A soft rattle behind em made em turn and stare at the jars that lined the shelves that covered every inch of the walls in the large room ey and Xitlali had been working in since ey’d arrived at the Keep nearly a week ago. But despite knowing ey heard a noise, there was nothing but still jars in front of him. Nothing but the twisting dancing of the Selves locked inside. No light besides what those Selves gave off.
Ey never noticed before just how unnerving of a sight it was.
I need sleep.
“My Qishir?” ey called, not taking eir eyes off the jars in front of em.
Xitlali hummed distractedly and ey tried not to be annoyed by it. But the High Ones prevailing, it was hard.
“My dearest Qishir?” ey tried again because ey didn’t trust that ey wasn’t imaging things due to eir exhaustion.
Or rather, didn’t trust that the Keep wasn’t playing tricks in retaliation for them being where neither ey nor Xitlali and her “Court” belonged.
Ey didn’t look at her as Xitlali hugged in annoyance and came to stand beside em, following eir line of sight to the jars. Of all those that lined the room, filled with faintly glowing smoke-like dust that danced and weaved, no two Selves were the exact same. In all the years they had been working to gather the amount of Selves needed to achieve their end goal, ey had never known any jar to rattle or shake or shift.
“What is it, Hujiel?”
And the one that had disappeared in Ryphqi City didn’t count because that had been taken, stolen by someone who had had no business being where they hadn’t belonged, let alone shouldn’t have gotten that deep into the compound. And that jar had been empty of the Self that it had been designed for. But it was no matter.
“I could have sworn one of these jars rattled just a moment ago,” ey answered, knowing ey probably sounded delusional, knew it didn’t make sense, it couldn’t. These Selves hadn’t been harvested like the rest. Unlike the ones that were waiting in Azgerdyl City, these hadn’t been taken by force, under duress, or by any other unpleasant means. Instead they had been freely given, devoted to the cause ey, Xitlali, and the Anointed One shared.
But for all that ey knew that, ey could not shake the feeling that ey was being watched. And not just by the Qishir who looked at em with a dubious expression and one eyebrow raised nearly to her hairline.
“When was the last time you slept, Hujiel?” Xitlali asked dismissively as she walked back over to her desk on the far side of the room, the muted sound of her slippered feet on the title floor loud in the almost unnaturally silent room.
Ey narrowed eir eyes at the row of jars one more time before shaking eir head and looking away, turning back to the ornate pure silver collar necklace that ey’d been carving sigils into. Rolling eir shoulders to settle the prickling feeling that made eir wings shift restlessly, ey picked up eir carving knife and bent back over that smooth piece of magicked silver as ey answered the Mad Qishir.
“Three days. Four days, most.”
“Gods, Hujiel, that is not healthy!” Xitlali scolded.
It took every ounce of eir will power not to roll eir eyes at her. Ey was only so sleep deprived because of her. Because she had demanded that ey get the collar finished. Demanded that ey be prepared for when the final batch of Selves was collected. For the Anointed One could call upon them at any moment and if they weren’t ready she would look a fool.
And while she hadn’t said so specifically, ey didn’t doubt that not even Jerald would suffice when it came to taking out her ire at such a thing. The last thing ey wanted was to even so much as entertain the hypothetical thought of suffering the same kind of things ey had seen and heard of the Mad Qishir doing to her favorite Alphenian slave.
“I know, my Qishir,” ey answered dutifully as ey finished another sigil. “But you wished for this collar to be done immediately and I shall not rest until I fulfill that task.”
Behind em a soft rattle and clink of glass against glass made em stiffen but ey didn’t turn around. Didn’t dare. It was a figment of eir sleep deprived imagination. Or it was the Keep playing tricks on em. Both were plausible. Not probable, sure, but plausible.
But there was no way the Selves in the jars were sentient enough right then to be trying to escape their prisons. Ey repeated the words over and over like a mantra.
Another rattle caused Xitlali to look up just as ey chanced a glance at her, wondering if she’d heard that one. By the way her face paled slightly she had. But neither wanted to acknowledge it. They didn’t dare. They were too close to being done, to all their hard work coming to fruition, to success, to chance acknowledging that the jars-bound Selves that surrounded them currently and filled at least five more rooms of equal size to this one were somehow aware of what was coming, of where they were, of their fate.
Ey repressed a shudder, took a deep breath, and refocused on eir task with renewed fervor. Told emself that the sooner ey got this done, the sooner ey could get the fuck out of this room and into the fresh air and as far away from these cursed rooms as ey possibly could.
Because for the first time since pledging eir allegiance to Xitlali and her cause, since agreeing to the Anointed One’s terms, since hatching this plan of theirs to bring the Grey Qishir to his knees and win the war for the Eighth Army once and for all, ey questioned whether ey had made the correct decision.
And that thought terrified em.