Thousands of campaigns, all but two successful, and of all of them the most difficult seemed to be storming Shiran City. For despite having highly detailed maps that she hadn’t expected to acquire, despite having an army of nearly six hundred thousand highly trained warriors and soldiers, despite having at least one potential ally — the Lord King’s only surviving acknowledged child, Alaïs — within a City of millions, she felt that there was no way for her to succeed in this endeavor and not lose at least half of her amassed force. And no way she looked at the maps she had, no strategic plans made and scrapped and redone again and again, allowed her to see any other outcome. And that was just unacceptable.
How can I get into the City? I need to get inside, lay waste to it from the inside out, like a disease it never saw coming. Because I don’t think I’ll be able to succeed storming the Gates head on.
They were supposed to have lain siege to Shiran City four days ago but that had been waylaid when Amèl in all her infinitely stupid wisdom had elected to go into that tiny town outside the Forest of Shadows in Shaozae Province, Majik World, and gotten her Chosen’s Blessing Rejected by none other than the heir to the Sinner Demon throne. It had shot their original plans to shit and Thayne was still a bit angry about that. Because now they had no one to take over as the new Lord King when she personally severed that un-male’s head from his neck. Anis Ka’ahne had been the only legal heir to the throne with Rhyshladlyn denounced and on the run. But with Anis dead, there would be a power vacuum once Anislanzir fell and Thayne prayed that whoever stepped into the vacancy wasn’t as bad as the current Lord King. Though to be fair, they needed a new dynasty ruling the Sinner Demons, the Ka’ahne line had ruled for long enough.
As it was, however, trying to hide such a massive army so close to the City was far easier than she anticipated it to be, but was still a drain on the Benders she had assigned to the task and she hoped to relieve them of their duties sooner rather than later. But the only way she could do that was by finally laying proper siege to the City five leagues to the south.
“Lady Thayne! Lady Thayne!”
She looked up from the maps she had spread over four large tables under the main general’s tent, crimson eyes curious, as a runner came sprinting through the rows of tents, dodging soldiers and warriors and camp fires. The Therianthrope came to a skidding halt at the entrance to the tent, bent over with eir hands on eir knees, gulping in air before ey rose, executed a crisp salute, silver eyes twinkling with a mirth that she didn’t quite understand while ey awaited acknowledgement.
“Out with it, I haven’t all day,” she barked, impatient.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn Ka’ahne and his Companion, Azriel Kasuske of the House of Veratone, are at the camp’s southern flank, my Lady.”
For several moments all she could do was blink back at the runner, unable to form enough of a thought to attempt to speak. Mother had made it explicitly clear that they were not to engage with Rhyshladlyn if they ever happened across him, even if the Ancients, with whom she held half-heritage, clamored loudly and at length for the Qishir’s body to be delivered to them dressed like a maequïnlae before the Taking Ceremony as reparations for his act of matricide which robbed them of their Queen Heir. Mother had said Uncle Azriel had expressed to her during their last conversation that Rhyshladlyn was to be left alone and Mother had taken him at his word, as well as the words of those few who had witnessed the feats the Qishir had performed over the last ninety some odd years.
Not that Thayne blamed Mother for the decree. For anyone capable of surviving the removal of three sets of wings at once was not someone she personally wanted to cross steel with. Never mind that she remembered vividly the day the Qishir had thrown his power to the winds and brought death and darkness to the Worlds before it receded and left one room in each Temple in Ilzhudae Province unusable and any who dared so much as touch the door didn’t survive the encounter. And if they did, their minds weren’t intact. She had also seen the carnage left in the wake of the raiding party Anislanzir had sent to their cabin where it was first located within Majik World before Rhyshladlyn had literally gone off the magickal map. The only clear space of ground was where the cabin had originally stood. Everywhere else was covered three feet deep in bodies, severed limbs, innards, and other things that did not belong outside of a Dhaoine’s body.
It was enough to have instilled a healthy dose of apprehensive trepidation even without Mother’s direct order not to engage. And now the one who instilled that in her was here in her camp for reasons yet unknown and she’d be lying if she said the shiver that ran down her spine was related to any emotion besides fear.
“They’re… here?” She finally manged, incredulity thick in her tone as she stood up straight, glancing around at her lieutenants and aides, unsurprised to see the various looks of shock, dread, apprehension, and excitement. They were always up for a challenge, it was one of the reasons Mother had chosen her unit to lead the march on Shiran City. After all, who had ever heard of a City being sieged upon and broken? No one. So she and her unit were determined to succeed, if for no other reason than bragging rights. Though killing that tyrant, Anislanzir, wasn’t a bad reason to succeed either.
But there was a challenge and then there was suicide. And going up against Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn Ka’ahne was fucking suicide, plain and simple.
“Yes, my Lady,” the Therianthrope affirmed, nodding as ey did so. “Southern flank, just beyond the first mess tent.”
“Fuck,” she hissed before turning away from the table to grab up her armor, donning it as she strode around the table and towards the tent entrance. She paused just outside and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow, sharp features contorted into a look of contempt. For all that her unit was comprised of some of the most imaginatively sadistic and strategically ingenious minds in the Worlds, they were capable of abject stupidity at the most inopportune of times. “Well? I am not going to meet them alone and I sure as fuck am not ignoring them either.”
A chorus of “yes, my Lady”s and “aye, General Firesbane”s echoed after her as she strode fast and hard towards the location the runner provided.
It had been going on a century since she had last seen her uncle and she didn’t know what she expected but it couldn’t have been what she saw when she rounded the last turn and came into eyesight of the southern flank just near first mess tent. For there he stood, just as tall and regal as he always had been, a near mirror image of Mother, but where Mother was all shades of red and white, Uncle Azriel was reds and silvers and golds with splotches of black and he cut a far more imposing visage than Mother ever could. All around him the warriors and soldiers who had caught sight of Uncle and his Qishir had stopped to stare, the increased scent of anxiety, wonderment, and arousal nearly too thick to handle even from several yards away. But none stopped to speak with him, address him in any manner. They recognized the warrior he was, would have recognized it even if he wasn’t wearing his sword strapped to his back, his wings curled to either side of the hilt, muscular body clothed in lightweight Anglëtinean armor. He was a striking sight and it was because of that that Thayne didn’t remotely blame those in the camp’s awestruck bumbling.
But despite all of that, he still paled in comparison to the male that stood beside him, nearly Uncle’s height but not quite. If Azriel was banked fury and the promised hint of violence on the wind that one barely caught, Rhyshladlyn was violence and fury made flesh and bone, forged in the very fires of horrors unimaginable, and given a face and power to match it. And it was that power that danced out along the Currents, like snake tongues tasting scents, and felt like lightning as it brushed against her skin. Dressed in leather tunic and breaches with vambraces curled tightly around strong forearms, all of which shimmered and glinted in the sun like armor even if it wasn’t, he was breathtaking, and Thayne found herself shocked into silence and immobility for the second time because of the Qishir in less than half an hour. She was utterly uncaring that she had come to an abrupt, inexplicable halt in the middle of the roadway with her unit spreading out behind her.
“By the Forests,” someone offered in reverent prayer behind her and while she didn’t worship, or even make manners to, the same gods as the Fae who had spoken, she couldn’t disagree with his sentiment.
“Aye,” someone else replied. “Thank the gods surrounding we needn’t fight him, we would stand no chance.”
“Nay,” quipped another, laughter only heard when afraid coloring eir voice, “only the un-male what sired him. Hope be had that bastard is far less of a challenge than what his second begotten would seem to be.”
Thayne didn’t bother silencing them, she knew that their words were designed to ease their tension but it didn’t matter if she had told them to hold their tongues or not. All chatter ceased as the walking embodiment of death and violence itself that was the one nicknamed the Grey Qishir turned faintly glowing orange-amber eyes to them and a slow, creeping smile flicked up the corners of that expressive mouth and the entire atmosphere of the camp changed, shifted. While she couldn’t pinpoint how, she at least knew the why, and it was currently smiling at her like she imagined a panther would in the wild to its prey. She had seen carnage on a scale she had no words to accurately describe and yet had never known fear for her life, not until that moment when the Qishir that scared even Grandfather looked at her like that. Not until that happy, murderous smile was directed at her but not at her as though those eyes looked past her masks, down to her Self, where her True Face sat and hummed contentedly after her last feeding, where every bad and good act she ever did was laid bare and clear, and still he smiled. He stood surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Dhaoine who had every right to do their damnedest to take him down and he was utterly unaffected; as though he knew just as well as they that he could drop every last one of them to the sands without lifting a single finger, and just grinned as though there was no place else he’d rather be.
I’m not truly his enemy, I’m not even his friend, but fuck if that isn’t the most frightening smile I have ever had the displeasure of laying eyes on.
“Is it wrong that if I weren’t attracted to females that I’d wanna proposition him to fuck me later just to see if he’s as rough in bed as I think he is?”
“Well, you can always ask his Companion, though by the look’a that one, I wouldn’t chance it.”
A smattering of laughter sounded in response and Thayne found herself chuckling low in her throat, the sound barely audible before she squared her shoulders, pushed her fear down, and purposefully strode forward.
She didn’t try bravado, didn’t try to play it off as though she weren’t abjectly horrified at coming face-to-face with Rhyshladlyn. The Qishir had no doubt smelled it the second she got the news of his arrival in her camp, but neither did she let it control her. She approached not as an equal or a subordinate, but rather as someone who offered the respect she hoped to be given in return. And judging by the look of approval that flitted across that darkly tanned face, it had been the right call.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” she called once in earshot, voice ringing out like a thunderclap, silencing several rows of tents and their occupants, “I am honored you chose my camp to visit. What brings you among my humble soldiers and warriors?”
Rhyshladlyn laughed, the sound like a warm bath after a long day on the battlefield, easing sore and achy muscles. He waved a long, thin-fingered hand, that smile still in place as he spoke, voice holding a resonance to it as though he had several voices speaking in tandem to his own. And if the stories were true, those extra voices belonged to his Others.
“Cut the formalities, Thayne, I never cared for them and I’m not about to,” he looked away, eyes roving over the tents, taking stock of the warriors that had gathered outside the mess tent and the personal tents, some clutching weapons, some half covered in armor, some dressed down for a day’s rest. Thayne didn’t comment, didn’t interrupt him, just waited, watching as the Qishir mentally calculated the size of her army, mentally decided which of her warriors and soldiers were worthy of fighting, which weren’t, and which could provide a challenge. Eventually those calculating eyes landed on her again and she tried not to flinch under the intensity of that stare. “I’ve a suspicion you’re having difficulty figuring how to bring Shiran City to bear and I’m here to help you with that, Thayne Firesbane.”
She frowned in confusion, glancing at her lieutenants and aides who had spread out to either side of her before asking, “Help me? Why? How?”
“We may dislike your mother, Thayne,” Azriel interjected before Rhyshladlyn even opened his mouth and while those gathered around them gasped in slightly horrified shock because most qahllynshæ to a Qishir wouldn’t speak out of turn like that, the Qishir didn’t seem upset in the slightest, “but the purpose you hold here, we agree with. So while we may not fight alongside you neither will we hinder you.”
“You need a way into the City,” Rhyshladlyn added, that smile shifting much the same way the atmosphere of the camp had, “and I can provide that.”
“Permit me,” one of her aides, a short, squat Druid, said, “name is Thyl and I ask why you’re doing this.”
Rhyshladlyn tilted his head in what was clearly an indulgent way before responding, “Because, Thyl, my father does not deserve to live a moment longer and while I can storm those Gates and make it into the City and raze it to the ground as I run full tilt for his Palace and tear it to pieces,” Rhyshladlyn paused, laughing low in his throat, the sound short and bitter, “I am unfortunately needed elsewhere. So, in light of that, I am offering you and your General here what aid I can in seeing that your siege is successful.”
Thayne took a slow, deliberate step forward.
Rhyshladlyn’s smile twisted before falling away between one eye-blink and the next. “Let me show you,” was all the warning Thayne had before the Qishir was suddenly right in front of her and then the World tilted on its axis and she found herself standing in front of a door set into the tall, glowing golden wall in front of her. It took her longer than she was willing to admit to realize she was standing in front of part of the wall to Shiran City, holy shit.
“This door leads you into a set of back alleyways that are largely unused. Send in only a handful of your most trusted warriors,” Rhyshladlyn said from beside her and she turned wide eyes to the Qishir. “My Steward, Relyt Greymend, is inside the City acting under the Healer’s Contract signed by my father to my sister, Alaïs, as of two days ago. Tell your infiltration party to seek him out discreetly and carefully and say they are part of the Key. He will know they are under my protection.”
“Why are you doing this?” Thayne questioned as Rhyshladlyn turned now haunted eyes back to the wall that spread skyward before them, humming softly in time to the pulsing golden glow that emanated from it, as though he were replying to the City as it cooed softly at him in the only way it could.
“I’m doing this because if your army were to storm the Gates head on, you would all die,” he started, voice soft, “and enough people have died because of me.”
Before Thayne could comment any further, Rhyshladlyn reached out, closed one of his hands around her wrist and the World tilted again. When it righted itself, she found she was back in the camp, right where she’d been standing before Rhyshladlyn had transported them, with the Qishir’s voice echoing in her head telling her exactly where to find that door again.
“Remember what I’ve said, Thayne,” Rhyshladlyn said before he turned on his heel and headed back towards the southern edge of the camp, reaching out to take Azriel’s hand. Before they disappeared from sight entirely, with no visible or magickal sign at having caught a Line, just gone between one moment and the next, Rhyshladlyn looked over his shoulder at her and Thayne felt her heart stutter before kicking into a faster beat as dread filled her stomach. And then Rhyshladlyn and Uncle were gone, the atmosphere of the camp returning to what it was before that smile had made an appearance, before the Grey Qishir had stepped foot among them, before she had been given the answer she had been searching for.
She now understood why Mother and Grandfather were scared of Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn Ka’ahne. But in the same breath she understood why the Worlds were rallying behind him even if they weren’t speaking openly about it yet, even if said Qishir probably wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life alone, free of any responsibilities except those that came with having a Court.
Because Rhyshladlyn could have killed them all, could have done exactly as he said he could and stormed the Gates himself and ended this days ago. Instead, he chose to come to her in peace and give her the information necessary to see her warriors and soldiers home safely at the end of this. And that alone spoke volumes to the worth Rhyshladlyn had as a Qishir and as a Dhaoine.
But it also spoke to the fact that there was more to this building war than met the eye and that was a thought she could have done without having.