Her fingers wrapped over the banister of the highest tower’s balcony tightly enough that her knuckles had gone white, the bones and tendons creaking under the strain, muscles locked up and loudly protesting their prolonged position. But she was frozen in place, unable to bring herself to move even though her back was demanding she sit down, her feet long since gone numb as the swelling of her legs from the knees down increased to the point that it was a wonder her boots were still in one piece, and her stomach was threatening to vacate every single thing it had eaten in her entire life.
But she had heard a voice that she hadn’t heard in so long it was almost like a dream and once she’d heard it, her attention was riveted on where the war was beginning just to the north of the City and she couldn’t look away.
“Do you know who I am?”
Hearing Rhyshladlyn’s voice for the first time in nearly a year was like a salve applied to a burn she hadn’t known she had. She felt her heart stop when she’d seen his wings, both sets when did he get his second set back? spread out to either side of him in an impressive display of dominance before he gave their father’s army an ultimatum: surrender or die. She couldn’t hear the responding shouts but they didn’t sound pleasant and given the way her little brother had reacted, they were especially sharp edged but he didn’t respond with anger. If anything he responded calmly, far more so than she had expected of him.
“You have been found Wanting as the Scales have tipped to favor the Feather. May the Faceless grant you the mercy the Nameless shall not.”
And then the first blood was drawn as he collided with the front line and she found herself wishing she could look away, wishing she could move and find Relyt and beg him to take her out of the City right now. Because she knew he had a plan but he hadn’t said anything, not since he got back from singing the War Song that sent Father’s army out marching to meet General Thayne Firesbane’s. And his silence was nearly as unnerving as Anislanzir’s refusal to come near her now that she was starting to show more prominently than she had been.
With a hiss of disgust, she pushed away from the banister, fingers feeling stiff from being kept in the same position for so long and she looked down at her distended abdomen, eyes glancing back at the balcony. And for just a brief moment she pondered how much work it would be to haul herself up onto the railing and then fall over the other side to the City below. The only structure in the City that was taller than the North Tower was the obelisk that rose from the Great Temple, so her death was guaranteed… once she made it to the ground that was. If I made it to the ground, she thought as she unconsciously wrapped her arms over and below her belly, thinking of the times she had attempted to end her life before then, attempted to goad her sire into killing her, only for something to stop her, to Heal her just enough for Relyt to arrive and finish the job of saving her. She had no doubt it was her child, like it knew that it was not supposed to die yet. That she was not supposed to die yet. No matter how much she wished to.
She swallowed hard against the bile that rose in her throat at the thought at the fact that even after the last failed attempt, even after she had vowed not to try again, the urge remained like an itch she couldn’t quite get rid of. Yes, she planned to dispatch the spawn growing in her womb she would not die, not by her own hands. Someone had to rule the Sinner Demons when Father fell, even if she was beginning to worry that she wouldn’t live long enough to be that someone. And while Rhyshladlyn was strong, exceptionally so, and surely capable, he was not the right fit for the Sinner Demons. Never mind that they would never accept him as their Lord King. That and she’d been working for the last year to get those within the City and within her father’s court swayed to her side and was nearly there. All it would take was one last push and they were hers. Plus from what Relyt had told her, Jaro and the rest of the General’s elite unit that had infiltrated the City and Palace had nearly every Palace staff member and garrison member that stayed behind in the City on their side.
So while she felt hopeless, things were not truly that way. Not yet.
With one last look at the Field where Rhyshladlyn was easily visible as he cut a trail through the warriors and soldiers, many of whom he had trained personally over the decades, two forms following behind him on foot and Azriel flying hard and fast above them, Alaïs tightened her arms around her abdomen and let out a deep breath, eyes falling closed as the screams and sounds of fighting drifted on the winds from the Field.
Please, whoever… whatever… still hears us mortals, see that my brother makes it here safely, see that we all make it out. We deserve that much after everything we’ve gone through.
Turning away from the balcony and the sight of her brother fighting and the thoughts of jumping, she headed inside, carefully descending the stairs of the tower. She had a Soul Healer to find and plans to finalize.
For if her estimates were correct, Rhyshladlyn would be there within the day if not sooner. And when he arrived, the City would become a landscape that few would survive.
He ran full tilt through the Palace, dodging staff and the odd soldier here and there, Jaro hot on his heels, as he threw his senses out searching for Alaïs. She wasn’t in their conjoined rooms, the library, or any of her other normal haunts, despite him telling her that he would be right back. He had just stepped away long enough to meet up with Jaro and Eithyl and the rest one last time to make sure everything was going according to plan. But when he’d gotten back, he hadn’t been able to find her, and became terrified that Anislanzir had gotten to her. Especially since everyone in the City had heard Rhyshladlyn’s words as he addressed the Lord King’s army, had heard their clamoring responses, had heard Rhyshladlyn’s reply just before the screaming of the dying erupted and shattered along the Currents. And had Relyt felt it the second the first blood had been drawn because the City had pulsed, and he had turned to Jaro who had blinked silvery-blue eyes at him, before they’d both whispered, “Alaïs,” and took off to find her. To get her out before they began working on getting all the innocents out of the Palace and City before Rhyshladlyn arrived, before Thayne’s army made it to the Gates.
He had expected the war to begin swiftly after he’d sung that War Song but he hadn’t expected it to begin before he could finalize their escape route. Well Alaïs’ escape, he didn’t plan to leave with her, not that he had told anyone that. He would remain in the City if only to make sure that that un-male actually died. Even if he had to be the one to deal that blow himself, even if he had to raze the City to the ground, he would make sure Anislanzir did not walk away alive.
“Where could she be?” Jaro asked from behind him, having elected to assign himself as Relyt’s personal guard of sorts until Rhyshladlyn made it to the City or Relyt and Alaïs made it out, whichever happened first.
So with the start of the war, with the ringing of the bells and the singing of the Song of War and Love, Jaro had broken from the unit and vowed to stick by Relyt’s side and Alaïs’, had promised on his ancestors that he would see that the heir to the Sinner Demon throne would make it out alive and the spawn in her womb dead. Regardless of what happened, regardless of what it took, regardless of what she or anyone else said, Jaro was to see that Alaïs made it out of the City and that that child in her womb died on the Festival of the Flesh.
“I don’t know. She should have been in her rooms, it was what we agreed on as a meeting place,” he replied, frantically trying to find her while trying to calm himself down and finding himself unsuccessful with either. “But I can’t sense her. Like she’s outside of my range but that should encompass the entire City.”
Jaro made a sound that may have been words but he couldn’t catch them before the World tilted violently and pain bloomed down his left side as he met the stone wall of the hallway with enough force that the structure groaned in protest of its treatment. Shouting erupted around him and he blinked away the black spots that had formed in his vision to see that an entire section of hallway had been blown away. Chunks of stone and ceiling littered the floor, the wind blowing in from outside where the outer wall had been punctured, sunlight filtering in. Amid the rubble and debris lay bodies broken, in whole, and in pieces. Relyt blinked again, caught up in an sensory memory of when they had fought off a raid on the cabin months ago and he’d walked out of the forest with Azriel and Rhyshladlyn to see hundreds of bodies littering the ground like discarded craft supplies. Only this wasn’t the past. This wasn’t that night, this wasn’t the day everything went to shit and his World changed irrevocably. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to separate the scene before him from the echoes of a past he hadn’t realized affected him so greatly.
That was when the City’s Wards and Barriers came screeching to life and the Palace’s Shields flickered into existence and began to shriek around him, mingling with the groans and screams and wails of the injured and those that were scrambling to save them.
What happened? What is going on? This isn’t right.
“Relyt!” His eyes flew open and Jaro was all he could see, eyes so dark a blue they were almost black, his hat gone, face a riot of emotions that flitted across it too fast for Relyt to name any of them. The Soulless’ voice sounded muffled, like he was hearing it through water at a distance. “Relyt!” Jaro called out again, hand coming up to smack against his cheek and he jerked at the impact, blinking slowly, wondering why everything seemed so distant and fuzzy but clear all at the same time.
“I’m here, I’m here,” Relyt didn’t know if his voice was too loud or if he even spoke above a whisper but Jaro nodded so he must have been understood somehow. “What happened?” He asked, lifting a shaking, blood-covered hand to curl around Jaro’s wrist where the Soulless still stood with his hand pressed to Relyt’s cheek. Is that my blood?
“Focus, Soul Healer!” Jaro said and his voice, while still muffled, was clearer than it had been. “I think Thayne’s army sent an attack at the City and that was one of the blasts that landed before the City’s Wards even knew what happened and could activate to defend itself.”
“What?” He snarled. “There’s innocents in this Palace! We haven’t even begun to evacuate them all!”
Jaro made a face that was a mixture of apology and anger and Relyt wondered at how such a thing were possible but he didn’t focus on it lest he get lost trying to mimic it.
“I know. That’s why I need you to stick with me,” Jaro was saying and Relyt shook his head, immediately regretting the action as it made his ears ring with each word Jaro spoke. “We have to start evac’ing the Palace now and help those that are caught here. The Wards and such should hold for now in case more attacks drop, but I don’t really want to take that chance. Especially given those that Thayne has on her side.”
He didn’t say it out right but Relyt knew he was referring to Rhyshladlyn. Because if the Qishir launched a magickal attack at the City? It would open up and welcome it with happy chitters and soft sighs. For Shiran City wanted the taint of the Lord King out of it probably more than Rhyshladlyn wanted the Lord King removed from the cycle of existence itself. And he doubted Shiran City cared whether some of its inhabitants could be considered innocent or not. So long as Anislanzir was removed, that was all that mattered.
“But there are over a hundred thousand residents in the Palace’s main building alone, let alone the outlying buildings, the grounds themselves, the Wards won’t hold that long,” he replied, trying to overcome the nausea roiling in his gut, the fear that was making breathing difficult. He used to have such control over his emotions. But that was before I met Rhyshladlyn, before the Many abandoned me as it has abandoned all of my people, before I came to this nightmare of a City and became the new plaything of Anislanzir.
“Let us help,” a soft, lilting voice that was like silk spoke and Relyt jerked around to find Shadiranamen standing staring at him with sapphire eyes that were darker than he’d ever seen them, lips curling back to reveal what seemed like way too many sharp teeth than what should be able to fit in such a humanoid looking mouth. Everything in her body language screamed danger and he found himself fighting against his instincts telling him to run or kill her before she decided to come after him. Because he knew she was an ally, knew he was safe from her. But looking at her at that exact moment? Part of him wasn’t so sure.
Beside him Jaro tensed, power thrumming to the surface, eyes basically black they were so dark a blue. Relyt held an arm out to keep him from advancing on the Other, opening his mouth to explain but she beat him to it.
“Peace, Soulless, we are with the Key. He sent us,” Shadiranamen said sibilantly, eyes never leaving Relyt even though she spoke obviously to Jaro.
“We? Who else is with you?” Relyt asked, shifting to prop his right shoulder against the wall as he fought against a wave of vertigo that only served to exacerbate his nausea. I must have a concussion. This isn’t good. “And where is Rh — where is the Key?”
There was a soft whoosh and Xheshmaryú stepped out from behind Shadiranamen, violet eyes dark enough that had they not caught the sunlight that was flooding the hallway as he surveyed the destruction behind him and Jaro, Relyt would have assumed they were black.
“Just myself and Shadi, the Key is on the Field,” the Nochresi replied, never making eye contact with any of them, gaze intent on the damage behind them, on the death that had come to the Palace hallway, the wails and suffering of the dying and injured. “Excuse me,” he stepped around Jaro and strode for the end of the hallway, reaching out to begin moving debris with his magick before he even physically reached it.
“Do you require aid?” Shadiranamen asked and Relyt shook his head. Judging by the look on her face she knew he was lying but he wasn’t critical and they both knew that. “Very well,” with that she, too, walked around and past them and joined Xheshmaryú.
There was a heartbeat of silence as Jaro breathed deeply, calming himself down from the edge. Relyt didn’t disturb him, merely turned and watched as Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú worked in tandem, knowing by the way they seemed to respond to each other without speaking that they were communicating via the link all Others had with their fellows. He wondered why Rhyshladlyn wasn’t with them and felt a sense of, he would call it foreboding but that wasn’t quite right. Like the calm before a storm that would likely leave death in its wake. Only it was so much more than that.
“Who were they exactly?” Jaro asked at length, hand coming to rest on Relyt’s right shoulder, slipping across his back to help prop him up when he swayed on his feet. “They didn’t feel like regular Dhaoine.”
“That’s because they aren’t regular Dhaoine,” Relyt closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively against the nausea filling his throat with bile. Opening his eyes again he flinched when he saw Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú staring at him before they looked away.
“What the fuck are they then?”
“They are Rhyshladlyn’s Others.”
Jaro spluttered. “What? I thought he only had Nhulynolyn, his twin? Also, I thought Others were only capable of holding corporeal forms within a certain distance of their kè and there is no way that distance is several leagues.”
Relyt snorted, the sound inelegant and rude, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“No, he has the three, though we suspect he may have more. But if he does? They haven’t revealed themselves,” his mouth twisted in a bemused smile. “And it’s Rhyshladlyn. The rules have never applied to him.”
He pushed gently away from Jaro and strode down the hallway to join his Qishir’s Others, feeling the entire time that he was making a decision that he shouldn’t be making, that this was not the right choice. But these people were dying, were injured, because of his choice to bring the war down upon the Worlds sooner than Rhyshladlyn had likely planned for it to arrive. And all because he was tired of waiting to be rescued, of waiting for his Qishir to remember he was here, to remember he was fighting to keep not just himself but the Qishir’s sister alive. So even if he should run, even if he should go find Alaïs and ignore the danger staring him down, he wouldn’t.
These people were innocent and didn’t deserve to die. So if there was any chance he could help save them? He wouldn’t walk away from them.
“Go find Alaïs, I will meet up with you when I can. I have to help these people first.”
“What about our plans?” Jaro called back.
“Follow them, just count me out of them. Get Alaïs out of here alive, Jaro. See her to safety and return to start evacuating everyone else. I’ll do what I can to get the evacuations started. But she is your priority, not me,” he tossed over his shoulder, not bothering to look back to see if the Soulless had complied or even heard him.
Because the closer he drew to Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú, the worse that feeling of the calm before the storm became. But it wouldn’t stop him.
Even if everything in him was screaming run.