, the laughter of children, and the wails of mourning parents made music that the glimmers of iridescence in the distance danced to. Shouldn’t have come here to the one place in the Worlds that sent every hair on his body to standing straight up.
But ey didn’t have any other choice, not if ey wished to keep what little honor remained to eir name. So ey had come here to the Forest of Dreams and Darkness, where the magick was Old in a way no ambient magick in the Worlds was. Had come here following the fall of Ryphqi City to the Grey Army, which ey’d barely survived, and the burning of Ahkshen city-village against eir better judgment, followed on the heels of a Qishir who ignored good sense and logic. Because only a Qishir as mad as Xitlali would choose the Forest of Dreams and Darkness to hole up in. Though ey would give her some credit for out of all the safe houses Qishir Xitlali had throughout the Worlds, this was one not even the supposedly great Rhyshladlyn Ka’ahne would suspect her to use.
After all what sane Dhaoine would risk coming here to avoid being Hunted?
So ey found emself wandering the paths of the Forest, trying not to focus on the way eir skin prickled in the near darkness of the canopy, thankful more than ey had ever been that eir night vision was superior amongst the twenty Dhaoinic races. If it was anything less, ey would have needed to risk what night vision ey had by carrying a lantern which would only serve to bring more unwanted attention to emself.
And in a place like the Forest? Attention was the very thing one didn’t want. Attention in the Forest was what got one killed.
But thankfully the Sanctuary of the Blessedly Cursed wasn’t too far from the northeastern boundary and ey made it there in relatively short order and without incident. The wards licked and sniffed em, tasted eir magickal signature while making soft cooing chortles. Ey held eir breath for a moment, worried they wouldn’t let em through but then they dropped and the Forest’s music rose in pitch before dropping to near silence and the loss of it was deafening.
Ey glanced over eir shoulder at the path as the wards rose again behind em and saw hundreds of featureless grey and white faces floating among the trees. An equal number of burning gold eyes floated much closer to the ground in front of and around the unseen bodies that carried those faces. None of them moved, no they just stood there watching em. The weight of those stares was suffocating and coupled with the deafening silence made by the absence of their sounds, by the eerie fog that had rolled in all the sudden? Ey didn’t have words to describe how ey felt. But ey was grateful that the wards seemed content to allow only Dhaoine through them.
The Forest is Awake. High Ones See us all.
Ey wasn’t one to hold to superstitions, much like the majority of the Race, but one of the few ey did hold to spoke that trespassers don’t live long. Especially those who trespass on land that was never theirs to begin with.
“I pray you know what you’re doing, Xitlali,” ey whispered before facing Sanctuary again, finding emself breathless as ey always were in the face of its sprawling, black, multistory beauty. The jar ey’d made to replace the one that had gone missing from their compound in Ryphqi City hummed from where it sat in the bag slung across eir chest. “For I fear that if you don’t our fate is one that is fit to bring the Worlds to their knees.”
As ey crossed the thick, lush grass of the clearing to the front doors of Sanctuary, ey could have sworn ey heard soft singing in the distance, a Song ey’d heard before but couldn’t quite place.
It wasn’t until ey was inside, being greeted by Eiod and shown to the meeting Hall where Xitlali was waiting for em, that ey remembered where ey’d heard it from: Shiran City when the Grey Steward had sung the Song of War and Love and forced his Qishir’s hand.
“Ahh! Hujiel!” Xitlali’s high pitched squeal of eir name didn’t make em feel as comforted as it normally would, ey was too unsettled by what had happened in the clearing, what ey’d seen standing on the other side of the wards. Ey had the distinct feeling that they were being held prisoner here, that trying to leave would not end well. It was a terrifying thought to say the very least. “What news do you bring me?”
“I have a jar to replace that which was lost, my dearest Qishir,” ey answered, hoping eir smile wasn’t as obviously faked as it felt. If it was, Xitlali didn’t comment on it. “I was also visited by the Anointed One’s Cymie henchman with instructions. The Anointed One wishes for us to have everything prepared to engage upon his signal.”
Xitlali’s expression shifted from open, childish glee at eir arrival to the shuttered, twisted smile that ey had come to associate with her moniker of the Mad Qishir. Not that ey’d ever tell her just how fitting ey found that title but it came well deserved and perfectly fitted.
“Come,” she gestured towards a set of doors on the other side of the Hall, red-brown eyes filled with a maliciousness that made eir teeth itch. “Let’s go to the rooms I have set aside for such as this and we’ll talk.”
Ey bowed eir head respectfully, hands wrapped tightly around the leather strap of eir bag to keep them from shaking. “As my Lady commands.”
As ey trailed after her, ey caught a glimpse of Eiod who watched em with golden eyes not unlike those of the Hounds that paced among the trees. For a heartbeat, ey felt Fear trickle down eir spine at the similarity. But between one blink and the next, the emotion was gone and the doors Xitlali led em through closed on the Mad Qishir’s personal guard.
We should not be here.