The Storytellers are known for spinning tales about great warriors capable of feats that even the gods would raise an eyebrow at. One such story was of a warrior who was said to be able to remove his Self from his body, to wear it upon a chain hanging from around his neck, that by doing so he had no restrictions, he had nothing holding him back on the battlefield. Males, females, neodrachs, children, young, old, clergy, Healers, Qishir, it didn’t matter. If they stood in his way, they were his foe and he cut them down without a single hesitation. And when he returned his Self to its proper place within him? He felt no guilt because the emotional side of memories didn’t attach to him, only the actions. And it is the emotional side of things that makes one question the justification of one’s actions.
Thayne had always thought that particular story was rather hyperbolic, nearly impossible. But that was before she saw Rhyshladlyn step onto a training field, tilt his head with a slow smile twisting his lips, eyes alight with a mirth that was equal parts insanity and delight, then let out a war cry that made the earth below their feet dance as he lunged into “battle.” That was before she had seen him call his swords to his hands and twirl them to and fro as though they were extensions of his body and not hardened metal and leather, before she had seen him go barehanded, armor-less, without padding, no holds bar, against naked, sharpened steel and win. That was before she had watched him knock down forty of her best warriors in under five minutes without magick, without trickery, without any weapons save his mind and his body.
That first day she’d seen him on the training fields? She had discovered that while not all of the tales woven by the Storyteller race were possible, perhaps the one about the Self-less Warrior was.
And to see him now in just a tunic and breeches, feet bare so his toes could curl in the thickly packed sands of the field, eyes missing nothing as they roved over the hundreds of warriors that had been paired or grouped off to spar and practice various techniques? It was no less breathtaking. If anything it further served to help her believe that the tale of the Self-less Warrior was real, that it was alive in the body of the Qishir that paced almost like a wild animal surveying its potential prey, weaving in and around the various groups and pairings, offering instructions and advice here and there.
“Stop pulling your swings!” Rhyshladlyn hollered, voice whip-crack sharp as it struck out across the fields as he stopped at a pair where one warrior had obviously pulled her punch short of making contact with her partner’s throat. Not that Thayne blamed her. Had that punch connected the warrior would have broken her partner’s neck if not killed him.
“How many times must I tell the lot of you to put full power behind each swing? How else will you learn to parry and dodge effectively on the battlefield?”
“This is sparring though?” one of the warriors, a Black Soul Healer, retorted with no small amount of annoyance lacing the words. “We’re not supposed to go balls to ass with sparring. It’s not a real battle. It’s practice for it, yeah, and sure it’s to keep us limber and shit, but it’s not real.”
Thayne shuddered involuntarily, as did everyone else, at the laugh Rhyshladlyn replied with. It wasn’t quite condescending but it was just enough so that it made one bristle to hear it while it simultaneously made one’s stomach drop out with guilt. If disappointment was a sound, I don’t doubt it would be that laugh. Gods have mercy.
“Every time you draw steel you are in a battle, whether it is a sparring match or not. Every time you raise your fists to defend yourself or another you are in a battle, whether it is a sparring match or not,” Rhyshladlyn scolded. “Battles are not cut and dry, enemy against enemy. Most of the time,” he added, crossing the packed sand on bare feet, seemingly unperturbed by the blood and sweat and other nastiness that had soaked into the ground below him, “battles are between two friends, friends who thought they were on the same side only to learn that when the lines fall, when steel is drawn and magick sent skittering out in all directions just how wrong they were. Battles are between lovers who didn’t know they thought differently until it was too late to talk about it. Battles are fought between siblings who just couldn’t bring themselves to have a conversation about their opposing views. Battles are literally life and death, always. And the dirtier you fight? The more likely you are to leave that field alive. And you will spar with that idea in mind. Otherwise you’re not learning shit besides that some battles are real, some aren’t, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth if you said closing your eyes while standing in an empty town square meant you were hidden from sight because you couldn’t see anyone else so therefore they couldn’t see you.”
Thayne watched as Rhyshladlyn stopped before the warrior that had spoken, the Black Soul Healer blinking up at the Qishir who was only just tall enough to tower over em slightly. The Soul Healer blinked ink black eyes up at Rhyshladlyn who stared back with impassive orange-amber ones, a single eyebrow raising slightly in a challenge that the Soul Healer didn’t seem quite ready to answer for ey looked away, head turned to the side. Thayne could practically taste the shame rolling off the warrior and frowned wondering where the lesson was in humiliating em. But just as she was about to step forward, Rhyshladlyn spoke again.
“You feel humiliated right now, don’t you?” he asked, voice soft but it still carried to everyone across the field, smile softer than his voice, almost kind, but his eyes didn’t reflect that smile. When the warrior nodded, he continued. “Good,” the warrior’s head shot up and black eyes narrowed at the Qishir, “and I say good because that means you won’t forget this lesson for it is really important.” By all the aspects of the Moon, how does he just know what others are thinking and how they’ll react before they actually do? “This lesson is the most important one I’ll teach any of you,” he added, turning to take in the gathered warriors. “Never fight fair, ever. Because I can guarantee that whatever opponent you face will not. You are an obstacle to them just as they are to you. Do not think of them as having a family, or loved ones; do not think of the life they lived before the moment that they stepped before you with steel drawn and murderous intent clear upon their faces. It will solve nothing except the problem you pose of being in their way because it will make you weak. And weakness, while it doesn’t mean you are not strong, is what costs lives on the fields. Weakness means you’re slow, you’re not paying attention, you’re a liability. And all those combined mean you’re a shaky link in the chain meant to protect those you stand up in battle for; and shaky links are the most easily broken.”
He paused, eyes carefully cataloging everyone and Thayne realized in that moment what she had missed before. For all that he had never really left Shiran City, supposedly, Rhyshladlyn was a veteran of battles that were never given names. He had seen death, had dealt it. He may not be as old as she was, may not have led campaigns or even helped plan them, but he had seen just as many if not more battles. Because the lesson he was teaching them all just then was one she had learned the hard way, by making mistakes that cost lives, one of which was nearly her own, enough times for it to sink in that she was doing something wrong. He wasn’t as green about the jaw as she had originally thought, she’d given him that much. Though given what she’d heard about him before the first time she’d ever seen him two months ago? It should have been obvious that he had seen more, done more, than perhaps any warrior she had ever encountered, trained, or heard of. Yet it wasn’t until that moment that she truly grasped just how aware he was of not just himself but of others and the patterns formed by interactions between individuals. He saw things in ways no one else did, saw patterns and potentials that others missed. And she couldn’t help but understand a sliver of why Anislanzir wanted to break him so badly.
For as an ally, Rhyshladlyn was invaluable. As an enemy, however? He was a force no one wanted to contend with.
Never mind the fact that he was the first Qishir in several millennia capable of defending himself without needing a Warrior to do it for him, without needing a full Court, without needing anyone or anything else besides himself and his own weaponry. Because as he surveyed those gathered, Thayne knew he was cataloging each warrior he saw, he was memorizing how they stood, how they carried themselves, what expressions they made or didn’t make. In that one glance he knew whether he could take them on easily or if it would be a challenge to do so. And it took less than a second for him to know all of that before moving on.
His intelligence alone is as frightening as it is awe-inspiring. Thank the gods he’s on our side.
“I am not here to degrade you, I’m not here to tell you that any training you’ve gotten from your respective races or while in Zhalharaq was worthless because it wasn’t, not entirely,” he ran a hand through his hair and puffed out an exasperated breath. “I am here, however, to tell you to forget everything you learned besides how to hold a sword, how to use your magick both defensively and offensively, how to size up an opponent in less time than it takes you to blink. Because everything else is useless to you. Especially against the army that awaits you beyond those golden walls.”
“How could you possibly know that everything we’ve been taught is useless against them?” Ryel asked and Thayne raised an eyebrow at him. He shrugged unapologetically back at her, uncaring that outside of the Anglë race, outside of their culture, it was an insult to question a Qishir in such a way.
Rhyshladlyn went absolutely still and as he did the atmosphere shifted, much like it had that very first day and Thayne tensed, praying that he wouldn’t take one of her top notch warriors, even if it was his right, for the insult the idiot had dealt. But Rhyshladlyn had other plans, totally off script of what any other Qishir would have done, and gods help her, she never even saw him move. Just one moment he was several yards away and the next he was right there, mere inches from Ryel who flinched bodily before he froze, orange eyes darkening until they were nearly red as his fear slipped along his skin, wings flaring behind him to keep him balanced as he tried to swallow the yelp of surprise but failed. Rhyshladlyn made no other move, just stood there, inches away, staring at the Anglëtinean like he was waiting. For what was anyone’s guess.
Though after several heartbeats of tense, unmoving silence, Rhyshladlyn spoke and Thayne felt as though she was finally learning a crucial lesson as he did so.
“I know, Ryel Ankesh of the House of Felael, because I trained them. Because had I done the same move just now to one of those within the Lord King’s army?” He waved an impatient hand in the general direction of Shiran City which lay behind him. “They would have had steel drawn within seconds of my arrival in their personal space. They wouldn’t have flinched and then frozen. They would have registered me as a threat even if until that moment when I came upon them they knew me to be friendly to them. Because anything, anyone, who moves upon you in the manner I just did? They do not mean to simply startle a yelp out of you for a laugh. They mean to kill you.”
Ryel just blinked owlishly up at the Qishir before swallowing thickly. Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes and stepped back, once again addressing everyone.
“Look around you,” his voice echoed out and Thayne didn’t doubt the entire camp could hear him, his voice carrying that extra resonance it only took on when his Others spoke in tandem with him. “Memorize not the faces or voices of your fellows but their magickal signatures because that will never be faked. No glamour can alter a signature. Memorize those signatures so that in the heat of battle when your vision is clouded by the dust and sand kicked up under thousands of feet, when you’re blinking blood and sweat and other things out of your eyes, what will keep you from cutting down an ally is not your ability to see or hear them, but sense them on the signature level,” his expression hardened then. “But do not mistake me…the army you are going to be facing will go balls to ass in ways you can’t possibly imagine in order to defend their home, in order to defend the tyrant that has threatened their families in order to win their fealty. So those who stand beside you now very well could be turned against you. Prepare yourselves now for nightmares you’ve only ever heard whispered of by your elders because you’ll face them on those streets, in the sands between the dunes just outside the walls.”
“Surely you don’t mean that those the Lord King has coerced to serve him would commit atrocities on par with him or even war crimes?” A female feline Shiftkin asked.
Rhyshladlyn sighed deeply, the sound sad as though he had hoped he wouldn’t be asked that, eyes falling closed as he bowed his head. As Thayne and the rest looked on he methodically removed his tunic and breeches, vanishing them once they were folded. Slowly he lifted his head and stared at Thayne, eyes glazed but there were sparks of ice blue, sapphire, and violet in those depths as he spread his arms to either side, calling attention to the miles of naked skin and corded muscle as his gaze shifted away from her and over every warrior he could see without turning around.
“I know because I trained them to be nightmares that look like day dreams. I trained them to be as brutal as the man who sired me required them to be. I trained them to see me at full power, without my masks, war cries making the very earth shake as I made every effort to dispatch them as one would a pesky fly buzzing about their head,” the sound he made then was probably supposed to be a laugh but it sounded broken, hollow, and it made Thayne’s shiver and prickle. “I trained them to look at me without my glamour and not flinch, and while it took some time, they eventually managed it.”
“Without your…glamour?” Thyl spoke up, sounding hesitant but Thayne heard the ripple of fear in his tone.
Rhyshladlyn didn’t answer with words, merely closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out and with that outward going breath his glamour fell away.
Screams of horror and cries of dismay and retching erupted then as Rhyshladlyn dropped his glamour, glamour Thayne hadn’t realized he’d even had activated, showing the extensive scarring that covered nearly every inch of him except where his god-Marks glowed and hummed below his collarbones and on the inside of each wrist. Thayne hissed sharply through her teeth as she took in the twisted, raised skin, the mottled puckered flesh that covered his right arm from shoulder curve to wrist, the scar that cut across his right cheek, the mass of skin that she knew was from being skinned that made up what had once been his right leg from the knee down. And that was only the beginning. Someone across the field standing behind the Qishir rasped out, wing scars, before ey bent over and vomited violently, those standing around em reassuring as best they could. And then the concussive wave of emotions flew out and Thayne could hear echoes of the screams of a fledgling, begging, sobbing, could see in misted-over shimmers a knife digging into Rhyshladlyn’s abdomen before being dragged across, spilling his innards out in its wake. Could see his left knee being destroyed, could see his hips being dislocated, realigned, and pulled out over and over and over again. Could see the ghostly trickles of forced sex acts, tears and thicker things staining his face and chest. Could hear the snap of bones breaking, could hear the gurgling of vomit trapped in a throat shredded from crying and screaming.
By all the gods in Existence…
And then as quickly as he had revealed it all, it was gone. He was once again smooth skinned, his Marks hidden, the echoes of memories and ghosts of horrors hidden away, buried deep behind those jewel-bright eyes, behind that crooked smile, that confident stride. He didn’t say anything until after he had called his clothes back in, put them on, and dusted his hands off on his breeches.
“Any more questions?” No one responded, the only sounds whimpers of shock and muted retching. “Good. We’re done for now. Take a few hours to rest up. We reconvene here at sunset after the evening meal.”
As the warriors broke off into groups and dispersed, chattering amongst themselves about what they had just witnessed, Rhyshladlyn turned to Azriel, lips lifting with a brilliant smile that transformed his entire face as it lit it up and made his eyes sparkle. It was a beautiful smile that stole Thayne’s breath to see it, even more so to see the Anglëtinean return it but they didn’t do anything more than smile at each other.
Thayne had expected them to embrace, to kiss, or even exchange a soft touch of hands to reestablish the physical connection between Qishir and Companion even though they hadn’t been separated for overlong, but they didn’t need to. Their presence within easy reach alone was enough to settle the frayed nerves that came from trying to rewire warriors who had held the same ideals and training regimen for decades or centuries and from speaking of memories that, while nearly a year old now, were still fresh enough, still powerful enough, to open old scars. No one would question what they were to each other, because one just knew simply by seeing them near each other.
“That was quite the lesson,” Thayne commented, smiling to show she agreed with what Rhyshladlyn had imparted even if it meant that her forces may not be as ready as she had initially thought to take on Anislanzir. Even if her stomach threatened to revolt against the meal she had just fed it in the wake of what she had just seen.
But she wouldn’t fault the Qishir for what he had done. Best way to teach warriors was to shock the shit out of them, even if doing so meant showing one was once conquerable even if one survived the encounter.
“Forgive me if I overstepped today,” Rhyshladlyn said with sheepish smile, the hardened warrior and jaded Qishir of mere moments before gone just as quickly as he had appeared.
It was more than a little unsettling to see how quickly Rhyshladlyn could shift between the two, fast enough to cause whiplash, but she was beginning to grow used to it.
Thayne waved the comment away. “No, you are perfectly fine, Rhyshladlyn. I am just grateful you took mercy upon us and have sought to correct inconsistencies in my warriors’ training. If it will keep them alive and see them home at the end of it? I give you free reign to bruise as many egos and muscles and minds as necessary.”
“I am happy to help, Thayne,” Rhyshladlyn replied candidly before he stretched, shaking out his muscles afterwards. “Though right now I am famished and food sounds amazing.” He turned to Azriel. “I take it you’ve already eaten without me?”
Uncle to his credit didn’t look as embarrassed as he sounded when he hedged, “Perhaps.”
“Uh huh. Perhaps,” Rhyshladlyn mocked, rolling his eyes with a fond smile before gesturing in the direction of the mess tent. “Would you join me, Thayne? I could do with the company while I eat.”
“Of course,” Thayne replied.
“Fantastic!” Rhyshladlyn looped his arm around one of hers and she stared at it in shock for a heartbeat before she simply rolled with it.
One thing she had learned in the past couple months was that the Qishir was eccentric, certainly, but he hated touching others he didn’t feel comfortable with so the fact that he had willingly touched her was not something she was going to question. Rather she would appreciate it for the sign of trust and comfortability that it was.
“I had some ideas for your siege,” Rhyshladlyn said as they began walking back towards the mess tent, looking hopeful in that way that children do when they are expecting to be reminded that they are too young to converse with adults.
“Oh?” She asked, smiling at Rhyshladlyn’s nod and Azriel’s responding chuckle. I often forget just how young he still technically is until moments like this when he reminds me. “Please, share. I’m fresh out of ideas and it’s become rather frustrating.”
As they walked, Rhyshladlyn beginning to sketch out the details of his ideas, Thayne marveled that someone so young could be so Worlds weary, that someone so full of intelligence and cunning could be so sad. That someone who was so open when he allowed himself to be was so good at hiding behind masks that were full proof unless he allowed one to see beneath them. But Thayne had enough Healer in her blood from Father’s line, diluted though it was, to pick up on the rage and the agony and the sense of hopelessness that Rhyshladlyn did a fantastic job of hiding. But skin-to-skin as they were with her hand touching his forearm where it looped over hers while they walked? It wasn’t so easy for him to hide it anymore.
What is he feeling so hopeless about? What could possibly be the cause of him feeling like there’s no point to living anymore? She wondered but didn’t ask. If it was important to the survival of herself and those within the camp, Thayne didn’t doubt for a second that Rhyshladlyn would inform her.
And even though her gut clenched with foreboding at the thought, she hoped and prayed that whatever it was wouldn’t result in disaster for the rest of the Worlds. Least of all for the Qishir who had already gone through so much.