He opened his eyes and hissed as the sun blinded him. Cursing under his breath he closed his eyes again, wondered how the fuck, never mind when, he’d gotten on the ground. The last thing he remembered was running after Rhyshladlyn as his Qishir jumped from Line to Line. Then everything went white and agony-ridden and then… nothing. Fuck. Everything hurt. Like he’d spent hours being beaten and then left to sleep on the cold stone floor of one of Xitlali’s pleasure rooms. His muscles ached like he’d been running for hours, his throat felt dry and scratchy like he hadn’t drank anything in days. He felt overused and discarded and it pissed him off.
With a groan he rolled more fully onto his stomach. Shifted until his hands were under him and slowly began to push himself up, bringing one leg up and then the other. Kept pushing until he was kneeling, weight braced on his hands.
*I suggest not moving more than you already have.* He froze and glanced to the left at where his Shadow Other stood a few feet away, black eyes glinting in the light from the setting sun, face nearly as dark as the eyes that weren’t remotely Dhaoinic. *Sudden movements catch their full attention, as do certain pitches of sound, and they move lightning quick.*
Xefras looked away from the Other and back at the things before him because he wanted, needed, to see what they were up against. Which was stupid, really. He knew what dangers surrounded him. He’d only been running from them for forever and a day now. And really, seeing them didn’t give him any more of an advantage than not seeing them. If anything not looking spared his mind the strain of trying to wrap around the reality that such horrible, terrifying things existed in the first fucking place.
If he was a stronger male, he’d kick in a Temple door or five and have a nice, long, loud chat with every god he could remember the name of.
But he refused to fly blind so even though it was stupid, and he really knew better, he looked back at the creatures gathered in front of him. Let his eyes adjust to the rapidly dwindling sunlight that filtered through the Forest’s distant treeline. Willed his mind to process what he was seeing and then let him actually see it.
When it finally did, he tensed every muscle on his body to keep from screaming.
They looked like nothing he’d seen in the Forest and yet somehow they were worse than everything he had seen.
At first glance they looked Dhaoinic, felt like it, too, but that was just an appearance. A lie used to lure one into a false sense of security, make one think help lay ahead until one was too close to escape. Standing at least six feet tall, if not taller, they were all visible brownish-white bones and stringy muscles turned leathery like they’d been left out in the sun for too long. They had no skin that he could see, just the muscles that held their bones together, the ligaments and tendons that allowed the joints to work. No hair either on their heads or anywhere else which makes sense, kind of need skin for hair to be a thing. When one turned, showing its nose-less, eyeless profile bile slammed into his throat and he gagged before he could stop himself.
The things before him perked up though they didn’t move. But he knew they were alert. Felt their sudden focus like a hot wind on the back of his neck which did nothing to ease his nausea. Especially when that eyeless thing opened a mouth that was all teeth and no tongue what is with shit in this place having too many teeth and made a creaking noise like a rocking chair on an old porch as its jaw worked up and down. When it turned fully around, showing that it was sexless and that the front of its body looked just as bad as the back and side, Xefras opened his mouth and made a gagging motion in an effort to appease his body’s demand that he vomit. It didn’t help. In fact it only made it worse. Because now he could taste the musky sweet-sick smell of it on the back of his tongue. It was worse than Iköl’s favorite pets.
And that thought was one he promptly wished he’d not had.
*Are they the only things between me and the Forest’s edge?*
*As far as I can sense and see,* Hythin twitched his shoulders, *aye.*
He hated that he was at a disadvantage here. Sure in his true form Xefras stood a fighting chance against just about everything except for an Alphenian and a fully Awakened Greywalker, but the transformation took time and he didn’t have enough room to spread out here. Being shit at close quarters battle out of their Dhaoinic forms was a sacrifice all Dragaen of his lineage made. And he wasn’t about to take on so many of those whatever the fuck they were in his weaker Dhaoinic form. Fuck that.
Even though there were only maybe twenty of the creatures, that he could see, it wasn’t a risk he was willing to take.
*We’re surrounded aren’t we?*
*Not by them,* Xykra answered, her voice soft, as though she worried that what surrounded them would hear her and attack. *Though what lays behind us is not much better than these… things…*
He didn’t ask what was behind them, just didn’t care that much. What mattered was the edge of the Forest that lay beyond these skinless things that looked like a Hound and a Xhlën had managed to mate.
*You need to stop thinking,* his sister snapped, gagging hard around the words. *That was an image none of us needed.*
They needed to get through those things, needed to get free of the Forest. And while he didn’t relish contending with what was in front of him regardless of the numbers, he sure as fuck wasn’t about to back track and risk getting lost in the Forest all over again, let alone taken down by what else was out there. He’d thought the most terrifying things here were Hounds, Oiki, and Xhlëndïr. Now that he knew how wrong he was, he did not want to discover what else had been pulled from the darkest places among the trees by Rhyshladlyn’s appearance.
*Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,* he slowly, carefully, moved until he was in a deep squat, his hands curled into the grass between his legs for added balance. *I need you both to separate, one go left the other right. Make some kind of noise, movement, anything to divide their focus. Make them move towards you.*
*What will you be doing?* Xykra asked.
*I’m going to haul ass for the treeline. I doubt highly these things will breach the trees and even if they do, soon as I’m free I’ll shift forms as I run. No matter how strong they are, they aren’t a match in speed or flight abilities for my true form.*
*And we will slip physical form once you’re free,* Hythin sounded almost impressed which was rare. But Xefras didn’t mention it.
*Exactly.* Taking a deep breath he held it, counted to three, and let it out. *Move.*
As his Others disappeared from sight, moving silently among the trees, he wondered what had happened to make Rhyshladlyn move the way he had been earlier. Wondered also what had caused that flash of white light and agony before everything had gone dark. Hoped that when he got to Ryphqi City he’d finally be able to get some answers.
The first crash was loud enough to make him jump but thankfully the things didn’t notice as they rounded in one fluid motion to the left and moved towards it with a grace he didn’t expect of things that looked like that. Then an earsplitting shriek echoed off the trees to the right just as another crash, louder than the first, shook the ground. The things paused, shared a look, and split into two groups to go after the competing noises. It shouldn’t have been that easy. When they were out of range of his peripheral vision, Xefras sent up a prayer and pushed off the ground, aiming for the trees and the freedom that lay beyond them.
Soon as he was clear of where they’d been standing, the ground wet and cloying beneath his feet, he heard a hiss that sounded wet and sharp, like a bone compound fracturing followed rapidly by too many more to count. It made his stomach leap into his throat but he didn’t stop. Didn’t look back. Just kept running. Even when the air grew hot behind him, even when the back of his neck crawled with the sense that something had come within inches of touching him, he didn’t slow down. Another crash shook the trees and the ground, sending the underbrush around him to vibrating with all kinds of noises he didn’t want to think about.
All around him the Forest seemed to seethe with life and awareness. Behind him the pounding wet slaps of feet on grass, like someone running through ankle deep water but thick with algae, got closer and closer. No matter how fast he ran, he just couldn’t seem to get any real distance on those footsteps. Couldn’t seem to escape the hot wind on his back and neck, the skin-crawling feeling of skinless fingers nearly catching him.
As fear slithered up his spine and lodged in his throat, making breathing almost impossible, he took comfort in the fact that the treeline drew closer and closer with each bounding stride he took. Just… a little… farther.
“Move faster, Xeffy!” Xykra’s voice in his ears as she came crashing out of a bush on his right, falling into step behind him, nearly made him trip but he kept his footing. Gathered all his spare energy and poured it into his legs as he dodged around trees at a blur. A crash sent tree bark exploding to his left making Xykra scream as they both threw up their arms as splinters flew everywhere. Blindly he hit the treeline and went tumbling into the open field that lay beyond it. Let out a whoop as he tucked into a roll, not losing momentum, gained his feet, and pushed off soon as he was upright, and started his change as he began running again.
The air trembled as that creaking noise exploded all around him but he didn’t slow down, didn’t dare look back. Not when Xykra all but slammed into him, losing her physical form seconds before she made contact. Not when Hythin did the same with a sound that was the closest to a sigh of relief he’d ever heard the Shadow make. As he shifted limb by limb, piece by piece, he kept running. Slid-shuffled down small hills, fought to keep his speed as he went up inclines that felt as tall as mountains. Ran until he was loping on all six of his arms, legs dragging uselessly behind him. Ran until the leathery skin spread between his arms and his legs fully fused into his tail. Slapped his tail against the ground with enough force that it left a crater in his wake and took to the sky with a roar of triumph that sounded like the crackling of flames.
When he was nearly as high up as the Lines he looked back and saw the sea of those monstrous things flowing from the Forest across the grassy plains. Eyeless faces tilted skyward, tracking him, those teeth-riddled mouths open wide, arms and legs pumping as they ran through the grass, leaving smears of wetness in their wake. He’d hoped the fuckers wouldn’t follow him out of the Forest. Had hoped that they would be like the Hounds and Oiki and Xhlëndïr: leaving only when called, when they were hunting for food.
I was supposed to be their meal and I robbed them of that. A flash of guilt nearly made him turn around and face them. He was in his true form and had leagues of open grasslands to work in. Even if their numbers were far greater than the twenty he’d counted before, he still knew he could take them on. Knew that he should, that he needed to, because they would follow him wherever he went until either something else caught their attention, they were killed, or they killed him. And he couldn’t stomach the thought of them coming upon a village, city, town, or metropolis. By the Fires, even a fucking City was an iffy bet against things that moved like that.
*It doesn’t matter right now. Fly as fast as you can for Ryphqi City,* Hythin sounded shaken, winded, in a way Xefras had never heard before and it tore his attention from the things that covered the ground far below in a writhing mass of flesh-less horror.
*But we’ll pass through so many towns on the way, I can’t do that to–*
*We’ll handle it,* Xykra interrupted. *Just fly.* Then she and Hythin were gone.
He let out a deep breath and shifted course. Flew as fast as he could and prayed to any and every god that was listening that whatever plan his Others had would keep him from unleashing an entire army of nightmares on any, and every, town he came across between here and Ryphqi City.