The beat of the water on the back of his shoulders was soothing, the shower itself an accommodation not often found during wartime, least of all in a war camp, and one he didn’t question though he probably should seeing as they were far enough from the City that there was no way the engineers in Thayne’s army had managed to tap into the City’s well system. Despite the fact that it should have been nonexistent, it was an accommodation granted to him not just by virtue of his rank in Thayne’s army but also because when the suggestion came up of him going back to his cabin to shower instead, his reaction had been less than stellar.
He couldn’t go back to the home he had made with Azriel without the Anglëtinean at his side. It just didn’t feel right.
Not that anyone could really blame him, even if he thought they should.
He watched as the blade tip broke through Azriel’s abdomen and he screamed the Anglëtinean’s name before pulling himself forward enough to flip over and away from Relyt, aiming to run back to that doorway, to pull Azriel through. He was fast enough, he’d make it in time. But Relyt’s arms caught him about the waist and held fast despite his struggles.
He watched as confusion twisted Azriel’s face as he looked down at his abdomen just as Anislanzir pulled his sword free, hands coming up to press against the wound, blood running thickly over his fingers to drench his already gore-covered pants. He called his name again as he watched Azriel slowly sink to his knees, power tossing out with it just as Shiran closed the door with a muted boom.
He shuddered at the memory, hands twitching where they pressed against the shower wall, the wood groaing in soft protest as his fingertips pushed dents into the planks. It took a lot of effort to relax the muscles in his arms and hands to ease up on the wall.
Especially with his mind a messy maelstrom of emotions lost in a thick fog of detachment that would worry him if the emotion could actually reach him to begin with. But instead he floated beneath the waves of emotions and memories, the former he was numb to and the latter he wished he could erase.
But he couldn’t erase them. No matter how much he wished he could.
Opening his eyes with a shaky breath, he stared down at the drain, watching as the water ran red with the blood it sluiced off his body, not all of which was his own. Watched as pieces of enemy Dhaoine pushed out of his hair by the pressure of the spray circling the drain before disappearing. The sight was all too familiar. It brought its own memories to the surface, memories he fought down. Only to fight harder when he released his wings and saw two sets instead of one curling around his legs, the gore and blood thickening around the drain as the water soaked deep into the feathers down to the skin beneath, cleaning them of the physical shit but not the echoes of recalled pain and guilt and hatred and fear. The weight of them pulled at his already sore back muscles but he welcomed the discomfort. It was the least of what he deserved.
Before the sound even began to dissipate, his wings flared out with a sickening rip, the force of their emergence sending Relyt tumbling ass over head backwards as he whirled on the Soul Healer. All the fury that roiled in his veins for Anislanzir redirected at the only available target: the one responsible for his failure to save Azriel.
And with that rage’s focus tunnelled onto the Soul Healer who lifted slate grey eyes gone wide, face whiter than bone, hands buried in the sand as he rested heavily on his arms, legs haphazardly gathered beneath him, he felt a brief twinge of fear.
Because as his wings snapped out to their full span, every feather fluffed and rustling as though caught in a gale, teeth bared in a grimacing snarl, smoke curling under his nose as his true face began to rapidly burn through its glamour, fingers curled into loose fists as coldfire licked its way up over his hands to his forearms, he didn’t see Relyt as his Steward.
He saw him as his enemy.
The sounds of the camp were muted to him, made that way by the privacy spells he’d placed on the walls. He needed the silence, needed the only sounds around him to be that of his shaky breathing, the rattling of the water in the pipes, the sound of the spray bouncing off his body and the walls and the floor. Sure his mind was loud but at least it was just his thoughts making his ears ring, at least it was just his memories making his chest tight.
With a shaking hand, he turned the heat up on the water until it felt much like the coldfire he controlled, pinking his skin where it touched, so hot it felt cold even though it was burning him. But he didn’t care. He welcome the pain, needed it after what he’d done, after what he had tried, and thankfully failed, to do.
Needed it to cleanse him the way nothing else ever would.
He could still smell Anislanzir on him, could still feel his touch on every inch of his skin. The scent of his former home and of his battles, of the un-male’s magick where it had mixed with his own when they’d fought, wafted up from seemingly every strand of hair, from every feather, from every pore. And he hated it. Because no matter how much he scrubbed with soap and magick alike, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of those scents.
What was all the worse was that he could also still smell the citrusy scent of Anislanzir’s arousal as though the bastard was still right there beside him. Could still hear his sultry chuckle as he described in detail how he’d cut out Azriel’s wings, how he’d carve up the Anglëtinean so he was riddled with scars to match his own.
“You’ll both look so precious, all matching.”
He could still hear Azriel’s promise that they would make it, that the Anglëtinean would be right behind him. Could still hear his war howl, could still feel the echoes of it where it had shook his bones, could still feel his skin tingling with the aftermath of Azriel’s magick as it had poured out into the hallway before he’d collided with Anislanzir and Relyt had tossed him over his shoulder and ran for the exit.
Nothing stopped the guilt from rising like high tide, heedless of his attempts to escape it, uncaring of the sea walls he’d erected to keep it contained. It threatened to swallow him whole, a completely new flavor to add to his already sizable menagerie, and he was more than a little inclined to let it.
I’m sorry, Az, you deserved so much better than this, than me.
A knock sounded on the door to the private shower room he was using, derailing his thoughts. His head snapped up, the water choking him briefly, as his attention hyper focused on the door. He dropped the privacy spells and winced when the sounds of the camp around him came rushing back in.
“Hey, it’s me,” Nhulynolyn’s voice called and he relaxed muscles he hadn’t been aware he’d tensed. “There’s a messenger from Lulphé in Thayne’s tent. Said he needs t’speak to you, Rhys–”
His attention snapped up at the sound of his name to see Nhulynolyn and the rest running towards them and he snarled in a warning anyone with half a brain cell and even one functioning instinct would be able to recognize.
It was the warning of an enraged, bloodthirsty Qishir.
He didn’t bother to keep his attention on his Court’s rapid approach after issuing that warning, though. Instead he focused back on Relyt who was on his feet by then, hands held up with the palms facing him. The Soul Healer’s terror was palpable and its taste was like fine, well aged Ysborogh. And he wanted more of it.
“Oi! Twin! Y’okay?” Nhulynolyn barked as he banged on the door again with enough force to shake the walls, tearing him from the memory.
With a rueful smile he shook his head even though the Other couldn’t see it.
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine, Nul,” he replied, pushing off the wall and running his fingers through his hair, slicking it back out of his face as he shook his wings and shut off the shower. “You were saying?”
He could hear his twin’s frown through the door, Nhulynolyn clearly not buying any of his shit. But, Nameless be praised, he didn’t press the issue.
Because if the Other had pressed it, he’d have likely broken down entirely. The gods only knew why he hadn’t yet. Though it was only a matter of time. He knew realistically that the detachment he was experiencing wouldn’t last forever. No matter how much he prayed that it did, wished that it could. He was so afraid of what would happen to his focus when it was gone, when everything he was feeling through a thick filter was pure again.
“Lulphé sent a messenger to speak to Thayne. Male said his message is also for you. The armies retreated from the Field an hour ago at the messenger’s arrival so whatever it’s ’bout is serious an’ I’d bet my good nut that Anislanzir knows ’bout it. So, I was sent to summon you.”
“You could have reached me like normal,” he commented, ignoring the bit about their father as he called in a pair of plain black breeches and pulled them on, fingers nimbly doing up the laces. He didn’t bother with a shirt or boots. Neither did he bother with restoring any of his glamours except the one on his true face. There wasn’t a point to restoring any of the rest. Every warrior and soldier in the camp had seen or heard stories of his Marks and his scars, never mind that he was still running seriously low on his magickal stores after all the fighting recently. Not nearly as bad as he would have been had Shiran not given him a boost but it still wasn’t a hundred percent. And he wasn’t about to strain himself any more than he already had. Doing so would only slow his recovery.
And the quicker he recovered the quicker he could get back into the City, rescue Azriel, and finish the original mission.
“I did,” Nhulynolyn answered as he opened the door voice holding an odd edge he couldn’t place. Ice blue eyes were shadowed with a worry that pressed against the door he’d slammed closed on their link with the gentle insistence of a patient snakcat. After earlier, he’d craved silence and solitude in his own head and that had meant shutting his Others out after he’d kicked them physically out of his body as well, much to his ever increasing guilt and their rising concern. “But y’still got that block up. So in person it was.”
He didn’t say anything, especially not the apology hovering on the tip of his tongue. But given the way Nhulynolyn inclined his head slightly and gave him a small smile, his twin knew what he wanted to say and forgave him. With a small nod of his own in reply, he gestured for Nhulynolyn to lead the way. His twin’s frown returned with greater intensity then, eyes looking him over critically, taking in how he wasn’t hiding his scars or his Marks, wings settled docilely against his back, feathers still soaked through, hair dripping a near steady stream of water down his back. The air outside the room felt cool despite it being hot and muggy, the sun barely caressing the western horizon, the chill of the desert night only felt in the breeze that drifted lazily through the camp. It was the chill that told him just how hot he’d had the shower water. If his skin was still red from it, the Other chose not to comment.
Nhulynolyn spun on his heel and led the way to Thayne’s command tent, both of them ignoring the tense silence that filled the space between them as well as the gasps and stares of the warriors and soldiers they passed along the way. But he wasn’t phased by their looks or their whispered conversations about him. He had earned their judgment and their ridicule.
He deserved it because in one single move he had proven he was unfit to rule. In one single move he had proven his father and mother right in everything they had ever said about him. In one single move he proved himself unworthy of the honor inherent in being a kè to an Other.
Fate had chosen wrong. He was nearly convinced of that now.
“Rhyshladlyn!” Nhulynolyn’s voice sent the Currents scattering with soft cries, interrupting him just as his lips started to form an attend that would be a death sentence not just for Relyt but for himself.
It didn’t stop him from continuing to advance on the Soul Healer who was backing away even faster now, borderline running backwards. Just as he picked up speed, Nhulynolyn was at Relyt’s side, knocking the Soul Healer to the sand and out of the way before the Other slammed into him, going incorporeal at the last second. His twin fought for him to relinquish control of their shared body, his consciousness flooded with the Other’s emotions until it was all he could hear and feel.
But he fought against it, keeping his feet by sheer force of stubborn will, roaring his defiance as he kept trying to advance on Relyt. His next step forward found Shadiranamen colliding with him in much the same manner. His step after that had him meeting Xheshmaryú. He roared again as the three wrestled him to the ground, fought to take control of his body, to backseat him.
He fought them on principle, on instinct, but it wasn’t long before his heart was no longer in it. With one last wailing roar, he gave in. Let them take control, let them soothe him into a thoughtless state where he was aware but nothing mattered anymore.
Yelling shattered the gathering dusk as they approached the tent. Nhulynolyn glanced at him with a raised eyebrow before picking up the pace. His breath caught as they stepped through the opening to find Thayne holding Relyt in a chokehold to keep the male from attacking what had to be Lulphé’s messenger if his maroon and silver livery were anything to go by.
But that wasn’t what blew the detachment fog from his mind. It wasn’t the scene of Relyt being held back as his normally soothing power swirled around him in a maelstrom of rage akin to his own, grey eyes dark and full of what could almost be considered hatred. It wasn’t even the way Bayls was being held back by Thae’a and Adïmshyl, the Sinxhët she barked out as harsh and cutting as Gretlök. It wasn’t the way Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú circled each other as they paced behind the unknown male, expressions that of murderous intent just awaiting the order that would allow them to act upon said intent.
No it was what was said when they walked in that had him clear-headed for the first time in hours.
“But Azriel is still in there! She cannot expect us to burn the City to cinders while he still remains within its walls! My Qishir nearly went nova because I stopped him from going back after Anislanzir ran Azriel through with a sword! By the Many’s ten cocks, what does Lulphé think he will do if Azriel actually dies?“
“I am just the messenger, Steward Relyt,” the Shiftkin male replied calmly, hands lifted as he shrugged. “I am merely relaying what was spoken to me by my Qishir. That is all. And what Qishir Lulphé stated was that Shiran City would burn, whether Companion Azriel Veratone was out or not, whether the City itself was evacuated of all innocents or not.”
“So rather than make a deal with the Lord King, your Qishir is going to sacrifice not only her blood but millions of innocents just to kill one un-male?” Relyt demanded, struggling harder against the grip Thayne had on him, his voice strained and thready from where the General’s forearm pressed against the Soul Healer’s windpipe. “That is a fucking cop out because she can’t be bothered to actually rule properly. Your Qishir is a coward!”
“In war sometimes sacrifices must be made,” was the answer spoken with a nonchalance that was astounding. But he wasn’t done speaking. “Though I would be careful what you say about my Qishir, especially when what you speak could be so easily attached to your own.”
The Shiftkin’s words not only made his detachment snap like a mooring line, they blew apart the blocks in his mind that were keeping his Others out. Their combined rage and shock hit him like a tidal wave that made him sway where he stood but his own fury rose to the surface and brushed their emotions and thoughts aside with all the ease of a child tossing a doll around.
He didn’t know what sound he made but as one everyone in the tent turned and stared at him.
But he didn’t care because his rage had resurfaced, bereft of a target until that messenger gave it one.
He didn’t give a shit that he could smell the qahllyn of Companion on him, didn’t give a shit that Lulphé’s mark was woven so tightly into his signature that it was hard to tell where it ended and her mark began.
This male had delivered a death sentence for his Companion and done so with a flippancy that he would not abide.
He had spoken words on behalf of his Qishir that amounted to war, it didn’t matter that Azriel and Lulphé were blood, it didn’t matter that she outranked every Qishir in the Worlds. What mattered was that she had gotten Azriel into this mess and now was condemning him to death all over again.
The difference between then and now was that before she had condemned him by doing nothing. Now she had condemned him by giving the order herself.
The scent of smoke filled his nose and he knew his only active glamour was falling away and he didn’t care. All he cared about was making a sniveling, terrified mess of the male in front of him.
No one stopped him as he crossed the space between him and the Eighth Companion. No one stopped him when he grabbed fistfuls of the male’s tunic and hauled him closer to hover inches from his face. No one stopped him when he spoke in a voice like silk-wrapped death.
“I am not the same as your Qishir,” he bared his teeth. “I at least have the decency to not treat my people like they’re expendable while I sit back and let literally anyone else do my dirty work. Oh and you can tell her that if he dies because of her orders before I can get him out, I will show her exactly how I managed to refuse her attend order two years ago right before I take her throne from her and let the Worlds watch as I slowly kill her.”
The shock of everyone in the tent was thick enough that he felt it press against his skin like a blanket. But he ignored it, he had eyes only for the Shiftkin caught up in his grip.
“You cannot be serious,” the Eighth Companion sputtered, hands twitching at his side, muscles tensed with the obvious effort it took for him to keep his hands to himself.
“You haven’t paid attention to the stories about me, have you?” He laughed, the sound like nails on stone, sharp and piercing.
“I’ve heard you’re called the Grey Qishir, the first Greywalker born in millennia, and the first neodrach born to the Qishir race and caste to prefer his male side. I know the stories of what the Lord King did to you, how you got all those scars,” he nodded at the most visible burn scars knotting the skin of his right arm. “I have heard you don’t kill unless necessary and you wouldn’t do something so stupid as to threaten the Eighth Qishir if it meant your family and friends would be in danger. You lack regard for your own life and safety but will do everything to protect those you love.”
He hummed thoughtfully before releasing him. He took a single step back, tilted his head to the side, and smiled.
“What’s your name?”
The male blinked, frowning slightly, his confusion at how quickly his demeanor had changed clear and amusing, not that he let that amusement show.
“Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn, Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” he answered, silver-green eyes moving rapidly as they took in every inch of his face and as much of his body as he could, trying to read him. He just continued to smile serenely, wishing as he did so that Azriel was standing beside him, that his own Companion was there as his voice of reason. Because no one else in the tent was going to reason with him, to keep him on this side of the killing edge. They were all just as angry, just as sick, as he was and he didn’t need to see any of their faces to know that. Their emotions pressed against him, cloaked him in their presence like armor.
So he kept his body language and expression carefully blank, the only sign he held any emotional response being the smile he directed at Kírtlaq.
“Well, Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn, deliver a message for me in return, if you would be so kind?” His tone was light, conversational, but by the way the air in the tent shifted every single member of his Court recognized the warning sign that Kírtlaq did not.
He almost felt bad for the male. Almost.
“Aside from the one about killing her?”
He raised an eyebrow.
Kírtlaq inclined his head, “As you wish.”
“I may be unfit to rule, but at least I don’t make pointless sacrifices,” he hissed and plunged his hand into the male’s gut, other hand clapping over his mouth to keep him from screaming, his smile now vicious. “And you were right, I don’t give two goat dicks about my safety and life, but where you’re wrong is that I would make threats against Lulphé. Why? Because I know that even if she threw the entire Worlds against me on the Fields that I could kill them all and still have enough energy to tear her skin from her body and feed it to her. So make no mistake, I am not one you wish to make an enemy of, Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn. And in one sentence you and your Qishir became just that.”
He ripped his hand out and opened it to show a pair of wing buds. The look on the male’s face made it clear that Kírtlaq was shocked that he knew the fucker had wings, that he was of one of the few winged races in the Worlds, the only Shiftkin race capable of using their wings whether they were in their kin form or not. His smile only got sharper at the sight.
“I’ll be holding on to these, Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn,” he casually tossed them in the air and caught them again. “Tell Lulphé they are my guarantee that she doesn’t let Azriel die.”
He leaned in, fingers curling slowly and deliberately around those buds, the fingertips of his other hand digging into the male’s face hard enough to prick the skin.
“Because if he does die? Me taking your wings in this manner will be least of what I will do to everyone in the Crimson Court.”
The Eighth Companion just gaped at him, mouth open, jaw gone slack as he removed his hand.
“Now get the fuck out of here before I decide you don’t need something more necessary for remaining alive.”
Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn lifted a shaking hand, the other pressed against the wound in his torso, and caught a Line without another word.
“Rhyshladlyn, what have you done?” Thae’a gasped, voice breathless, accent thick and as sharp as his smile.
He turned to her with a shrug.
“Declared war against the sitting Eighth Qishir,” he replied casually, tossing those wing buds up again and again. “Provided that is, that my Companion doesn’t survive whatever bullshit she has planned.”
“You can’t declare war against Mother!” Thayne all but hollered, crimson eyes wide and filled with a worry that drained her face of color.
“I declared war on that maeshir nearly four years ago when she stood by and let Azriel get sentenced to 40 moon cycles in solitude for raping me,” he hissed at the female. “Which, by the way, he didn’t but father dearest is apparently really convincing when the Qishir who is supposed to keep him in fuckin’ check is just as corrupt and cowardly as he is.” He advanced on Thayne a step, amusement flaring in his chest briefly at the sight of Relyt scrambling to put distance between himself and the General. “This isn’t a sacrifice for the great good that she is making here, Thayne. It’s a sacrifice to cover the fact that she failed, that she did nothing, and now there’s a war being fought, her brother is captured and being tortured, and she expects me, another Qishir, to sit back and let her do this stupid, stupid thing?” He snorted. “No. I won’t. And I didn’t truly declare war… I merely answered her own declaration.”
“What?” He turned to Adïmshyl whose hands were loosely holding onto one of Bayls’ arms, the Sinner female staring at him with a mixture of adoration and battle lust. The Lupherinre’s expression was unreadable, but he wasn’t surprised. “When did she declare war on you?”
He sighed softly, looking down at the wing buds in his hand, feeling Nhulynolyn brushing against the outer walls of his mind but he ignored him.
“She declared war the second she sent Azriel to Shiran City and then abandoned him there despite knowing full well what my father was doing to us, to me,” he looked up at the General. Whatever his expression was it made the female take a step back. “And for that? I will make her regret ever leaving me and my people to die. If it takes going to war against her by myself? So be it. But if Azriel dies because of her?”
He let the question hang before looking down at his hand again.
“I will show her why the Greywalkers were so feared,” he whispered as he squeezed his hand into a fist around the buds. They made a sickening squelching sound as they popped, blood oozing between his fingers.
Meeting Thayne’s shocked gaze, he opened his hand, tilted it, and let the pieces of Kírtlaq ïlr Akkensahn’s wing buds fall to the sand.
And without another word, he left the tent, throwing up walls in his mind against his Others and everyone else as he strode in the direction of his cabin.