The canopy formed a black ceiling. Spots of light shone through like stars. Dyce stepped softly over the leaf litter. In the deepest shadows bat hung under branches.
Occasionally he would pass building ruins or abandoned weapons and armour. All had long been grown over by nature. Some in the shape of where the bodies had been where the shape of life once took shape.
Alike the Bloodworks had been. Every breath he kept tight control on. Beneath the Colossi he'd never required to be silent – but the effort put into the control every inch of his flesh allowed a reign on his silence. Since the day he'd been born each journey back into the labyrinth had been a step further in. One step frighteningly closer to the hole they threw the corpses of the gladiators in who had naught family to recover them. They would've tossed his mother there if he hadn't saved her. No one there was to save him.
Quiet was easier for him than he imagined – so long as he kept it eternally in mind. Avoid touching anything but the ground – take detours around the thickest bramble – the lowest branches – the clustered litter.
Beneath the boughs kept him sweaty as he had been climbing the wall. Regulation was difficult beyond silence. Water lost in the heat and drinking provided its own potential problems. A day – though he certainly could not travel at night – tired and inevitable to make noise. Dyce was glad that Yu He had never complained that he'd snored – he hoped she was not too nice.
As the tresses darkened – he arrived at a pool of water. Trees at its edge were entangled by silk smelling of earwax. Damn air cooler prevailed. Heat captured itself in the trees – no escape. Beneath the cracks of the tree bark were the remains of a honeycombed interior. Bee-less – no doubt the spirits had taken care of their buzzing.
Dyce – on the side least covered – stuck his finger in a gap of the hollowed tree and sucked the honey off. The sweet bizarreness hinted at the supernatural design hidden behind the display for surely no bees existed to produce it. Between the white silk crawled large, pale green caterpillars. A size no normal caterpillar would reach.
Dyce closed his mouth. Bees and moths were rather sweet where insects were concerned even if the moths were large – he hoped to not run into any. He'd never heard of moths being evil creatures – if they were the silence loving spirits but an animal had no reason but instinct behind its actions.
Half an hour later when the light had almost vanished. Dyce stepped over an near inaudible river located in a small gully which turned rocked as it went along. A dead gazelle hung off the rocky edge – it's face whitened out by silk. When Dyce slowly climbed the gully, another white entangled tree was upon him behind the edge.
In the silk was a mane-less lion trapped. Dyce froze as it twitched – it made only the faintest rustling and the quiet pants. It faced the gazelle apparently wanted to eat it and became trapped.
The same lion from his Tan Amhara escapade? If it was that lion, then perhaps it was secretly a was lean and had the same tattered ear. Dyce shook his head thinking it – he was mad. In the desert he had hallucinated from thirst – yet it was far from the strangest thing which happened since the world ended. Maybe this was his secret cat.
Dyce drew his dagger. Perhaps it would have been a mercy – he crept before the back of the lion and slowly stroked its back and it let out a quiet acknowledgement. Warmth emanated from the purr and Dyce saw it transform into a small cat. Gold coated as a lion would've been only like a house cat and webbed still at its front in silk. Dyce braced internally for his allergies – but they didn't come at the cat fur when it brought itself over him. Somehow in the desert it had also been cured. He wasn't sick to cats anymore. He'd heard some people grew out of allergies – but he never imagined it would be so swiftly.
Dyce brought the dagger to its throat and closed his eyes. A headache burdened him from the heat – muscles of his face unfolded from their tautness. This cat had almost killed him and it had certainly killed Sandy – he wanted so much to be at rest of this – but he couldn't.
Dyce opened his eyes and clipped the silk around the cat's head from the tree – held it to his face. The lean cat had could've been so easily twisted apart in his strong hands. The cat stared at him with green eyes. Dyce breathed in silently – heartbeat against his eardrums.
He took it in his arms. Little heart so fast and Dyce was ashamed. Silky head curling against his chest. Could not trust it to be silent if he let it go. Though Dyce couldn't have trusted himself for this assumption. How else could he have survived if he didn't know? Against him it had closed its eyes and tried to sleep. It's thin body almost starved.
Dyce felt a deep discomfort at it against his skin but had to allow it. If he let it go how could he trust the moths would not come by its noise? Against a tree he curled on himself. Barest sunlight had gone from beneath ceiling of black the needles and leaves and the forest darkened.
In the night his headache was his focus. He imagined someone cut his skull perfectly open, remove the stuffing and every so slightly pull its white folds apart – heat of the pain airing out. The thought of cold wind touching his head stuffing almost aroused him.
Aroused. He hadn't been since—
He did not have problems with being unaroused. He did not want to be a sex object or subject for now.
Did they make me— did they want me like that?
The idea terrified him. There was the Clavicus run off. Not for whom he was made, though. The Master's heir. His son. Or 'lucky' nephew. Their Horus.
Dyce imagined cold air again.
When he woke the light had barely changed – thankful for a dreamless sleep. Though he'd engaged in more of a hazy nightlong sit – headache gone. The cat did not wake. The dumb things could sleep forever. He waited for the light to cascade from the gaps in the trees before he continued. It gave him time to think.
With the warm cat asleep in his arms his movements would slow. Any obstacles would be carefully traversed. Dyce realized suddenly he couldn't train in silence – his muscles itched with desire. When he'd been in bed life was a haze – the giving up of his training was as instinctual as its resumption once he went on the road. Far from the Colossi and in its simulacra – he wondered if the pure elasticity would return. If the next a day or two when he was out of the forest and able to choose his rigor to continue.
Dyce sat in thought over this until the cat stirred and he resumed travel.
Dyce found himself looking over his shoulder. A gust of cold air touched him occasionally in the heated forest. In the gaps of trees were ears the outline of ears underneath bark and in split branches. Dyce's mouth was dry as he'd refrained from drinking water – soon this would be over he dreamed.
When Dyce came to small glade with vibrant green grasses. Open air amid the sharp rocks between the grass was cooler. A black figure atop one of the trees gave him pause until he realized it was Xhen. He went into the glade and her head tilted toward him. Xhen the rogue descended from pine tree in her black shawl.
She waved at him before she paused. Her eyes widened at the cat he held in one arm which she pointed at.
Dyce stared blankly at her.
Xhen covered her mouth – though it was already covered by her veil and almost teared up.
Dyce shifted awkwardly at her enamoured gaze before he continued walking.
Xhen tapped his arm and he glared at her. Holding the cat made him less unprepared for contact – but he felt no need to be in her presence.
She tapped his arm again and he stopped – girt his teeth and held out the cat.
Xhen rubbed behind its ears before she pointed to the tree – lifted the cat from Dyce's arm and held it against her.
Dyce exchanged a serious glance with her at being relieved of the cat. Bristles of jealousy tickled him – the utter nonsense of the feeling was not lost on him. Dyce crossed his arms. Since he was a boy, he'd never liked the creatures and suddenly he was frowning at some girl stealing one's attention from him. It had been so cute how it slept in against his chest all through the night…
Xhen pointed at the tree again insisting. Amusement in her eyes at his blatant jealously.
Dyce went over the bumpy glade to climb the black pine. Branches led up the side of the tree easily. A while had passed since he'd climbed one – and never so cautiously. The boughs bent and ruffled – every time made Dyce's nerves twinge. Bodily dislike of the lack of morning practice in the face of effort. Dyce was mentally as offended as he was physically – for the wisdom of Djoser's lessons were his DNA. You must always train every day – every day without is a day wasted. His own fault irritated him though. Trying to keep his exertion to a minimal he pulled themselves to the surface of a vast sea of green.
Atop the tree, the leaves and needles of the trees were so thick and rippled. Wind on his sweaty skin reminded him of the walk home from beneath the Colossi. Dyce shivered. The breeze was quiet but not inaudible – it shocked him how loud it had been even though he knew logically it was relatively quiet. The Silent Forest lived up to its name in an unnerving fashion. He'd almost forgotten what it was to hear.
The sun had almost climbed over the horizon. The glade was almost at the forest's centre soon enough they would reach the Castle. Green mountains lay beyond the forest like an asleep giant.
Xhen, who had glided up again with the cat resting on her shoulder awaken reached him. Climbed over and leaned into his ear – whispered, "I think we can talk up here."
Her closeness put his hair on end. He tried to not think about it but feeling shimmered through his heart.
Xhen gestured to the ruin on its mountain, which they were relatively close to after their hours of travel. "I think it'll take an hour or two. We will reach it. Stories say, there's no spirits up there or on the road from the front."
"Where'd you get the cat?"
"Saved it," Dyce whispered. "When we're out of here, I'll let it go."
"Are you sure it won't let the spirits know?"
Dyce exchanged a glance with the cat.
The base of the mountain was clearer of trees – air flowed down the hilly expanse. Fields of white tulips strangled by weeds. The cat rested permanently on Xhen's shoulder. Whenever she performed a difficult move – Dyce's eyes swung to him to see if he was okay. Or in anticipation of it making a shrill meow. It never did. Dyce didn't care – it was only about their collective survival he watched it.
When they reached a beside the mountain cliff. The path ahead had seen a collapse and the rocks piled up before them. An iron rope hung from the cliff which trailed along the ground. The rope was well worn into the grey rockface. Whoever travelled through this dangerous forest must've long ago placed it for the pilgrims.
They both tested its strength with hearty yanks. Which did not release it. Shadows eared around their ascent. A single noise too loud would've sent the spirits on them.
Xhen went first – the cat lay on her shoulder. Dyce followed quickly afterward – hands and feet shimmying them along the road. Dyce payed especial attention to his breath. He maintained a casual pace – even though his upper body quickly stung he paid it little mind and maintained a rhythm of twitches. He did not once look above – he had to trust that Xhen would not fall and if she did – he did not want to think of if.
"Wait no!" Xhen interrupted his thought.
Dyce acted on instinct – threw his arm out catching falling body.
A roar interrupted the silence at his hand finding the furred creature.
Dyce breathed out. In his fist was the skinny cat. They'd reached above the treeline – apparently free of the spirits of the forest. Hurried fluttering drew his eyes downward as the cat dug its claws into his arms clambering up to his shoulders. Dyce gasped at the blood drawn – something else which had fallen and hit the trees. A dozen large moths scrambled to reach at the object. Brown wings sparsely covered by ears as they overwhelmed.
A flash later they vanished. Dyce took in a breath and looked upward at Xhen's stunned face.
"I dropped something," she said sheepishly.
"We're nearly at the top," Dyce huffed.
A few minutes later they came over the cliff's edge. Xhen pulled the cat from Dyce's back as he pulled himself up from the rope. The iron rope had been tied around a convenient rock jutting from the edge. A helpful soul had provided a small ladder to pull oneself up beside it.
The two of them relaxed by the edge. The hot air of the forest had left – mountain air crisp.
Xhen tickled the cat's stomach as he rolled around on the grass.
"Silly, silly boy," she berated.
Behind them a thin road led the mountainside. Part of the rocks had been blasted away to unveil a small road leading through the mountain. Inconspicuous holes along the rockface allows him to trace tunnel to a small grove behind the Castle a few dozen meters away. Much of the Castle remained intact – though only part of its shape could be been from their recess. The outer buildings of the Castle were entirely ruined and it was flanked by two blue turrets – one of which had almost entirely collapsed. Paint on the pale stone weathered away as vine and trees had encroached on the curved pillars and walls. The few remaining roofs came to easy points, but the yellowish stone reminded of the Colossi.
Wind blew through them on their cliff. Dyce's skin prickled – and Xhen tossed him his cloak he'd abandoned at the forest's edge. Dyce drew the red sheet around himself and glanced at her.
"Magic trick," Xhen explained.
A power? Like Midas or Barbe Bleue? Dyce wondered. He recognised that he was possibly overthinking – perhaps it was literally a magic trick like the ones a performer might've done.
"Moths, with ear wings," Dyce said instead – a red wrapped figure against the fading blue sky. He held his waterskin uncorked – sat beside rope tied rock.
Xhen leaned back. "They must've been driven from up here. The atmosphere is different. But have you ever faced a monster you made? Is that so strange now? You said a monster killed everything you loved."
"Maybe not that kind." He sipped his water.
"A man then?"
"And you're going to kill him."
"It must be done."
"I see. A pre-Advent monster then."
"Unlike that cat." Dyce disliked the subject of Bleue changed to described how the cat came in the Tan Amhara.
Xhen her eyes widened at the story, "Now you've saved him – twice. He owes you. Does he have name?"
"May I name him?"
"I'll call him… Catlion."
Dyce scoffed. "Good one."
Xhen gave him a smug look before she put an egg from beneath her robes before the cat. 'Catlion' lept to it and cracked it with his paws and licked its contents.
"You didn't answer my question – have you faced a monster you made?" Xhen said.
"As have I. Did you kill it?"
"Didn't let me." Dyce felt ashamed of the confession.
"Oh," said Xhen.
Catlion let out a little meow at having licked the eggshell clean.
"Looked like a pair of conjoined lioness twins who shared a mane made of nets. I hid in three different cities and it found me every time. It'll never stop hunting you."
Dyce shrugged. "Guess I'll kill it."
They were different for every person apparently – Dyce thought it a very unhelpful test. The gods where not known for their direct tests. Perhaps it was Apep but Dyce's instinct reacted negatively to that. Abject chaos didn't take shape in his Carriage of Youth – only a strange honour which appealed to Dyce. A test of Osiris – a test of Maat – a test of Set. We're adrift in endless rivers.
"Is this one, then?" Xhen cut through his thoughts with reference to Catlion.
"Dunno. Is this?" Dyce gestured to the Silent Forest.
"Dunno! They say Sayarsan summoned spirits to punish evil within his court." Xhen leaned toward Dyce. "He couldn't – make babies. That's why it all fell apart when he died."
Dyce smirked at her scandalized description. "Hadn't heard that."
"After he waged decades of war against Emer and Azure and everywhere – he was old and had a harem of thirteen wives and they um – never gave him sons. Or daughters. It was his fault, but he blamed them for being not good enough wives. Since he was Emperor everyone had to agree but—"
"No. His favourite wife called Aaliyah was the most beautiful woman in the world. Sayarsan loved blonde women seven of his wives were blonde including Aaliyah. Anyway— Aaliyah grew up in a wealthy family from Carnal she hated being blamed for not giving the Emperor sons, so she came up with a scheme with her wife-sisters. Aaliyah convinced the blonde wife-sisters to all become pregnant by Sayarsan's last living childhood friend Jamin, as he was also blonde. They forced him to make them pregnant."
Dyce clutched his ankle – heartbeat rose – senses became uncomfortably sharpened. The image of that 'forcing' played in his mind.
"And why—?" Dyce choked out as if to force away the sudden anxiety which stricken him. When he spoke, he didn't look at Xhen and didn't care to explain the abrupt change in his demeanour. He'd thought this irrational fear was left back in Azure. Why – oh – why did it hunt him?
"Well Sayarsan had black hair if he had a child with a blonde woman, it would also have black hair," Xhen said.
He had no doubt the girl noticed her words disarmed him but she was graceful enough to continue her story. Appreciation surged through Dyce – worthless as he was – killable by mere words.
"One by one the blonde wives had blonde children," Xhen said, "Sons and daughters – one even had twins. All blonde. Aaliyah revealed the infidelity of the wives publicly once they'd all had their children – and people were utterly convinced Sayarsan was barren. He maintained otherwise still, but everyone knew for sure. So he summoned the menace beneath the Castle to hide the truth – but he was so angered by what happened the spirits warped evilly and killed all his wives and Jamin. Afterward spread out into the forest and he commissioned the wall we crossed to get here. Aaliyah escaped and fled to marry another Sunrise nobleman who wanted to be Emperor, but Sayarsan tracked them down and killed them."
Dyce hoisted up sharply – heart still alert.
"Ugly story," he said looking over the cliff.
"Queen Aaliyah did what she needed to do."
"And betrayed her sisters to die," Dyce said.
Xhen stood from stroking Catlion and came beside Dyce. "She made a hard choice. Cause of her world remembers how pathetic Sayarsan the 'Great' was. She's a hero. Aaliyah, Queen of the Sunrise: should she have done nothing?"
Dyce shrugged. "No." By rights Sayarsan was a cruel man like the rest of his 'noble' kin.
Catlion wandered over to rub itself against both their legs. Dyce lightly pushed it away out of an unintentional instinct. Hairs stood on end.
"Maybe you're right," Dyce said.
Xhen picked up Catlion and draped it on her shoulders.