The paths of the maze-like gardens were overgrown with thorn patches, bramble vines, and leafy shrubbery. The dried husks of rose bushes and lily beds were scattered like discarded paper. Trees that had once been filled with vibrant life were now nothing more than rotted trunks, half fallen branches as bare as the Shiraniqi Desert. The grass crunched underfoot like fresh snow, old and dead and worn away in patches all the way through to the sand that lay beneath it all. Fountains and small ponds lay empty, filled only with mildew and mold and dried out alga now, the carcasses of fish that had swam in the clear, sparkling waters nothing but bones. On the wind was the scent of old decay with the tiniest hint of new.
He looked around slowly. Marveled at how they were so similar and yet so different; ravaged by time but untouched for it. Took in what remained of the gardens he’d spent so much time in. Though to be fair they weren’t gardens anymore, for to call them that implied there was growing things here. The only thing that lived here was himself.
It had been centuries since he’d stood here. Long before he’d even buried Shiran beneath the desert sands. Hadn’t even thought of visiting it after the event and wondered why he was here now. The last thing he remembered was hauling ass to Eyrdo to give Relyt’s lying face a taste of his knuckles. But somehow he was back home, wandering down the paths of what had once been his birth giver’s gardens, lovingly cultivated by her own hand. Was surrounded by the echoes of the few good memories he had.
His heart fluttered in his chest and he absently raised a hand to rub at his sternum.
Sure those times when he hadn’t been afraid, walled away from sight here in Azhuri’s gardens, had been lies. Sure they hadn’t lasted for more than a few handful of years at best. But they had kept him alive until Azriel had arrived on a mission for Lulphé. Had given him reason to keep going besides stubborn spite and the refusal to leave his sister and brother unprotected. The times he’d spent memorizing the paths here, playing hide and seek with his siblings, learning to sing the Old Songs, learning how to recognize which plants would kill him if touched or ingested and which would help heal him… those times had been some of his fondest memories.
Never mind that the labyrinth his mind had created to protect his Self was based off the maze of paths in his birth giver’s gardens. The hallways that housed the millions of doors within the building that sat at the center of that labyrinth were based on the corridors of the palace he’d grown up in. His entire being was shaped here in Shiran City. By the parents who’d sired and birthed him. By the war he’d fought in and survived before he was old enough to perform his first complex spell or grip a sword, before he’d even stepped foot on a Field. It was his history, his foundation, his beginning, and he’d buried it before it could become his present, his pyre, his ending. Cared nothing for the millions of Dhaoine unable to escape its walls before he’d opened the earth and sucked it down to the depths and buried it in darkness and leagues of sand and dirt and a cold so intense it burned.
He’d walked away without a single regret or thought for what it meant to murder millions in the aftermath of Azriel’s death. He’d viewed the City as a curse and sought to remove it from the playing field, to rid himself of its influence.
Part of him wondered if he should apologize for that. Another part knew that to do so would be a lie because he wasn’t sorry, not remotely. Even though he wished he was because he knew that not having a single drop of remorse for the dead he’d created here made him a monster. But he wasn’t going to apologize for acting exactly how he was created to be any more than he was for what he’d done. He was who and what he was and nothing was going to change that; not time, not infinite rebirths, not difference childhood circumstances, not remorse given in falsehood.
But a large part of him mourned the loss of any normalcy he could have had. Mourned the healthy life so many Dhaoine had, a life he had been denied since conception. Hated, too, the scars that marked every inch of his body until the only truly unmarred spaces were where his god-Marks lay. But there was nothing to gain from wallowing in that, so he let it go with a sigh. Gave it to the earth below his feet, that pressed in on all sides.
With one last look around, he blinked out of the gardens to the top of the Grand Temple where Shiran’s Heart Watchtower sprouted through the shingles like a stubborn weed that gave two fucks about the lack of proper growing conditions. Stood a few feet away and stared at the golden, glowing structure. Marveled at the sleek sides that had survived so many eons until his birth and survived centuries more buried beneath the earth from which it had dutifully sprouted from, risen by the hands of its creat–wait.
He frowned. Something wasn’t right. The Towers shouldn’t be here in the City where it lay beneath the desert sands. Not where he could see the tops. They should be an endless stretch of stone reaching into the infinite darkness high above his head. But as he turned slowly in a circle and looked at each one, he saw their peaks. His blood ran cold because that wasn’t possible. It was wrong. He knew he’d risen the Towers from the City, used them as grave markers for the millions who would never be buried properly. For the bones that littered the streets and were stacked inside homes and shops and buildings.
Tilting his head back he looked at the sky. Watched clouds drift over a half full moon. Saw stars he’d spent months learning the names of for no reason other than to try and impress Anislanzir. Fear licked its way up his spine. Fuck. It’s not buried anymore! Shiran City isn’t buried any–
“Who the fuck are you and how did you know where to find us?” Nhulynolyn’s voice brought him fully alert, shattering the dream in seconds.
The sound of unfamiliar voices answering his twin had Rhyshladlyn pushing himself up, even though logically he knew that moving was a horrible idea but fuck that. Carefully, moving only fast enough to not be sitting still, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and waited for his vision to clear, for the nausea to pass before he got to his feet. Ignored the pressing questions of why he was in Nhulynolyn and Bayls’ bedroom, why the scent of his Alaïs’ distrust lingered in the air, why Shadiranamen’s biting fury wove around that distrust. Ignored, too, the lack of music of his Triad’s qahllyn which meant that it was just himself and his Others and that couldn’t mean anything good.
Swallowing down a groan of pain, he lurched his way to the doorway to the main room on unsteady legs. Slumped against it with a soft fwump that had all eyes swinging around to him. Gripped the doorjamb so tightly his knuckles went white, idly wondering why he felt so fucking weak but he didn’t have the time to focus on it.
Not when he caught sight two unknown Otherborn standing facing off against his twin. Not when he took a deep breath and caught a scent that was so achingly familiar, that tasted and felt like home in a way he’d not had since before the war had truly broken out, since the day he’d carried Azriel’s body out of the rubble of Shiran City. Stared harder at the female Otherborn, wondering why she looked even more familiar than that scent was.
Where do I know you from?
“–hladlyn, if you can hear me, break the first layer of spellwork. I know you know how to; I know you can do it. Fuck what everyone else will do here. Save Nhulynolyn before his death kills you, too.”
He pulled air into his lungs with a great heaving gulp and listened to Xefras’ voice where the slave had whispered urgently in his ear. Took in the scent of vanilla and cold mountain water and hot desert wind and blood and sand and fire smoke, used it to kick for the surface again, to try and escape, even if for only a moment.
Rhyshladlyn cried out and staggered, several hands reaching for him as he lost his grip on the doorjamb and began to fall. But for all that they steadied his body, they didn’t steady his mind. Didn’t stop the sudden onslaught of pain stabbing at his eyes and thrumming in his temples. Didn’t stop the rush of what felt like memories but couldn’t be. Because he couldn’t have lived what those flashes showed him.
“Please, yshlad,” my Qishir, “do what you need to survive. No matter what it takes.”
His face broke free of the pain again, enough that he saw Xefras with both eyes, was able to see the steady eye contact the slave gave him. The way that while he was afraid it wasn’t of what he was asking Rhyshladlyn to do but rather what would happen if Rhyshladlyn didn’t listen. Xefras’ unshakable faith was evident in the way he stared down at him, the way his hands gripped Rhyshladlyn’s left one as though if he left go they’d both drown.
It wasn’t until Alaïs’ hands gripped his arm suddenly, her magick flaring at the contact, that he realized he’d pushed away from all those steadying hands. That he’d crossed the room and was nearly passed the couch, drawn by that rich chestnut brown gaze and a scent like fire smoke and blood and sand. It was so similar to what his mind remembered, what his body reacted to, had searched for without realizing until an echo of it dangled before him that he was compelled to get closer. Even if it was merely almost the real thing, it was still better than nothing.
That female, a Dragaen of all things, stared at him with wide eyes, face pale at the jaw and along her cheeks, which was odd because there was always a flush of color there. She searched his face with the kind of desperation one only had when someone they cared for had forgotten something important. He wished he had something more than confusion and blankness to give her. Wished that he knew who she was and why she tasted and smelled like home. I wonder if she feels like home, too…
He watched with confusion as the Dragaen brought her hands up to her mouth. Watched as she hid the quivering of her lips, the only outward sign that she was fighting not to cry. She was so dainty looking, all curves and petite frame, but he knew there was a monstrous other form tucked beneath that alabaster white skin. Knew that there was an echo of her somewhere else. And the separation wasn’t one she was used to, regardless of the circumstances behind it. The way it left a stain of worry on her scent, the way it lightened her eyes, spoke as much.
She stared at him like he was her salvation, her only hope, and he tried not to flinch at the sight of it. Because he was no one’s salvation. He could barely save himself. There was no way he could do that for another Dhaoine. Not that it’s ever stopped me from stupidly trying.
“I…” he swallowed on a dry throat and wished for water. “I-I’m sorry, I… I don’t recognize you,” he whispered. Hated that by confirming it out loud that he’d made her close her eyes, face tight with a pain that no Healing magick could touch.
“You don’t remember…” the heartbreak in that voice made his knees weak. “By the gods, you don’t… How can you not–”
“It doesn’t matter if he remembers or not, Xykra, for that is not why we’re here,” her fellow Other scolded.
*Yup. That’s a Shadow,* Nhulynolyn confirmed before Rhyshladlyn could even finish the question.
*Of course it is.* His Others snickered softly, their mirth never showing on their faces or in their physical body language.
Rhyshladlyn watched as the Shadow crossed the room and dropped to one knee. “Blessed tiding, Qishir Rhyshladlyn. I am Hythin Otherborn, this is my fellow, Xykra Otherborn. We are here because once we came to your aid and now we ask that you come to ours.”
“You’re asking that return favor on an act you did willingly?” Shadiranamen asked, eyes narrowed, voice hard, voicing Rhyshladlyn’s question for him as he motioned to Xheshmaryú for some water.
“Yes,” Hythin answered. “As I told your Others before you woke, Qishir Rhyshladlyn, we were once sent to save your twin and all of you Triad except for Relyt Greymend. Had we not, they and yourself would have perished,” those endless black eyes lifted to stare up at him even if the face that housed them remained staring at the floor. “If I were not out of options, I would not be here. But I cannot allow my kè to suffer any more than he has. You are our only and best option.” The unspoken please was loud in the silence that followed and Rhyshladlyn knew it took a lot for the Shadow to bend knew like he was, to offer that please even unspoken.
With a deep breath he drained the glass Xheshmaryú handed him and gave it back. Patted at Alaïs’ hands where she still gripped his arm. Nodded at Nhulynolyn who was hovering near enough to catch him if Alaïs lost her grip. Ignored the way Ahdyfe was staring at all of them with open-mouthed shock and something else, something darker that didn’t have a name. The room was only filled with seven Dhaoine but it felt so much more crowded than that. As though each of the seven of them carried something else with them, things left unsaid that choked the air.
He let that breath go gustily and walked slowly, carefully to stand before the kneeling Shadow. Stared down at a head of dark hair that hung loosely around an impressively wide set of shoulders. Watched the flow of energy beneath that night-dark skin, the twitch of muscles with each breath Hythin took. Glanced at the Dragaen Hythin had called Xykra. Stared at her while she looked back out of a face that teased his mind with whispered echoes of someone else. Someone he had called Xefras, a slave. One who had been desperate for him to survive, to break free. One whose unshakable faith had been a physical weight on his skin. Though what he had been breaking free from and why Xefras had had such faith in him, Rhyshladlyn didn’t know, but he knew it was true in the same way he’d known how N’phier City had met its end.
Xefras… He rolled the name around in his mind, tested the feel of it, the weight it held, the power behind it. There was no lie in what Hythin had said, in the emotional response Xykra had. None of his Others were responding as though they were an immediate threat. Never mind that Hythin kept glancing at Xheshmaryú as though they should know each other. And that was all without touching on how these two had managed to get through the wards and Shields and Barriers on the Eighth Palace without setting off a single alarm.
Nameless prevailing, I hope I’m not making a mistake.
“I will give you what aid I can,” he held up his hand when Hythin’s full gaze fell on him and Xykra’s expression brightened, “but I cannot promise that the form that aid takes is what you came here expecting it to be. So if that is not acceptable, leave and pray the gods See you. Otherwise…?”
He walked around the couch and sank carefully, slowly, down onto it. Purred softly when Nhulynolyn’s hands curled over his shoulders from behind and his twin’s chin dropped onto the top of his head. Smiled as Alaïs dropped onto the left arm of the couch, her clear blue eyes intent. Chuckled when Shadiranamen made an exasperated hiss before she moved to stand behind the reading chair to the left of the hearth, Xheshmaryú doing the same to the other one. Ahdyfe just shuffled in place like she didn’t know whether to move closer to him or remain where she was. But given the level of near open hostility that his Others were directing to her, it was probably a safe move that she remained right where she was.
When neither Hythin nor Xykra made any move to leave, Rhyshladlyn smiled. “Alright then. Have a seat,” he gestured at the empty chairs near the hearth, “and tell me what you need.”