He heard the rumbling before Ka’ahne came to a halt ahead of them. Felt the shift of the air before Ka’ahne had turned, eyes wild, hand outstretched towards them, mouth falling open to cut off the words Qaeniri had started to say but he didn’t catch the Qishir’s words, barely even caught Qaeniri’s. Everything slowed down as that rumble shook the ground again and the Currents let out a soft keen as they shifted against each other.
It was all the warning he needed to snap out a hand, grab Qaeniri around the arm and throw her clear across the alley, half a step behind her. It gave him time to press her back against the wall, sink his talons into the brick and mortar, kick off the lid to his rage, and let his magick swirl around them just as the World erupted into flames and screaming and pain.
Distantly he was aware of Ka’ahne screaming just as the Qishir’s magick brushed against him before it was cut off. After another scream sounded, the barest notes of their names mixed with it, there was only the rushing crackle of the fire as it ate everything in its path, the whoosh of the breathable air being sucked towards the flames to further feed them, and the screams of those who hadn’t been lucky enough to die as the first explosion ripped through the roadway left thundering in his ears.
Qaeniri keened as her whole body jerked and and he smelled burning flesh. He hissed, leaning further over her until he covered her completely, thankful for the first time in his life for his size. Had he been any smaller he wouldn’t have been able to shield her properly, and as it was because of him leaving her breathing room her cheek had been singed by a piece of debris that had ricocheted off the wall. He made a mental note to make sure she got that looked at when they made it to the Palace.
He ignored the way the heat of the fires, unnatural in that they didn’t feel magick-born, licked along his back and legs. Ignored the scent of burning leather and skin and hair. Ignored the scent of what he guessed was a fuel source of some kind that made him desperately want to sneeze. Ignored the pain of the flames as they tore and licked at him. None of that mattered. All that mattered was that Qaeniri survived the explosions that kept going off. All that mattered was that he fed his rage and magick into the section of wall they were pressed against to keep it standing as the walls everywhere else blew out and sent rubble and debris and body parts scattering in a whirlwind around them. Is the entire City blowing up? What the fuck.
“Adïm,” Qaeniri spluttered beneath him, voice muffled. “You’re burning…” She sounded detached, shocked into not being able to panic, her fingers curled into fists in of the front of his shirt.
“I am well,” he growled out, voice shattering across the stones around them. Talking while enraged and so close to going fully berserker was risky, but he didn’t have the mental connection to the Sinner that he did to his mate so he had no choice but to speak verbally. Even if doing so made his insides twist unpleasantly. Establishing a mental link with her like he had with his Thae’a would likely strain Qaeniri’s already upset mind further. So he’d taken the chance and spoken to her because he didn’t like the way her voice sounded so off, so bland, when it was normally so full of life and nuances and tonal changes he often struggled to follow but loved to hear nonetheless. The only one in the Court whose vocal patterns amused and intrigued him more than Qaeniri’s was Ka’ahne’s.
“How the shit are you fine when you’re literally on fire?” she mumbled as though she were speaking only to herself and he frowned. She sounded testy and he had learned long ago that when a female sounded testy the safest course of action was to stay quiet and still and wait until their attention was focused elsewhere or they posed a direct question.
“I am not bothered,” he commented despite knowing he probably shouldn’t have. His only source of distraction to keep from hitting berserker was her. So even if it wasn’t a good idea, he replied regardless. “I have no reason to lie, Qaeniri.”
And it was the truth, he hadn’t lied to her. The fire didn’t concern him. Any damage done to him would heal up quickly. One of the benefits of being Lupherinre, his kind was conceived and birthed in flame. Like the firebird race, the Phuri, of the Original races, his kind was impervious to all fire. Well, all except coldfire. Guess it’s a damned good thing the only known user of it in the Worlds is on my side of shit. Never mind that fire kept him powered back up. So yes, he suffered wounds from it, but ultimately it didn’t matter because what damage was done would heal and by the time the fire was extinguished, he would be at full strength.
“But you’re on fire… I can smell you burning,” she spoke up again, louder and clearly directed at him that time. He only barely kept from rolling his eyes at her tenacity. Usually he admired that in her. However, at that moment he wanted to shake her for it.
“I told you,” his voice was clipped and he took a deep breath to try and calm his rage enough to not sound like he was snarling at her, “I am well. It is the burning of everyone else you smell that should concern you.”
Shit, that didn’t sound any better. He wasn’t always good with the whole making people feel better thing. He always seemed to say the wrong thing. Not that Thae’a ever really complained, if anything she found it adorable. He cut off the line of thinking about his mate because he hadn’t felt her presence in his mind since they split off into groups and worry swirled in his gut at the idea that whatever had set Ka’ahne hauling ass for the Palace had anything to do with Thae’a.
Because while Veratone was able to wrap his head around the idea of losing his mate, he wasn’t remotely prepared to handle even the thought of Thae’a.
“But–” she protested but he cut her off.
“Rŷantja,” he scolded, using a term of endearment usually reserved for one’s child or younger sibling — the shock of how naturally it came to his lips was brushed aside to deal with later, “hush. My kind is of fire. This does not hurt me.”
He had said and done more in that moment than he should have and it surprised him but didn’t simultaneously.
While he was basically exiled from his race, he still tried to keep to their teachings and customs. And telling anyone outside of their kind that wasn’t kin by marriage or blood anything about the Lupherinre, let alone attach a Pherineti term to them, was definitely against the teachings. Doubly so because he still referred to her, and everyone else, by their family names — provided he knew them. So for him to assign that term of endearment while he still didn’t call her by her given name? It was plain odd. By the Cliffs, he wasn’t even supposed to mate outside of the colony without express permission from the Matriarch, but he had figured mating with Thae’a, teaching her of their ways, teaching her Pherinet, teaching her about all of him and his kind, was allowable because he was already exiled. And the Matriarch wasn’t known for killing those who were not of the colony. But still it was risky. He didn’t view Qaeniri like he did Thae’a, he didn’t love her like a mate or even a child.
If anything, she registered as the little sister he never had and his protective instincts had flared wide the first time he’d encountered her. And it was those very protective instincts that had seen him tossing her against the wall and making a barrier of his body and his magick, of risking going full berserker in order to keep her safe from the flames and debris and death that swallowed the road around them.
Qaeniri said nothing else, but he felt her shaking as she buried her face into his chest between where her hands still gripped his shirt. His anger kicked up several notches when he scented her tears and her fear. She was so young, barely matured by his kind’s standards, and definitely nowhere close to it by her own’s. And yet here she was, caught up in a war, experiencing things no child should ever know of outside of stories. All because Ka’ahne had asked her to spread his story to the Worlds in an attempt to save her from Anislanzir, from dying at the end of one the Qishir’s blades.
Perhaps her dying would have been a mercy compared to this.
But he knew that wasn’t fair nor right. Her death would have killed another piece of Ka’ahne and the Qishir was dangerously low on the pieces that kept him from becoming a monster. Sure she had been sent from her home, sure she had been involved in a war, sure she had seen and caused death by the hundreds if not thousands, and yet she was still strong. She was exactly where she needed to be, the piece of child-like innocence that burned bright enough to act as a beacon to bring those of them who didn’t know what happiness truly felt like anymore back to center. It was her and her alone of their number that grounded them all, even Ka’ahne who never seemed to stop moving even when he was sleeping.
But below that child-like innocent hid a rage akin to Ka’ahne’s, quick to rise but even quicker to put on a mask. But once unleashed? It was a force to be reckoned with and took quite awhile to go back into its box. He didn’t know much of her past before the day their Qishir had found her, but given the similarities between the two’s rage, he didn’t doubt Qaeniri had a past uncomfortably familiar to Ka’ahne’s.
And he vowed that should those who hurt her still breathe he would ensure they didn’t retain that ability much longer.
As the explosions stopped, leaving only the moans, groans, screams, and cries of the dying and injured, he leaned back and away from her, looking over his shoulder at the mouth of the street that was now blocked from the ground to where the building tops had been with rubble. Turning back to her he froze when he saw those hazel grey eyes staring hard back at him. He could still see her tears where they shimmered across them and made tracks on her cheeks, could still smell her fear, but what stared at him so steadily wasn’t a child. It was a warrior. And while he was still pissed that she was forced to grow up so soon, he was proud to see how strong she was in spite of it.
They both flinched when a roar shook the ground followed by the sounds of battle seconds before Ka’ahne’s power blanketed the area like a water-soaked blanket making it difficult to breathe.
He didn’t re-box his rage but neither did he let it hit berserker level. Instead he banked it until speaking didn’t hurt him.
“Let’s see what mayhem we can cause, eh?” He asked, lips twisting into a grin that was all fangs.
Qaeniri answered with a grin of her own, “Sounds good to me.”
Turning he closed the distance between them and the rubble blocking the road in only a handful of strides, slamming his weight against it to test how tightly packed it was. Qaeniri made a sound behind him but he couldn’t place the emotion that made it. Stepping back after he hit that wall twice more, he raised his hands, closed his eyes, and searched. Looking below he found the threads he needed and tugged. He didn’t open his eyes but he didn’t need to. He knew without looking that the pieces of the collapsed buildings had shifted and begun to rise and move over his head, laying down gently and calmly on either side of the road way. Whenever he would encounter a body he would murmur an apology to them before his magick reverently moved them. The longer it took for him to clear a path, the more intense the sounds of battle became. But he refused to let his focus slip. Refused to open his eyes until every last piece of debris and every broken body was moved out of his way.
“By the gods,” Qaeniri whispered beside him, voice rough around the edges, her power slip-sliding around him, prickling his skin like a thousand needles touching wherever his clothes didn’t cover him.
Opening his eyes he followed her gaze and everything stopped. It was the type of pause he’d experienced only ever in the heat of battle when terror gripped so hard and so fast his body couldn’t remember how to move no matter how many memories he threw at it to remind it. But now it wasn’t terror that froze him but shock.
Because he had expected to find Ka’ahne engaged in a fight, he had heard the roar, had heard the sound of metal on metal, had heard the sounds of magick being used both offensively and defensively, but what he hadn’t expected was to see what he’d only caught glimpses of before.
Ka’ahne moved like a force of nature made flesh, every part of him was a weapon that he used to the fullest of his abilities as he attacked the male that had bared sharpened teeth at him, piss-yellow eyes wide and wild. He could sense that Sinner’s fear, it was heavy and potent on the back of his tongue, but the male didn’t seem to be aware of it or give a shit if he was. But K’ahane was aware of it and he pressed his advantage. Pressed and pressed and pressed and when he twirled in mid-air while leaping over the Sinner he fought against, the face that was revealed wasn’t what he expected. That face was a riot of rage and terror and remembered agony and it was breathtaking. Sure he’d seen the Qishir fight on the training fields of Thayne’s camp, had even watched him cut a path through Anislanzir’s army to get them to the City, but he hadn’t gotten the chance to actually watch him fight when there was nothing holding him back, when he didn’t unconsciously pull his punches, when he himself wasn’t distracted keeping away enemies.
And now that he had? He understood what Veratone had meant what felt like seasons ago now about trusting that Ka’ahne could handle himself. About how faith was for more than just the gods. Because he was seeing living proof of that right before his eyes.
“By Blood and Fire,” he whispered, a prayer all on its own, one he hadn’t spoken in centuries, and it felt weirdly right to say it aloud then as Ka’ahne landed lithely on his feet, wings flared aggressively, Beannacht and Mallacht aimed at the ground and dripping blood, plump lips curved in a smile that was dark as the night sky, eyes flashing. His clothes were torn in places, pieces missing in others, but as he watched, the tears mended until the clothing was unblemished. Ka’ahne was gore covered from the Field before but now it was like it was more but it wasn’t and it confused him.
“Mykshäl,” the Qishir bit out, voice so low it was barely vocal, the sound of it crashing against his bones and he bit back a hiss, one hand coming up to press against his sternum as Qaeniri stumbled sideways against him, her hands wrapping around his free wrist. “Do you yield?”
“Never,” the Sinner laughed nasally. “I’m having too much fun, Lynny.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” Ka’ahne replied, rolling his shoulders before he flicked his wrists and his swords cleaned themselves before he sheathed them with a flourish.
Mykshäl tilted his head to the side and while he couldn’t see the Sinner’s face he could hear the frown it was sporting when he said, “How so?”
Ka’ahne’s responding grin was wicked in ways that spelled nothing but trouble.
“Because I have better shit to do than play with you any more,” was the easy, clipped reply.
“Like what?” Mykshäl whined petulantly, the sound of it grating on his nerves and making his head pound with the beginnings of a headache.
“Making sure my family is still alive, for one,” Ka’ahne snarled.
Family…? He considers us… family?
Mykshäl waved a hand dismissively. “Who cares if they’re alive? You have me to play with right now. That’s better by far than anyone else–”
“You’re ugly and you reek. I could shower for the next two centuries and still not feel clean enough,” the Qishir interrupted.
He bristled. “I smell perfectly fine, thank you.”
“Yeah, if you’re courting corpses. Oh wait…”
“Or maeshir,” the Sinner retorted.
You just fucked up big time, asshole.
The silence that followed the Sinner’s statement was thick and full of warning but he didn’t seem to notice, just kept talking. It would have been entertaining if it weren’t so damn pathetic.
“I’ve been enjoying myself despite your playing hard to get and insulting me so rudely. Plus your friends would have gone quickly if they did die because Imènian fire is a really heavy hitter if you add the right fuel source, which I did. But again, who cares what happened to them when you have m–”
He didn’t even see Ka’ahne move. Didn’t even sense it if he was being honest. Just blinked and in the time it took him to do that Ka’ahne was directly in front of Mykshäl who flinched hard, having obviously not seen the Qishir move either. Qaeniri’s hands tightened around his wrist, nails digging into his skin. And it was in that moment that he knew what had changed, why Ka’ahne looked different with the gore he’d ripped out of Mykshäl during their fight.
Before the emotion that twisted those expressive, sharp features was a mix of anger, hatred, determination. But what twisted them now? It was sorrow. Sorrow and guilt and regret so strong he could practically taste it.
“I don’t think he’s seen us yet…” he whispered and felt Qaeniri nod where she was still pressed against his arm.
He spoke to Mykshäl then, the harshness of the words carrying across the distance but the words themselves were lost to the wind that had picked up around the square. Mykshäl blubbered out something that sounded like a plea but Ka’ahne’s teeth bared in a smile that didn’t even touch his cheekbones before he stepped back, eyes rolling as he shook his head and stepped back.
“You’re not worth any more of my time,” he said flippantly, turning on his heel and walking towards the Palace.
“What is he doing?” Qaeniri spluttered incredulously. “That piss drinker just insulted him and he’s walking away?”
“Wait,” he murmured back. “I’m pretty sure it’s a ruse.”
“A ruse?” she questioned and he shushed her softly and gestured for her to just watch.
He had to admit he was impressed. For all that Ka’ahne’s guilt was palpable, for all that most would have weakened when faced with loss of family or those one swore to protect, if anything it only made the Qishir stronger. Only made him deadlier. And he admired that though he doubted Ka’ahne would ever be inclined to hear as much.
But as he watched the Qishir walk away, wings folding against his back before slipping out of the visible spectrum, the line of his back relaxed as he slipped his hands into the pockets of his breeches, he found himself almost falling for the trick. It was a trap set so beautifully that if he hadn’t known Ka’ahne as well as he did, if he hadn’t seen the look on his face seconds before he turned away and recognized the emotions that darkened it, he would have been hard pressed not to believe it was real.
Mykshäl, however, fell for it hook, line, and sinker and ran at the Qishir, one hand held out in front of him, fingers curled and his pointed nails aimed at Ka’ahne’s back. Qaeniri pushed off from him and cried out but she didn’t have to. Ka’ahne knew the fucker was there, he had to. His senses were sharper than Soulless steel.
And sure enough, at the last possible second, Ka’ahne spun around to his left, left hand gripping the Sinner’s wrist and moving it out of the way as his right hand shot forward, fingers sinking into the other male’s chest. He felt the rush of the Qishir’s power slam down his arm and into Mykshäl. The Sinner Demon screamed, his agony clear, head tossed back. It wasn’t a quick death like what he had heard Azhuri’s had been and Ka’ahne had killed his mother in the same manner. Mykshäl’s free hand clawed at Ka’ahne’s right arm, swung at his face and split open his cheek over the old scar that Anislanzir had left a year prior but the Qishir didn’t let go, didn’t let up, just stood stock still and pumped his magick into the Sinner slowly and methodically, burning his life away from the inside out.
“Great Mother’s quivering knot,” Qaeniri shuddered beside him and he spared her a glance. She looked awestruck and terrified all at once and he was amazed that such an expression could exist and not look painful.
He didn’t say anything but he silently agreed as he looked back to where Ka’ahne was pulling his hand free of Mykshäl’s chest and let the body drop to the ground. It slowly turned grey and brittle and Ka’ahne lifted his foot and pressed it slowly against the male’s head before it exploded in ash around him. Absently, the Qishir shook the dust and ash off himself before turning those burning orange-amber eyes to them.
“Shall we continue?” He asked, head tilting to the side before it jerked in the direction of the Palace over his shoulder. Ka’ahne didn’t look the lease bit surprised that they were alive and he wondered when the Qishir had known they were still alive but he didn’t ask. Now wasn’t the time.
He nodded and nudged Qaeniri’s shoulder when she didn’t say anything or move. As they crossed into the square and followed after Ka’ahne who turned and began running again towards the Palace, he found himself stopping in the area where Mykshäl had fallen for the final time. All around them the City’s cobblestones and buildings, what remained after the Sinner’s demolition attempt, glowed a soft, pulsing gold. But in that circle where Mykshäl had died? There was nothing but the grey, blood soaked stones that lay beneath and around him in a perfect circle. None of the stones that touched where the ashes of his body lay were gold. When his foot touched the stones as he took off after Qaeniri and Ka’ahne, eyes still glued to that spot until it was a strain on his neck to keep looking back, he felt none of the magick that permeated the entire City.
That one section of the square was as dead as the Sinner Demon who had fallen there.
And for the first time in a very long time, Adïmshyl felt truly afraid.