It was hard to breathe. Like the air around him burned and was stagnant all at the same time. Like no matter what he did, his lungs just wouldn’t work right. His throat hurt like he’d been screaming. His chest felt like some incredible weight was pressing it down, keeping him from expanding it properly. His heart thundered in his ears, buzzed away like a rattled beehive in his veins, and it made his teeth ache.

Agony tore apart his tendons and his ligaments. Danced talons across his muscles, picking pieces up here and there like one eating a Harvest day turkey. It felt like something was burrowing into his very bones, finding the hollow spaces where his marrow sat, before expanding until the bones snapped and shattered, sending fragments scattering in all directions like shrapnel from an explosion.

He tried to speak. Tried to call out for help, but his voice didn’t work. Not the way he wanted it to. His throat hurt so very much. Enough that the only thing he could succeed at doing was making a sound that made everything that was wrong with him, around him, inside him, worse. Like that sound fanned the flames of whatever was happening to him, enraged them, encouraged them to up the ante and consume him.

But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He had to get free. Had to survive. Azriel. Relyt. Jerald. He had a Triad now, a full one, he had a full Court that depended on him making it through this. But gods everything hurt. His Self hurt. His magick hurt.

The Forest spread around him in all directions, every tree trunk creaking like old joints when the cold winter wind blew past them. But it shouldn’t be cold enough for the snow that fell around him, that soaked his clothes through to his skin where it landed. He was in Fènwa World, he could feel the way the ambient magick greeted him like a lover thought lost to the After, and while the temperature would drop below freezing in the winter it didn’t snow. That and the Forest didn’t reach this far south. It… it didn’t make sense. The Forest had only ever sat in Txiwteb World, the only World that was the most naturally Balanced out of the Seven. It was why the first Sanctuary, the only one to be called that in its name, sat at its heart. Why it was known as the Sanctuary of the Blessedly Cursed to the race that built it, the race the Forest itself had sprouted to protect, to shelter, to support, and to mourn.

Turning in a circle he caught his bearings and followed the tug behind his navel that told him he had some place he needed to get to. Some place important. He didn’t question it, after all he was safe here in this place built for his ancestors, built for him and his true kind and them alone. The monsters and entities and shadows that lived in the thicker darkness off the paths wouldn’t harm him. Of all things living and dead and undead among the Forest’s innumerable trees, he was the most terrifying, the most powerful. But even he wasn’t powerful enough to compel the things that watched him, that protected him, that mourned with him, that cared for him in whatever ways they could to keep even his Oathed Companion safe if he traveled these same paths. They would do only what they wanted when they wanted it.

His back felt like it was on fire, felt like his bones were being branded, and his breath caught hard enough that he stumbled and steadied himself on the trunk of a tree. Silence spread around him at the contact making him shiver and slowly push away from the tree’s trunk. He was careful not to touch any more of that rough, black bark than what he already had as he straightened up and took measured steps back to the center of the path. He threw up his hands when light flared around him, tearing apart his night vision and throwing everything around him into stark relief. Shapes moved on the other side of his hands, he was aware of them only vaguely, half seeing them through the thin skin of his eyelids shut tight against that humming, dangerous light. He was the most terrifying and powerful thing in the Forest, but at that moment he knew that whatever those shapes were, he couldn’t let them touch him.

That sound fell out of his burning, screamed out throat as his body flailed against his will, as that agony resurfaced with all the force of a Storm shredding an unprotected desert village to the fourteen winds. Pain lanced across the back of his head and he went still and quiet.

The last thing he heard before the nothingness of unconsciousness swallowed him into darkness was a male and a female voice cursing in tandem as an awareness brushed against his Self like the tentative, gentle hands of a fledgling.

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