It took a lot of walking but one of the side effects of falling forever was that you became very patient.
One of the side effects.
The impact of the fall hadn't been quite as, well, fatal as one would have expected.
It probably helped that there hadn't been gravity in limbo, so the only part of Dhacian's fall that had involved accelerating velocity was that final bit, the part where he suddenly went from falling in nothing, endlessly, to falling from the sky, in a manner that was certifiably not endless.
Nonetheless. The final bit had indeed involved velocity-- quite a bit of it towards the end-- and he'd fallen out of the sky in a position that had not lent itself to getting his wings properly spread or gaining any sort of fall-breaking traction.
The impact had several things going in his favor. For one thing, there were worse places he could have fallen onto than the Caladori desert. Places more filled with sharp pointy rocks. As it was the sand had gone a long way towards cushioning the fall.
Most of the cushioning, however, had been done by his left wing. The result was that he was alive, and also that several bones in his wing were broken.
Hence, he walked.
It took a lot of walking, but one of the side effects of falling forever was that you became very patient.
If you'd asked him, he wouldn't have known why he was walking, or where. There was a reason, he just hadn't found it yet.
It took Dhacian three weeks until he reached Nordenwald Forest. He was surprised to discover that New Ark had been rebuilt and was in fact flourishing. It was at least five times the size it had been when he'd set it on fire. The place was positively overflowing, with humans and-- halfbreeds, scores of them. But people didn't pay very much attention to his wings as a result.
He got his first proper look in a mirror since landing when he visited the town medic to have his wing checked on. It was something of a shock.
He looked different.
It was hard to put a finger on what, exactly, it was that made the difference. Three weeks of steady walking outside had given him a dark tan but there was also something--
something different, that was all. He almost didn't recognize himself. Even though he couldn't point to anything specific that had changed.
The medic told him he'd done a good job setting the bones himself and that they were coming along fine and he'd be able to fly within another week and a half or so.
Then she said "We don't get very many skyborn coming through here."
"Mhm," he said, ignoring the implied question.
"I suppose you've already seen the statue?" she said, with the same inquiring tone.
"No, I haven't had the chance," he said. He had no idea what he was talking about but figured he might as well play along.
"Well, you absolutely should. It was a bit of a controversy putting it up, sure, but I think it reflects our hope to put the past behind us and move forward," she said, with a cadence as if it was a phrase she'd said many times before.
"Always an admirable goal," he murmured.
Her mouth twisted slightly. "Yes, well. If only everyone thought that way-- I understand, you know, why folk like you are rare here. Of course we have a reputation. I can't deny it being justified, either-- but it's not like we're all voting Red. There are plenty of us in New Haven who vote Coalition. We understand what it means to let bygones be bygones. Even the statue-- you know we're the only ones, with a statue of the Empress."
"The- The Empress?"
"Well, she did push for us to receive reparation money and fought for us to have full inclusion in the census vote," the medic said. She paused and looked at him suspiciously. "Don't tell me you're from New Direction."
"I'm not," he reassured her. So long as "New Direction" didn't refer to "endless void" it was an honest answer. But he hadn't understand a word of what she had just said.
At this point she seemed to finally notice his restless shifting. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what I'm doing, talking politics to you like this. I suppose it's just nice to see someone like yourself, willing to be openminded about it all."
As he left she called out "The statue plaza is two streets down to your left!"
And because he had nowhere else specific to go, he followed her directions and arrived face to face with his reason.
The truth be told it wasn't actually a revelation.
Which was to say, after spending forever hearing her, seeing her-- and almost nothing else, really-- it wasn't as if there was any further revelation a mere stone statue of her could produce, except a sudden resignation to the inevitable.
It was a resignation. After all, in three weeks of trekking he hadn't actually verbalized in his mind the intention, the absolute imperative to see her.
But it was simply.
He had spent such a very, very long time. Running away from her, running after her, who knew. Falling and falling and falling.
Surprisingly enough Dhacian didn't actually spend very much time thinking about the part where she had somehow gotten herself made Empress. It was somehow very irrelevant, at least it seemed that way at the time.
He didn't have a drop of money on him to afford an airship ride so that left walking, again. By the time he'd arrived at New Stormrook his wing had finally healed and he was able to fly up to the highest level immediately.
A more stunning vision of how much had changed while he'd been gone would have been impossible to imagine.
Gone were the elegant white marble palaces, gone the fountains, gone the gardens.
And gone were the skyborn.
Half the place was overgrown with weeds crawling amidst crumpled ruins but amidst the low brick houses that had sprung up around the sole remaining fountain there was not a skyborn to be seen.
He landed by the fountain, trying to come to grips with his surroundings. It was inconceivable that things could have changed this drastically.
What in Eia had happened?
And as he was contemplating this he became aware of the humans surrounding him.
There were five of them, all male. They were also all wearing bright red bandanas. And they were smiling, but not friendly smiles.
Not friendly at all.
"What have we here?" said the one standing closest to him, a swarthy dark-haired man.
"Why it seems to be a skyborn who's gotten a bit lost," said another one (blond, with a broken nose).
"You lost, skyborn?" The first one said. "You need help finding your way?"
There were sniggers.
Dhacian gave them his broadest smile. "That's so kind of you to offer," he said. His eyes flicked over them quickly, assessing. At least three of them had knives. Possibly all five of them did.
The smile on the dark-haired one's face faded. "That wasn't an offer, scum," he said.
Dhacian held up his hands, placatingly. "Now then, gentlemen." He couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out as he used the title. "I don't want to have to use magic--"
They began to laugh.
"Magic!" The blond one said. "Listen to the brainless thing!"
"I'm not sure why you're laughing," Dhacian said, coldly.
"You can't think us stupid enough to fall for that bluff," the dark haired one said. He took a step closer, knife gripped firmly in his hand. "Your kind's time of tyranny is over, birdling. Now? Now it's time to pay."
And he lunged forward.
Dhacian instinctively reached for his magic.
The shock-- the sudden horror-- was so great that Dhacian did not dodge the knife in the slightest. It slashed down, tearing through his shirt and leaving a bloody gash down his chest.
Dhacian stared at the blood, and at the knife, his mind barely processing what was happening.
The magic was gone.
The humans, encouraged by the sight of his blood, were smiling again, circling. Suddenly, two of them lunged forward simultaneously.
Dameon tried, again, desperately, to reach for his magic. He scrabbled at the place in his mind where it was, where it should have been, where it--
This time he tried to dodge, and the knife aimed at his heart struck a rib and bounced back, the other knife leaving a trail of blood down one wing. But the chest wound was hurting, a lot, and he felt dizzy.
The humans were licking their lips, sensing a kill.
it was slow motion.
A strange numbness came over him. The same numbness, when he was falling through nothing and everything was instaneously forever and--
It was as if the assailants were frozen, their arms moving like pudding being poured through a sieve.
Dhacian stepped to the side.
Time snapped back to normal.
The blond human brought his arm down on nothing and turned, surprised, to gape at Dhacian who--
was no longer there but behind him, and the knife was suddenly--
not in his hand anymore, but in Dhacian's.
It didn't take very long after that.
When all five of them were unconscious, heaped together in a pile, Dhacian ripped a strip of cloth from his anyway ruined shirt and tried to use it to staunch the bleeding from his chest.
He had no idea what had just happened.
He was wondering if he was going to get used to that feeling any time soon.
"I'd like an audience with the Empress," he'd said, and they'd laughed at him.
He wondered if that was the sort of thing that would have stopped him, once upon a time. Now, though... They looked at him a bit oddly when he smiled. He supposed his smiling muscles were a bit out of practice.
It took very little effort to find out there would be a ball the next night. Maybe he wouldn't have waited, but there were things he felt he should do before meeting her, so he decided to let the ball be his opportunity.
It took even less effort to make his way in-- aside from stealing a set of proper clothing, he'd spent the afternoon practicing that weird thing that had happened that morning, and discovered that he could sort of make it happen at will for a few fractions for fractions of fractions of a moment, which was really all that was necessary-- only one guard took interest in him as he walked in confidently, and then Dhacian was across the room and the guard was left blinking, confused.
The ball was loud.
There were humans. There were mostly humans. Filling up the palace like they belonged there.
Of course Ryler had picked up bits and pieces and actually quite a lot about how much things had changed since he'd been gone-- that was the other thing he'd done, during the time he's waited, confirm that the Skyborns magic was gone, like the world lurching out of balance. Actually everything was very different and maybe he would have spent more time thinking about it if he cared.
Still, it was strange, to see all the humans, striding around like they owned the place which apparently they somewhat did.
Not really relevant, though. It didn't matter.
He pressed his way through the crowds. He couldn't see her. It didn't matter. He knew where she was. He knew like the adamant knew which way was north.
She was surrounded by a small circle-- two at least were guards, they tried to push him away but he pressed past them, ignoring them--
"Hello," he said. He watched her eyes widen, her mouth fall slightly open. He watched her heart stop.
Then her mouth closed and her expression became the same blank, neutral expression he hated so much. Hated her. Just seeing her, Void how he hated her, in his bones skin fingers.
"May I have this dance?" He looked at her straight in the eyes, smiling slightly, watching her, watching her breathe, it felt like he could feel the pulse in her throat. Quickening like his.
The people around her murmured, in protest, of course she couldn't--
"Yes," she said, her gaze dropping, not meeting his. She said it with a sort of quiet resignation.
"Aren't you happy to see me?" He said, guiding her onto the floor, a little too forceful, mine.
"I thought you were dead," she said, softly.
She was holding herself very straight, moving smoothly, the same effortless grace she always had. Even when she'd shown up, some strange half-wild hermit creature, she was always graceful. Poised. Powerful.
He could feel her trembling.
"You do keep managing to kill me," he said.
"But I knew you weren't," she said, even softer.
He paused for a fraction of a second, awkwardly missing a beat of the dance. Recovered quickly.
"Hmm?" He said.
"I knew you weren't. Dead. I knew." She said.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, suddenly furious.
"I knew you'd come back," she said. "I waited."
"Waited?" He said. "You know what I intend to do."
"Maybe," she said.
"I have spent so many years having my revenge stolen from me," he said.
"I- I know," she said.
"I'm going to kill you," he said. "By the time this night is over you'll be dead. And I'll double-check to make sure it's the real thing."
"Okay," she said.
He gritted his teeth.
"Maybe I'll kill you now, actually. Why take a risk that you'll slip away," he said.
"...Okay," she said. Her gaze dropped downwards.
"That's it?" He hissed. "You're not even going to try-- to try, even, fighting back--"
"I missed you," she said. "I missed you so, so much."
He abandoned all pretense of continuing the dance. They had circled all the way to the opposite edge of the ballroom. He shook her, hard, his fingers driving into the bare skin of her arms.
"Fight me, dammit," he hissed. "You disgusting-- you disgusting coward, how dare you, how dare you kill me, and kill me again, and not fight back."
She didn't answer. She was breathing raggedly, her hands had come up somehow and they were clutching, somehow, his arms.
"I hate you," he said. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," and somehow the space between them had disappeared and his hands were on her shoulders and on the small of her back and running through her hair and he was falling and he was falling and he was falling.