He dropped from the Line and turned in a slow circle, searching the area around him. Not that he was going to find anything here. This area of Imèn World had been abandoned and empty for decades, if not longer. A section of the World where the desert lands of Fènwa’s eastern edges had begun to slowly encroach, pushing at the lush grasses of the hills that mimicked the dunes of Imèn’s western neighbor.
Nothing moved save the tall grass that bent and swayed in the wind, gently lapping at his legs, the shush-shush of it eerie in the pressing quiet. He was alone here, just him and the grass and the quiet and the hills that spread for a few leagues in every direction. But old habits died hard and he owed Jerald that much given he’d ordered his Warrior to remain behind. And royally pissed him off in the process.
But there wasn’t anything here. And he’d known there wouldn’t be, no matter what Relyt had said he’d found. No matter what the eyewitnesses who had been with him said. No matter what the Soul Healer’s own memories had shown. Because the City Relyt had seen, had walked through, explored, it wasn’t real. Not in this lifetime. Not in the present day. It couldn’t be. Rhyshladlyn had vaporized it, scattered it and everything in it, to the winds and watched it go. It was a knowledge he knew as solidly as he knew his own skin, his Self, his magick, his Others. But he’d come here anyway. Come here because a nagging stupid thought in the back of his head told him he couldn’t trust his memories. That what he thought was real actually wasn’t.
That and after that argument with Azriel in the fucking hallway, he’d needed any excuse to get the fuck out of the Palace, to distance himself from his Companion and his Steward. From the similar and yet incredibly different issues that surrounded them both.
“You always were better at running away weren’t you?” Azriel growled, voice unforgiving, the words clipped and melodic as his accent peaked out around them.
“And you never learned how to accept your feelings. Or the responsibility for the actions they birthed,” he snapped back.
Growling under his breath, Rhyshladlyn shook his head to clear it. Took a deep breath and let it out slow as he closed his eyes and looked beneath. Searched for what wasn’t seen anymore, what had been. As that second, lower sight engaged, the map of N’phier City sprang up like wildflowers reaching through the melting snow towards the spring sun. Glowing and thriving with life. An echo of a past that no one remembered.
Twenty feet in front of him was where the retaining wall had been. Where the main gates used to be, towering several hundred feet above his head. And behind that where the streets and the buildings that had risen towards the skies, where Dhaoine had worked and lived and loved and fucked and died. But there was something else, too, something darker. And there was something that spread out from the retaining wall, stopping a handful of steps from where Rhyshladlyn’s boots flattened the grass. Frowning, he opened his eyes and struggled for a moment to see now instead of then. As his vision cleared, he took a hesitant step forward, then another, and another, until that odd ring of else was a heavy breath away instead of a few feet.
Lifting a hand he reached out for that invisible line, half expecting to feel something solid under his fingertips. But there wasn’t anything except the echoes of what sounded like crying, begging, and screams. Pounding footsteps, the ring of steel on steel and and bodies hitting brick and stonework. Bones breaking and joints slipping and ripping out of sockets. All of it distant, so soft he could barely hear it over the whispering wind.
A wave of anguish and betrayal smacked into him, making the World go grey at the edges. With a breathless sound he dropped to one knee in the grass, one hand pressed to his chest as his heart hammered his breastbone and his breath whistled in his throat. His free hand hit the ground as he pitched forward. The second his bare skin connected with the earth magick touched him, recognized him, and answered the loudest question in his mind. Reminding him as it did that a City’s sentience never really died, even if the physical manifestation of it, the tether point in the living realm, was destroyed. And for all that the Cities in Imèn were dormant, for all that their natural ambient magick didn’t exist at the surface in this World like they did in every other World, it didn’t make it less aware, less intelligent.
If anything it just made it all the more overwhelming.
As the Working engaged he laughed. All around him Dhaoine died and he laughed. He walked among them as a ghost, as an entity, as something monstrous for its otherness. He wore the likeness of a Dhaoine, passed as one of them, until he got too close, until they looked closer, and then horror slowly dawned as they screamed and ran from him. But there was nowhere to hide. Nowhere that he would not find them, that he could not be in an eye blink’s time. For his kind had built this City, had laid every single brick and swipe of mortar, woven every piece of thatch and secured every single scale-shingle. It existed to answer to his every single need. So here he was a god among Dhaoine.
Here he was a god who had no care for their suffering. A god who relished in their pain, in their terror; who drank it as though it were the finest of whiskeys. Drank it until he was full to bursting and still drank more. Because they had harbored his torturers. Had known the rumors, had even seen the proof in the actions of those who’d mutilated and abused his body and his Self, and these Dhaoine had done nothing. They had merely gone about their lives as though nothing was amiss. All of them were as guilty as those who’d mistreated him. And for that?
He would show them what real nightmares looked like.
With a shout he fell back onto his ass, breaking the connection. But that didn’t matter. What remained of N’phier’s sentience had locked onto him and it wasn’t ready to let him go just yet. It didn’t give a fuck that he wasn’t touching it anymore. It didn’t need him to be physically connected to it to reach him. He was a descendant of those who’d created it, was as full blooded as one born so long after the genocide could be, and that was a link that neither time, nor distance, nor lack of touch could sever.
A heavy weight settled around his neck, so cold it reminded him of the coldfire he commanded. And then the first undulating brush of magick trickled down from that weight. Then another, and another, until it was a wave that was rapidly approaching.
When it crested, when it fell all around him, blinding him to anything and everything else, agony speared through him. Hit his mind and snapped every connection he had; the links to his Others, his Bond to Azriel, the qahllyn he’d answered to Relyt and Jerald. He howled his rage and indignation. Felt and heard chains drop from his wrists and ankles, felt the jarring impact of his knees hitting hard stone but not the pain that came with it.
Slowly he looked up and–
Screaming, Rhyshladlyn crawled backwards as fast as he could, forcibly shutting down the visions N’phier was showing him. Twisted around until he was on his hands and knees, pushed to his feet and ran. Kept running until he was into the thicker patch of hills. Ran until his breath was short and his chest was heaving. Ran until he couldn’t see that area in the grass for the hills that rose all around him.
It didn’t matter though. He couldn’t escape those visions, couldn’t escape the sounds and the feelings that they’d brought with them. Because what he was running from wasn’t a physical danger, wasn’t something he could fight or kill. It was inside him. It was a past that wasn’t but was. Still he ran, though. Ran until he threw up a hand, nearly blind with desperation to get away, and caught a Line. Hit it and began running anew. Ran and tried not to think too hard about how Sanctuary Cities were no more capable of lying than their creators.