“You have to wake up, Rhyshladlyn! Please… please wake up!”
But he didn’t want to. Not when being awake meant being alone. Not when it meant silence in his head and his heart, in his skin and his veins. Not when all that would greet him when he did wake up would be pain and the promise of a death he’d never be granted. So no matter how insistent that voice was, he ignored it. He had to because he wouldn’t allow himself to be called back to a life of pain and loneliness and mistreatment. It only spelled disaster if he did.
His lips twitched with the ghost of a smile as he turned away from the power that thundered alongside the urgency those pleas held and walked deeper into the Forest. Stepped off the well worn path to move among the black-barked trees, trailed his fingertips along that uneven bark as he walked. Each touch sent a thrill up his arm, sparked along his spine, and spilled a breathy sound from his mouth. It didn’t feel like disaster was imminent when he touched them now. No it felt like he was home. It felt right in a way he hadn’t experienced in centuries. But it was a lie, he knew it was, it had to be. There was no other explanation why hours, days, weeks who knows how long it really was, I sure as fuck don’t when he was last here it felt like the wrong move would net catastrophe. There was no glowing, no humming calls or songs in the distance, there was just him and the trees and the shadows that danced and moved alongside them. There was just this Self-deep exhaustion that told him that if he just sat at the base of one of the trees and rested he’d feel better when he woke up.
But he knew he wouldn’t wake up if he slept now. Knew that this was his After. That he’d never see the River Crossing or even the Cliffs. That he’d see the millions of black trees of the Forest of Dreams and Darkness. That this is where he’d spend the eternities between rebirths.
It wasn’t until he licked his lips and tasted salt that he realized he was crying. It brought him to an abrupt halt, half collapsed against a tree thicker around than five of him, free hand reaching up to touch his cheek. It had been so very long since he’d cried. The last time it had happened was when the collar had settled around his neck and its magick engaged and ripped his Truth away. When he’d felt Azriel’s and Relyt’s and Jerald’s qahllyn’qir flare into the visible spectrum and then snap away. When he felt Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú get pulled back to him and then disappear as soon as they reached him. That had been the last time he’d allowed himself to cry. Because he’d vowed never to give Xitlali and Lílrt and the rest the satisfaction of breaking him like that ever again. But now, faced with the very stark reality that he would die, that he’d never see any of them again in this lifetime, had him crying.
It didn’t make any sense.
“Rhyshladlyn, we need you! Please! We cannot survive this shit without you! Wake. Up.”
Everyone always needs me, but they never want to help when I need them.
It was a harsh truth but one nonetheless. A truth that thrummed around him like the beating of bird wings. His body jolted and he shrieked as agony followed it. Another jolt, and another, and the trees all around him flickered in and out like he was blinking too rapidly to keep them solidly in his sight. He shrieked again but for a different reason and dug his nails into the bark he was touching as that agony returned again twenty-fold.
“Please! Do not die. Do not die. Not now, not on me. Do not make me fucking bury you!”
That last made him go still. The words sounded so familiar but he didn’t know from where; like it wasn’t his memory but one he still shared with someone. A familiar enough, strong enough memory that he turned and faced back the way he’d come. Faced the light that pulsed strong and too bright at the treeline in the distance, the light he’d walked away from. Almost like he was in a trance, he let go of the tree and started towards that light, but a hand slid a cool palm against his, long fingers curled around his hand and squeezed, stopping him short mid-stride.
“Make sure this is the choice you wish to make, kè,” a voice like the pressing darkness of a cave spoke from behind him. He was turning to face the owner before they’d even finished speaking.
He turned and found what looked like a Dhaoine towering a full foot taller than himself, and rapidly approaching eight feet. If he hadn’t felt the hand cupping his own and holding him frozen mid-step with an easy strength that told him the fight to be released wouldn’t necessarily see him the victor, he wouldn’t have seen the other male. Because every part of this Dhaoine was as dark as the night that surrounded them. Darker even than the black bark of the tree he stood beside.
Not Dhaoine, creature. No…being. That’s definitely a being. Holy shit. As though he, it, had heard the thought it nodded. Or rather he thought it nodded. Was kinda hard to tell when one was talking to darkness given humanoid form while said darkness stood surrounded by its element.
“I am a being, you are correct, kè, and that is why I, unlike my fellows, was not purged from you when that collar fell about your shoulders.” He was only half paying attention, caught up in the flash of liquid in a mouth that he knew had teeth and a tongue but they were apparently just as dark, just as black, as the rest of him…it? Do I say he or it?
“I am neither, all and none and yet both, but if it makes it easier, ‘he’ is acceptable.”
Shaking his head, he tugged on the hand holding his and the being before him stepped around the tree roots without looking down and came to stand within a foot of him. This close it was impossible not to feel the sheer presence of him, like pressure against one’s eardrums when in deep water only this pressure was everywhere. Even with the collar around his neck tampering his natural abilities, tampering what made him Dhaoine, this being’s presence pounded against his skin like ocean waves against a shore.
“What is your name?” His own voice startled him, as though he hadn’t expected to hear it. That and it sounded off, wrong, as though he heard it from a great distance or through water.
The being smiled, deep thunder-like laughter rumbling out around them. The canopy rustled back as though it laughed with him. Which was rude and meant he was being laughed at not with.
“My name is long and complicated and not fit for even the tongue and throat of a Greywalker. You may call me Uo to simplify it.”
“Uo.” He rolled the name around his tongue, tasted it and the power that wrapped around that singular syllable. A type of magick use that the collar couldn’t punish him for, one he had used as often as he could in the last three hundred years. “It suits you.”
Uo inclined his head with that same smile and stepped closer. He flinched when another cool hand touched his cheek, brushing away the tears that still fell in silent tracks down his face, having not seen it before it touched him. By the Scales, he hadn’t even sensed the movement. He needed the fucking collar off and soon before mundane shit like that triggered off a response there was no recovering from.
“You are tired, my dearest kè, and this one does not blame you but you cannot rest if you wish to see your family again.”
He frowned and leaned away from the hand on his face, squinting up at the being as he did so.
“The blow that was dealt last to you was by a Hound and you are dying. It is the only reason I am allowed to appear like this before you, for the time when such should have happened was not due for quite some years yet. But if you die now? You will cease entirely. There is no rebirth when one dies by a Hound. And whilst my existence does not hinge on whether you live or not, that of your Court and my fellows does. So here I stand before you to make certain that you make the choice you wish to make and not the one you think you must.”
Horror filled him with the speed of a flash flood and he looked over his shoulder towards the light that still pulsed, that held that desperate voice that urged him to wake up, to live, like a devotee speaking prayer to their deity. And with each word Uo spoke that terror grew until he looked back at the being who stared at him with a look of sympathy so strong that he didn’t need the flickers of the light behind him touching Uo’s face to see it.
“You were the shadow that saved me when I was with Iköl.” Uo just nodded. And he knew that the shadow being before him had been with him when Relyt had first attacked him in the Soul Healer’s tent. That he had been there for everything over the last nearly a thousand years. But that knowledge didn’t alleviate any of the ache in his bones or the terror in his chest. If anything it made the exhaustion that plagued him worse.
“I never have any choice do I?”
Uo shook his head and shrugged one broad, muscular shoulder at the same time. It managed to look menacing and comical at the same time though he kept that observation to himself.
“Not so long as your primary concern remains their health and welfare.”
He cursed and sighed, looking down at their hands as that horror bled away until the edges weren’t as sharp but it didn’t go away. He didn’t want to go back any more now than he had before but now his reasoning was different. Because here–wherever here really was since he doubted it was the real Forest and not just a very good mimicry of it–he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t a kè without Others, he wasn’t entirely Imènian-blind. And if he went back? If he woke up? He would be. And Uo was right, he was so very tired but if he gave up now there wouldn’t ever be another chance. He would be alone for the rest of time and if he’d thought the last three centuries had been bad? Eternity seemed so very much worse.
“I may not be heard by you, kè,” Uo squeezed his hand gently, pulling him out of his thoughts, “but I will be with you. I have always been with you and shall always be with you. Nothing will sever our bond. No Dhaoine-forged collar, no god, no act of magick or Oath.”
He chuckled, the sound bitter and filled with the cynical disbelief he held for life at large, and squeezed Uo’s hand back before he let go. He didn’t say anything as he turned to fully face that light but he knew he didn’t have to. Everything he thought, Uo heard. Everything he felt, Uo felt. It was part of the bond they shared, one he had thought his Maestrx had been exaggerating, had been making up, all those centuries ago during his training. Apparently ey’d been telling the truth. Huh. He took a deep, steadily breath, let it out slow, and ran for the Forest’s edge and that light. Ran until the trees on either side of him were nothing but a blur, ran until he felt the ground shake beneath his feet, ran until reality whined, wobbled, and broke apart. He hit the veritable wall that was that light with a scream that shattered the glass around him, shook dust from the stone walls and sent Xefras scrambling back away from him with a yelp.
Turning to look at the other male he had enough time to notice the floor was grey with veins of gold, that he could see his god-Marks on his wrists and feel the burning itch of the Nameless’ runes on his chest before his body jolted and locked up as he was tossed back to the floor. Then the collar’s anti-magick spellwork engaged at twice that strength it ever had before and sent him into convulsions while Xefras screamed his name again but for an entirely different reason now.
But it didn’t matter because he knew something Lílrt and the rest of those fucks didn’t. And soon as he figured out how, he was going to use that knowledge to kill them all.