The whole City trembled as though some great beast had shifted beneath it. She frowned and looked around them. They were in the City square where the merchants used to set up. But where once there’d been stalls spread across several open blocks of cobblestone, there was just emptiness now. As though when her kè had sunk his birth City beneath the desert the things that had given it character had been removed. Which wasn’t true, not really. After all, everything short of stone broke down and returned to the earth after so long and it had been over five hundred years.
But she didn’t think that was it either.
This place may look like Shiran City, may still feel like Shiran City, but more than half a millennium in the in between had twisted it into something else. Something that ate slowly at what had made it real. After all the things that stalked the streets, that watched from the broken windows of buildings and houses, were nightmares given flesh and power and their mere presence in the buried City had changed it. Made it more and other and different in a thousand myriad ways.
But those things hadn’t caused that tremble. Hadn’t caused that ghostly laughter to wrap around it as though it was the laughter itself that had caused it. The City being in the in between for so long hadn’t caused it either. But something had and the Old Ones See her, but she didn’t want to think what was strong enough to affect a buried City.
“What was that?” she asked, unable to swallow the question down anymore. She knew that this far into the City, this close to its heart, every verbal communication risked the things that inhabited the City trying Uo’s edict that she was Touched and therefore off limits. Knew that calling attention to themselves when they were out in the open with the nearest shelter a block’s sprint away was to flirt with Death. But sometimes questions needed to be asked out loud and this was one of those times.
“I am not certain,” Uo answered and she turned to look at him, surprised he’d answered her verbally. Even more surprised that he seemed just as confused as she was.
It didn’t bode well for them if the being who reigned supreme over all the other entities in this godsforsaken place was off kilter.
Before she could reply something over his shoulder caught her attention, a brief flicker of gold. Frowning harder she stepped to the side so she could see around him and the edge of a building that was half crumbling. When it came again she felt her breath leave her in a whoosh, felt the blood drain from her face. Catching her reaction, Uo whipped around thinking it was another attack only to freeze when he saw what she did. She heard his own hissed breath of shock and couldn’t blame him, though it was nice to know he wasn’t unflappable.
Because in the distance where it pierced the sky from what had once been the Great Temple, Shiran’s Heart Watchtower was flickering gold. And with each passing moment, it stayed golden and glowing for longer until it finally stayed that way.
“Burning One See us all,” she breathed.
Uo spoke in a language she’d never heard before, one that sounded ancient and made her bones shake, before he turned on his heel and ran across the merchant square. She took off after him, wondering what had gotten into him. But as they cleared the boundary of the open square and into the densely packed buildings of what had once been where Shiran’s nobility lived, she knew.
“They are all beginning to glow,” his voice was raspy, distant, as though he’d swallowed an entire mug of whisky in one gulp and was struggling to speak around the burn of it. Before she could say anything in response he was in front of her, one hand wrapped around her wrist. She fought not to punch him on reflex. “We need to get you to the Heart Tower immediately.”
And then he was running down the streets, taking turns at a blur, pulling her along behind him by the grip he had on her wrist. She didn’t fight him, just kept pace as best she could. When he paused at a crossroads long enough to get his bearings she’d gasped out, “Uo! What’s the rush? Talk to me. What the fuck is going on?”
He turned those pitch black eyes to her and her blood ran cold though it wasn’t from fear because she knew he was not a danger to her. Knew she was as safe with him as she was with their kè but that was a look that belonged to someone who had never been Dhaoinic, had never been anything but other in a way that Otherborn never had been and never would be. And she didn’t know how to feel about that.
“It’s almost time for you to go home,” he answered after several minutes of just staring at her, long enough that she had begun to believe he wasn’t going to answer.
And then they were running again, aiming for the Great Temple and the Heart Tower that sprouted from its middle, reaching far into a sky that didn’t exist. With each pounding step they took that brought them closer she wondered how the Watchtowers could be here in the in between when they were also in Shiran Valley where Rhyshladlyn had risen them as grave markers for the dead that lay beneath the desert sands.
But she didn’t have enough air to spare to ask and even if she did she doubted she’d get an answer that wouldn’t scare her more than she already was. So she kept quiet and let Uo lead her, trusting he knew where they were going.
Trusted that they’d get there in time even though she had the distinct, and sinking, feeling that they wouldn’t.