He grunted as awareness rushed back in bringing with it the feeling of the ground pushed up against his cheek and along the front of his body, of the wind that swirled sand into his face, that touched his skin like the teasing hands of a lover. Became aware in stages of the aches of his joints from having stayed in the same position for too long. Sound was next and gods he wished it had stayed gone, wished he didn’t hear the soft wailing, the moans and the groans, the hiss of fire that never stopped but never fully took root either. And that was to say nothing of the smell that filled every nook and cranny of his body and left him swallowing convulsively with a throat that protested the action almost as loudly as his very displeased stomach did.
But he wasn’t injured. For all that he hurt, he was whole and untouched despite the memory of falling, despite the memory of impact with a surface much too hard for any Dhaoine’s body to handle without giving under the strain. Pulling his arms underneath him despite the shrieking of his joints at the movement, he pressed his hands to the cobblestones of the street and pushed himself up enough to curl first one leg and then the other under him. When he was kneeling, leaning forward with his body weight braced on his hands, he took a deep breath and tried to orient himself before he looked up. Tried to sense the magick of the area and the signature its ambiance held.
All that greet him was emptiness. A lonely, loud, violent emptiness.
Lifting his head he looked around and felt his stomach drop back into place from where it had been attempting to crawl into his throat and out of his mouth at the stench that surrounded him. Felt the blood drain from his face as he looked around, as the memory of his kè‘s laughter disrupting the endless loop of falling and dying filled him and spilled out of his mouth on a soft sob that he couldn’t swallow in time.
Because he knew this place. Knew it not because he’d walked the streets overmuch, but from memories he shared with Rhyshladlyn. Knew it from the feel the stones beneath his hands and the way the multi-colored roofs and buildings rose around him in various heights that somehow didn’t detract from their beauty. Knew it from the way it seemed so desolate and empty despite knowing it wasn’t, despite knowing that the day Rhyshladlyn had buried it beneath the shifting sands of Shiraniqi Desert, the day his kè had rendered Shiran Valley a wasteland, that there had been tens of thousands of Dhaoine trapped within its retaining wall.
How in the fuck did I get to Shiran City?
He slowly rose to his feet, careful not to move too fast so he didn’t draw any more attention to himself than he probably already had. Because this wasn’t the living realm or even the Cliffs or the After proper. This was the in between realm and what existed here was unlike anything the living Worlds remembered or probably even believed existed anymore let alone had ever existed. And the laws of the living not affecting Otherborn didn’t save him here, nothing could save being called back to the kè he had been destined to serve. Looking around, he caught sight of one of the Watchtowers stretching high into the nonexistent sky, its shadow dark and ominous even though he knew he was far enough away that that shadow didn’t touch him. Not yet at least. Even though he knew the Towers that mirrored these in the living realm held a gentle, if impatient, expectancy, a sense of waiting for something that they knew would come just maybe not when. These Towers though? They didn’t have that. They had something else, something that made his skin feel dirty, made him very much not want the stone of them let alone their shadows, to touch him.
Shivering, he pulled his attention from that distance, ominous Tower and looked around. Sure, it wasn’t the monotonous existence he’d spent the gods only knew how long falling and dying, but he couldn’t decide if this was worse somehow or not. Couldn’t decide if he’d rather go back to what things were before that laughter had sent everything off kilter or stay here in this mockery of Shiran City, in this purgatory where the most powerful of the Greywalker Sanctuary Cities lay suspended in time for all eternity. At least until Rhyshladlyn brought it back to its proper home in the Worlds.
Turning around so he could look down the other end of the street, he froze when a humanoid shadow walked by, the very presence of it screaming being. Was careful to stay as still as possible, caught mid-step, mid-turn. He remembered stories of beings, remembered what they were like when they still existed as one of the subraces of Dhaoine, back when they had a capital b instead of a lowercase one. If the in between realm had beings now, he didn’t stand a chance. Hounds and Oiki and Xhlën and all other manners of creatures and entities, sure. Beings? Fuck no.
Gods aplenty Hear and Keep me.
Then someone else walked into view, trailing after the being and his breath caught. He was running before he’d even made the conscious decision to do so. Was screaming, “Shadi!” before he could think better of it. But it didn’t matter. He knew this wasn’t a mimic. Knew this wasn’t a falsehood wearing his fellow Other’s face and body. Knew it by the way she walked, the way her eyes tracked the being she followed with a level of suspicion only the Phuri had ever managed to mix with respectful fear. Knew it by the way her magickal signature read so much like Rhyshladlyn’s, just like his own did. Knew it by the way she turned, saw him and her face lit up as she smiled wide enough to show all of her teeth, so many that it shouldn’t have been possible to fit them in her humanoid looking mouth without cutting her cheeks and tongue.
She met him halfway and he wrapped his arms tightly around her waist as her own encircled his neck, letting their combined momentum carry them in a full circle before he dropped her feet back to the street and buried his face in her charm-laden hair where it fell over one of her shoulders. He breathed deeply of her scent, of her magickal signature, of the feel of her familiar muscled body and the violence it promised and had always delivered on pressed against his own.
As she did the same to him he understood why he was in Shiran City, maybe not the how, but he knew the why. And the female curled in against him, shaking and shivering with a happiness he could feel drip onto his neck and soak through the tunic at his shoulder, was that why.
“Gods surrounding, Shadi, I’ve fuckin’ missed you.”
She didn’t say anything, just laughed, and that was enough. Just held him tighter and he returned it as he lifted his head enough to look over her shoulder and see that the being she’d been following had stopped and was watching them. He frowned at the way those eyes glistened as though it were holding back tears at the sight of their reunion. Frowned harder when it smiled, body relaxed as though it was content to wait them out.
“Shad?” he whispered even though it didn’t matter. Beings had hearing that was far superior to any race, even Canine Shiftkin. “Who is the being you were trailing?”
She tensed and relaxed in stages, pulling back from him enough to turn and look over her shoulder at it. She spoke while she watched it watching them.
“Its name is Uo. He’s one of Rhys’ Others.”
Of all the answers he expected that hadn’t been a single of them.
“But there was just you, me, and Nully. We never sensed anyone else?” he spoke it like a question as he looked at her.
“Yes, that is true. But we also knew that there would eventually be six of us,” she answered. “We also knew that as a Greywalker he’d have a Shadow in some form or another as an Other because every Greywalker before him has.”
“And naturally his ass just had to have a being of all godsdamn Shadow types, didn’t he?” he laughed and shook his head, releasing her fully as he stepped back.
Shadiranamen laughed as well and shrugged. “It’s Rhys. I would have been disappointed it he’d done the same thing as his ancestors.”
“Fair point,” he replied and moved around he to walk towards that being, to meet Uo and ask what the fuck was going on and what he’d missed. What they’d all missed.
Because he knew better than to think that there wasn’t something major going on. So even though he just wanted to take Shadiranamen and run the other way, even though he didn’t want to believe that Uo really was one of Rhyshladlyn’s Others, he walked towards the being, he believed. To do anything else could result in failing to help his kè and if he and Shadiranamen were together again that means that Nhulynolyn could be found, too. And That meant they had a fighting chance to get to Rhyshladlyn, to fix whatever had gone wrong, whatever had separated them from their kè and sent them to the in between.
He jumped when a hand grabbed his own and looked over at where Shadiranamen was walking beside him, her rich sapphire eyes sparkling with a mirth that was equal parts bright and dark. He raised both eyebrows at that look, a question in the motion that he didn’t need to verbalize for her to understand.
“Together,” she said and hearing that simple word his heart clenched and his chest grew tight.
They’d spent eons together, going from one kè to the next, over and over. Their fellow Others may have changed, but they were always constant. And on the first day he’d met her, the first time he’d learned what he was and what was expected of him, he had been so afraid, worried that he was more alone as an Otherborn than he had been as an exiled, marked Nochresi. But this many-teethed Dhaoine with her ocean dark eyes had looked at him, smiled, and taken his hand and said, “Whatever happens, we shall face it together, not just in the sense that we stand with and beside our kè but that we stand with and beside each other regardless of whether we have a Heart to sustain us.”
“Together,” he echoed and her smile was worth it.
They may never love each other like Rhyshladlyn and Azriel loved each other, may never find that in anyone else, but she was his oldest friend, the closest thing he had to a true sibling, and that was enough. So they walked towards Uo who was smiling wide enough to flash incredibly white teeth in the pitch darkness that made up everything else about it, about him. And for the first time since he had felt his connection to Rhyshladlyn snap he felt hopeful.
And he prayed that no matter what happened next, no matter what happened period, they’d survive.