He was no stranger to urban warfare. Especially given his expertise lay not in generalized combat like most warriors but rather in search and rescue, in assassinations, and that required a type of stealth that was best utilized in metropolises, cities, and the larger towns.
So no, he was no stranger to this type of warfare.
Was no stranger to being twitchy at how many windows were open and facing the street he was traversing.
Was no stranger to feeling like a thousand eyes were watching him from those very windows, flinching at each door that opened or closed.
Was no stranger to his muscles tensing as he came to an intersection, rounded a corner, came upon an alley.
Was no stranger to hating that he couldn’t tell innocents from enemies because they looked the same.
But despite not being a stranger, until he ducked through the doorway into Shiran City after Rhyshladlyn, he hadn’t been engaged in true urban warfare in centuries. Sure he had done search and rescues, had performed assassinations — some quietly and some loudly — but he hadn’t engaged in full urbanized combat. Not since he was involved in the plot to assassinate the Sixth Qishir back in Zi’hael, Anglë World. But that had been far worse. The entire metropolis had been in chaos, every back alley a potential deathbed for anyone below a certain skill or power level. Even the temples weren’t safe. Children and women died by the hundreds daily, cut down as collateral damage in a war that consumed the city because Qishir Ahzafiel had allowed eir people to rot in poverty and perversion, taking from them until they had nothing left, broke them and then destroyed them further. He was not the first to make an attempt on the Sixth Qishir’s life, but he was the one who succeeded though the credit did not go to him; he had lost the only two Dhaoine in the Worlds that mattered to him due to that assignment and so he had refused to take credit and tarnish their memories. Never mind that back then, everyone was an enemy, every single Dhaoine he encountered couldn’t be trusted to be on his side, even those who were involved in the plot with him. And he had been right to not trust those he’d been in league with, as they had been the ones to betray him to Lulphé, they had cost him everything save his own life, they had led to the death of his wife and son, had led to everything being turned upside down.
He pulled his attention from their surroundings to Rhyshladlyn as he moved along the street like he belonged there, like he was untouchable; watched as his Qishir took in the crumbling buildings of the area of the City that butted up against the back of the Palace with the disinterested air of the elite. It was the seedier part of the gleaming City, held whispers of atrocities and lawlessness but his Qishir was unafraid, unbowed by, the prospect of meeting danger here in the streets so similar to the alley where he had died a year ago if Relyt’s descriptions were accurate. It was almost as if he was untouchable, truly, so hard set in his singular focus to get to the Lord King and destroy him that any other potential danger to himself and their party was minimal and not worth focusing on.
But losing everything so I could gain all that I have?
And given that his second life mate was this terrifying force of nature striding ahead of him as though Shiran City belonged to him — and in a way, given his heritage as a Greywalker, it did — he could grudgingly admit that losing his wife and son had been a good thing. Because if that day hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t be here today, he wouldn’t have ended up at the Eighth Palace, wouldn’t have been assigned to investigate Anislanzir, wouldn’t have found Rhyshladlyn. And every minor good thing that happened following that meeting wouldn’t have occurred. Not that that made all of the left over agony of his previous losses worth it, but it softened the edge a bit. Made it just a sliver easier to handle, provided he didn’t focus on it too much.
It was worth it. Loathe as I am to admit such because it feels like a betrayal of them, but I cannot lie.
Which proved difficult given that their mission to get into the City relatively undetected, slip into — or storm, as it were — the Palace, and kill the sitting monarch was eerily similar to the plan he had made to take out the Sixth Qishir. And he vividly remembered how that plot had ended. And while he knew Rhyshladlyn was far more powerful than his wife had been, the Qishir was still young, still inexperienced enough that the possibility of him not realizing a friend was actually a foe until it was too late was far too likely. Though given the way Shiran City responded to him, Azriel doubted that the City would let harm come to the first Greywalker to speak to it in millennia.
He couldn’t hear the City speaking to Rhyshladlyn but he could feel it, like the ghost of a lover’s breath against one’s neck in the heat of passion, like a phantom limb pain in a leg or an arm that had been removed, like a barely heard whisper in the distance. He could tell the City was trying to reach him, to connect with him the way it had with Rhyshladlyn but he shook his head slightly, firmly keeping his mental Shields up. He didn’t know the outcome of the war yet, didn’t know if he would fall during the fighting, and didn’t want to take the chance that his death would weaken not just his Qishir but the City itself as well. It was something he just wasn’t willing to risk. He would rather Shiran focus fully on protecting Rhyshladlyn than divide its attention between them.
“We are not far from the Palace, yes?” Thyl asked several feet behind them.
“No, we’re not far,” Rhyshladlyn answered, glancing at the Druid over his shoulder. “But there’s a small change of plans,” he added.
Azriel closed his eyes for a long breath. He knew his face already looked wrong, knew that his true face was leaking through if Bayls’ look when she and Nhulynolyn had arrived at the wall was anything to go by, and hearing “change of plans” didn’t help him keep hold of the bare modicum of control he had over what remained of his glamour.
“What? Are we not going to the Palace?” Thae’a asked but she didn’t sound surprised.
None of them should be if they had been paying attention to what Rhyshladlyn had said before they entered the City.
“Get me to your Heart and I will ensure that none land again.”
He just hoped that they wouldn’t be splitting up.
“Nope,” Nhulynolyn piped up, sounding like his normal, jovial, joking self despite being covered in gore and grime from the battlefield. “Well yes but no,” the Other amended at a sharp glance from Rhyshladlyn. “Some’a us are goin’ to the Great Temple an’ the rest are goin’ to the Palace.”
“That,” Rhyshladlyn waved a hand flippantly over his shoulder towards where his twin was walking with Bayls.
Have you not learned from previous endeavors that “splitting up” is always a bad plan? Honestly, Rhys.
“What are the parties looking like?” Adïmshyl questioned and Azriel felt his respect for the male rise all the more. He didn’t ask why, didn’t argue. Just, change of plans? Noted. What am I working with? Which was all the more impressive due to the reclusiveness of the Lupherinre race.
Never mind that he had such a hard time opening up to us all. But now, after only a couple weeks? He has full trust in Rhyshladlyn.
“Azriel is leading the party into the Palace as he knows the back tunnels and such to get in virtually undetected–” Of course I am. What in the High Ones’ perversions, Rhys? “–Thyl and Thae’a are joining him; Thyl because Eithyl is waiting for him to aid in Healing those injured from the direct attacks and Thae’a because her unique abilities may come in handy while assisting with evacuations of those in the Palace. Adïmshyl and Bayls will come with me to the Great Temple; Adïmshyl because I will need someone who can guard the Temple without being taken out until I’ve connected to the Heart of the City and strengthened the Wards and Bayls because I will need someone to evacuate the Temple while I work.”
“Oi! Twin’a mine, where will I be, huh?” Nhulynolyn piped up, arms crossed over his chest, mouth twisted in a pout but those ice blue eyes were far too sharp, belying his attempt at easing tensions with a bit of humor.
No matter that none of them fell for it, it was the thought that counted.
“You’ll be heading to the Palace with Azriel and the rest. They need you more than I will.”
Nhulynolyn scoffed. “Riiiight. You always need me, my darlin’ twin. So why y’really sendin’ me away, huh? Is it cuz I’m too sexy? It’s cuz I’m sexier than you, isn’t it?”
Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes hard enough that Azriel’s twinged in sympathy.
“No, Nully, it is definitely not because you’re sexier — which you aren’t. Now shuddup, would you?”
“Make me,” came the retort and Rhyshladlyn barked a laugh, unable to help it.
But Azriel couldn’t find it in himself to join in with the laughter that rose up in answer. He felt his heart clench and the dissociation he was riding from the fields began to leak away, allowing a rush of emotions to flood his system and make his head swim. Just hearing he was going to the Palace without him, that Rhyshladlyn would be out of his sight…it didn’t sit right with him.
“Rhys-kyn,” he interrupted the back and forth, slowly looking over at the Qishir, wondering as he did so if his nervousness, his uncertainty, showed on his face, “is it a good idea for us to separate like that?” He wasn’t trying to be insubordinate, wasn’t trying to question him. It just made him nervous in a way he couldn’t explain to know that he and Rhyshladlyn would be across the City from each other, still unOathed, still without a solidified Bond and therefore unable to communicate, deep in the epicenter of the war.
The silence that flowed from the rest of their party was thunderous, none of them used to him questioning their Qishir like he was prone to, none save Nhulynolyn. But Rhyshladlyn stopped walking, turned and faced him, orange-amber eyes softening when they met his own and Azriel swallowed hard as that nervousness ratcheted up several notches, making his chest ache with it. Absently he lifted a hand to rub along his bare sternum in an attempt to ease that ache.
“What ails you?” the Qishir tilted his head to the side, asking one question aloud but another silently with his expression and body language. Do you sense something I don’t?
“I just do not trust that this is not a trap that we are unwittingly walking into,” he replied, spreading his arms out to the sides, speaking much as Rhyshladlyn was with words that held a secondary meaning, I am nervous but I cannot explain about what or why, I just do not wish to be separate from you.
Rhyshladlyn nodded and his gaze slid off into the middle distance, a clear sign he was communicating with his Others and Azriel settled into a more comfortable stance, prepared to wait a few minutes. Dimly aware of Adïmshyl and Thae’a conversing, of Nhulynolyn and Thyl and Bayls having a heated discussion about infiltration and evacuation procedures but he didn’t pay close attention to any of it.
Because that feeling of Shiran trying to reach him had intensified and coupled with the anxiety roiling in his gut and throbbing against his breastbone, he couldn’t in good conscience ignore it any longer.
Shiran? It was a long shot, but perhaps the City wasn’t trying to connect with him like it did with Rhyshladlyn because he was the Qishir’s Companion but rather because it was trying to warn him of something.
Shiran? He called again, wondering if he was doing it wrong until a brush of ancient and different touched his mind and he shuddered.
Look. Came a whisper across his consciousness and he frowned.
Look? Look where? What do you mean?
Frowning, he shifted and glanced around them, suddenly on alert for danger. After a moment or two his frown deepened.
Shiran? What is it I’m supposed to be looking at? His answer was the bricks of the surrounding buildings began to drip like they were melting, the street shuddered beneath his feet, the sunlight that beat down on them faded away and thunder boomed despite the skies being clear.
Eyes darting this way and that, worried about the structural integrity of the melting brickwork on either side of them, suddenly all too aware of the narrow street and the danger it presented not just of being caught beneath falling bricks and glass and metalwork but rather by whatever adversary awaited their panicked running, Azriel let out a low whine deep in his throat. Closing his eyes hard, he swallowed thickly, shaking his head as he raised a hand to rub at his eyes after he opened them to find himself still caught in the nightmare landscape the City street had become. Just as he heard another clap of thunder, he flinched as a building at the end of the street barely a hundred feet away exploded in fire, screams erupting in its wake as bodies went flying through the burning air, the street heaving like the back of a great beast trying to unseat him but he never physically moved as Shiran screamed around him.
Look. See. Future. Must prevent. Pleading. Save City. Insistent.
Shiran, I do not underst–
“Azriel?” He jumped and looked at Rhyshladlyn who was a lot closer than he had been before, his connection to Shiran City snapping almost physically and he clenched his jaw to keep from crying out from it.
He blinked owlishly at him, “Yes?”
“Are you okay? Where did you go just now? It’s like you were having a nightmare.”
Not too far off from that. At least, I pray it was a nightmare. Though I doubt any of us are so lucky to have just simple waking nightmares anymore.
Steeling himself against what he might see, he cast a quick look at the buildings and found them just as they were supposed to be and frowned in confusion before looking back at Rhyshladlyn who had raised an eyebrow at him, clearly knowing the answer to his question was no. A very loud, very obvious no.
But how can I explain that the City just showed me the buildings melting and one exploding in fire as it screamed?
“Yes, sorry, I’m fine,” he replied, making an effort to smooth the frown off his face. “I just had a moment where I recalled Zi’hael.”
Rhyshladlyn raised his other eyebrow to join its brother, clearly not buying any of it, but he didn’t comment despite it being clear he wished to.
“Shiran senses no danger,” he spoke to the entire group, eyes holding Azriel’s for a minute longer before shifting away. Were you talking to the same Shiran City I just was? “And Anislanzir is locked within his chambers in the Palace so we should be fine.” Rhyshladlyn turned narrowed eyes back to him looking for a single slip, a single hint that Azriel wasn’t as fine as he was trying to pretend he was.
He inclined his head in acknowledgement of Rhyshladlyn’s words before looking away lest he give anything else away to that piercing stare. Instead he opted to stare at the buildings around them, to catalog how many windows and doorways, to look for threats on the rooftops, to see if the buildings started to melt but not melt again. Anything but look back at his Qishir.
All the while calling softly out to the City he could no longer feel trying to contact him.
“When will we be separating exactly?” Thae’a asked and Azriel turned to find her standing with a hand pressed against the side of her mate’s neck, those green eyes iridescent as they stared at Rhyshladlyn.
It was clear the Lupherinre was not comfortable leaving his mate’s side anymore than Azriel was with leaving Rhyshladlyn’s. But as they shared a look, Azriel recalled their first conversation on the edge of the training fields back in Thayne’s camp and knew by the way Adïmshyl nodded that he remembered, too.
“And that’s enough?” the Lupherinre asked.
“It has to be,” he answered.
“We should probably separate now. The sooner I make it to the Temple the better,” Rhyshladlyn was saying, lifting one shoulder and dropping it in a but whenever is good, too, motion that Azriel recognized as impatience peaking through.
“Understood,” Thae’a turned to face Adïmshyl and they broke into swift, clipped whispers. Not wanting to intrude, Azriel looked away and found Rhyshladlyn staring hard at him.
“I will be fine,” Rhyshladlyn affirmed softly, stepping closer, lifting dirty, blood soaked hands to cup either side of his face and Azriel blew out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as their bond whispered to pulsing life at his touch, his own hands lifting to curl around the Qishir’s wrists like they were a lifeline and he was drowning.
“I know this,” he smiled but knew it didn’t reach his eyes let alone lifted more than a corner of his lips. “But I still worry. I cannot lose you again, not here, not because of that tyrant. Not when you are still weakened for lack of a Blood Oath between you and I, and you and Relyt.”
Rhyshladlyn laughed, the sound soft and not as condescending as it would have been had it been directed at anyone else. “Az, you will not lose me. I will not be at the Temple long. I swear it to you.”
“On our bond you swear I shall see you again?”
“I swear it.”
It didn’t feel like enough. Not as he kissed his forehead, not as Rhyshladlyn’s hands dropped from his face and their bond grew quiet with the lack of physical touch, not as he walked around him, aiming for the Palace with Thyl and Thae’a in tow. Not even with the Truth of his promise still ringing in his ears.
Because the knot of nervousness in his gut had expanded all the way to his throat, fluttered hard and fast in his lungs like his wings had when he tried to save his wife and son all those centuries ago, and with it he knew why he had hesitated before, why he had questioned Rhyshladlyn’s decision to split them up.
Because it wasn’t nervousness that stole his voice and made it difficult to breathe.
It was fear.
Shiran? Can you hear me?
Only silence greeted him but he tried one more time anyway.
Keep him safe. Do you hear me, Shiran? Keep him safe and I will do whatever you ask of me.