The two-way mirror tone pierced the room and silenced them all. Frowning, she looked at the mirror where she’d left it the day before when Thayne had called, flashing back to that call and her blood ran cold. It had almost been twenty-four hours since she had last heard her heir’s voice and it felt simultaneously like it had been years and yet no more than a few minutes. She stared at that mirror for longer than she probably should have when she felt a hand touch her shoulder and she flinched, looking up to see Eiod staring at her with thinly cloaked understanding and acceptance. She afforded him a soft smile that barely touched her lips before she looked at her Court, all of whom were staring at her. They had known what Thayne’s last call had entailed, they’d been there after all. Everyone except Kírtlaq who sat at her left, silver-green eyes darkened around the edges though she knew it was because of the pain he was still in from the mending wound in his torso from where Rhyshladlyn had ripped out his wing buds. None of them seemed to judge her, none seemed to have anything to offer towards keeping her from answering. So with a hand that didn’t shake nearly as badly as she thought it would, she picked up the mirror and clicked it open as she tried to ignore the ghostly voice of memory rising from the depths of her mind to taunt her.
“Don’t fucking speak to me as though I am Xitlali,” she bit out, voice like steel. “I have thought about this and my response is far more reasonable than you deserve. You declared war the second you condemned Uncle to death thrice over, Mother,” she grimaced and Thayne’s mouth curled into a wicked grin. “After all he’s done for you? After all he’s let you do to him? One would think you’d have more honor than this.”
“I dare because the last person who did, you killed his wife and son when afforded the perfect excuse to do so!”
“So I dare you to try and kill me, you pompous, power-drunk bitch. I guarantee you will fail.”
“Thayne?” She hated how the hesitant hope that had bloomed in her chest was audible in her voice as her daughter’s face showed in the small mirror, crimson eyes hard and red rimmed like she had been crying, face flushed, and a muscle along her jaw twitching. “Is everything alright?” she tried again, her voice sounding more steady, more sure of herself.
“You need to see this,” was the only reply and then Thayne’s face was gone and as the connection settled and strengthened, she saw a containment Shield powered by hundreds of Dhaoine thrumming around a single being that looked like it was kneeling, four wings spread side and bristling. “This is the price of your inaction,” she had never heard that tone in her eldest’s voice before and it made the first trickles of fear slip down her spine.
“Who is that?” Uveis asked, the Warrior’s eyes squinted as he leaned in front of Yuran who sat to her right, trying to see the image on the tiny mirror.
“I’m not sure,” Yuran replied with a small shrug.
With a flick of her wrist she moved the connection from the small two-way mirror to the larger one that spread behind her as she rose to her feet and turned to face it. With the view much larger now, they could all easily see what was going on.
It was as Kírtlaq sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth, she recognized who the winged being that knelt inside that Shield was and it made her breath stutter in her chest as every member of her Court that was in the room with her made soft noises if shock and awe. She couldn’t blame them especially seeing as she fought to do the same all while wondering how she hadn’t recognize him sooner.
Rhyshladlyn slowly rose to his feet, face a twisted, shifting mass of flesh and bone and sinew that was straight out of the Old Stories, out of nightmares, as his hand lifted, gripped the shaft of the arrow that was sticking out from his left shoulder and pulled. It dislodged with a wet squelch that made her stomach churn. As he tossed it aside she saw that the tip wasn’t like a regular arrow; instead it had reverse barbs that ran the length of the thin, elongated tip which explained the two inch wide hole it had left behind. As it cartwheeled through the air she saw the grey feather that was tied to the end and knew that it belonged to a Soul Healer. Knew because they were the only ones to mark their arrows that way, knew before the Qishir even opened his mouth and spoke with a discordant multiplicity that stilled her blood. The power that resonated in that voice that had gone deep and gravel-filled, like bone scraping against itself, made the air around her go stagnant and old despite the literal Worlds that separated them. And the trickles of fear became streams.
“Relyt Greymend,” she closed her eyes against the sight of the monster that wore the Qishir’s likeness, closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see those unnerving two-toned irises and the grey sclera that housed them. So she wouldn’t have to see the way the muscles that had worked his jaw shift in the open space where the flesh of his cheek had been. So she wouldn’t have to see the way ice blue trickles of fire dripped out of the holes in his face and chest and neck, how silver-grey smoke rose off his skin like steam. So she wouldn’t have to see the way his face contorted into an expression that held no Dhaoinity left to it. But it didn’t work; the sight was forever burned into her mind because she had never heard of a Dhaoine having a true face that encompassed all of them. “You dare to injure me purposefully?” That voice was like hearing a god speak and the thought only made the unsettled feeling in her chest worse.
When she looked again, Rhyshladlyn was gone from view, replaced instead by the Grey Soul Healer who was slowly lowering the bow he had fired from but not letting go of it, face a riot of emotions that she couldn’t read quickly enough from the distance between him and Thayne, but the regret was clear. Though it wasn’t the regret of an action but rather the regret of not having done that action sooner.
He is aware that doing purposeful harm to his Qishir carries a death sentence? She wondered. And that was only counting what would happen to him as a qahllynshæ acting against his Qishir, it didn’t take into account what would happen to him as a Grey Soul Healer who had done purposeful harm to another without his own life being in danger.
But if Relyt was aware of the consequences of what he’d done, he didn’t seem to care. And his response only proved that.
“Yes,” he replied with a calmness that was impressive given that he had to be terrified as he vanished his bow. And the gods only knew what his qahllyn was doing to him internally for dishonoring it. “And I would do it again without hesitation, your Majesty.”
That was certainly not what I was expecting him to say.
Silence had never sounded so cacophonous before, even the subtle humming that she knew the Shield had was absent following Relyt’s words.
“Why?” Rhyshladlyn asked as the view widened to show the Qishir as he slowly closed the distance between himself and his Steward, the coldfire that circled around his feet moving with him like waves parting around a rock, those grey flames that had burned intricate and delicate swirls onto his arms and bare chest and back continuing to track along his skin as he walked. He gave no attention to any of it. Just moved like a force of nature across the grey, boiling sand within the Shield that surrounded him, face holding an expression that was as alien as it was monstrous.
The closer the Qishir drew to the edge of the Shield where the Soul Healer stood, the more the male began to shake, though it wasn’t as noticeable as it she had expected it to be given the circumstances. But he stood fast, wings tucked docilely against his back, still refusing to back down from the decision to do what he had. Instead he owned up to it, accepted it and the consequences. The strength and bravery inherent in that was awe-inspiring.
“You were going to kill us all, Rhys-kyn,” Relyt murmured but his voice carried in the unnatural quiet that had covered the area. “If you had completed the Oath? Azriel would be dead because Anislanzir would have sensed the change as soon as it happened. And you would have finished that Working and taken us all with you.”
“Did he just say a Working?” Kírtlaq asked, voice edged with uncertainty and not a little bit of fear. “A simple Working cannot destroy an entire area that would cover the camp and Shiran City.”
She just waved her hand to shush him.
“So you risked death to strike me? For what purpose? Striking me wouldn’t have stopped the Working.”
Rhyshladlyn was nearly at the Shield when the view became shaky and she figured it was because Thayne hands were shaking but as she looked closer she realized that that wasn’t it. The ground itself was shaking; the sands trapped within the Shield undulating as though some great beast lay beneath them, breathing deeply with slumber, the movement of its back as it pressed against the Earth that housed it a warning of its existence. Not unlike the Grey Qishir himself.
“If you bled the Oath would no longer be one sided and you had sworn that you’d only perform it if we Blood Oathed to you but you didn’t answer with your own until later. And to date, you have never once broken your word,” Relyt replied, one shoulder lifting and dropping in a mimicry of a shrug. It was an act of nonchalance that was nothing more than that: an act. One none of them were falling for. “I shall take any punishment you see fit to give me, but not until you breathe, not until I can release this Shield without the risk that you will kill anything and everything you touch.”
No one asked how the Steward had known that Azriel had spoken the Companion’s Blood Oath to the Qishir, though if anyone had wished to, they weren’t afforded the chance.
That already monstrous face moved, distorted, and the Qishir’s mouth dropped open until it looked like his jaw unhinged as he slammed his hands against the Shield with enough force that it warbled and whined, a perfect counter-melody to the roar of outrage that he loosed. Whatever words followed that roar were lost to the distance, the connection, and the way Rhyshladlyn’s voice was just off. But whatever it was he said, it made Relyt’s face twist as well, made fury make features that were normally handsome and inviting look dark and foreboding and dangerous.
“I dare because no one else here could! No one else here can face you down like this and not flinch, not quiver before you!” Relyt snarled back, slapping his hands against the Shield over where Rhyshladlyn’s still rested and the Qishir jerked but didn’t give ground. “I dare because that is my g’bròltr in there! I dare because you recalled your Others and locked them down so they could not stop you! I dare because if you do that Working here you will kill us all!” Relyt tilted his head back and visibly swallowed before he took a deep breath as his eyes fell closed, clearly trying to regain some semblance of control. When the fury had dissipated, Relyt dropped his gaze back to Rhyshladlyn who was staring at him, his own face gone still for the first time since the call had connected. “I dare because had I not stopped you? You would have been the only survivor and the guilt would have eaten you alive because you are loathe to kill innocents. You have so much guilt already, I refuse to stand by and let you rack up more.”
“You had no right to stop me!” Rhyshladlyn snapped, but it didn’t have as much bite as he probably wanted it to. It was clear he knew Relyt was right, that the Soul Healer hadn’t acted without good reason.
“I had every right! I am your Steward first, your friend second, and your lover third!” Relyt countered, punching the Shield to emphasize his aggravation, making it ripple and shake. “I had every right because no one else in your Triad is here and you don’t have a Sacred Three. I am the only one capable of stopping you from doing something that would see you as no better than the very g’hetlaqk that got us in this mess in the first place!”
Yuran sucked in a harsh breath and she glanced at him, eyebrows drawn down in a questioning frown. The Pahnthrope shook his head, rainbow eyes hooded as he stared at the scene playing out on the mirror before them.
“How dare you compare me to her!” the Qishir growled, teeth bared, showing fangs that were impressive especially for a Dhaoine that was only half Sinner Demon.
“I’m not comparing you to–” Relyt huffed a frustrated sound, raking his hands through his hair, grabbing a handful and tugging once, twice, and a third time before letting go and waving his hands to either side of him. “Look around you, your Majesty. This is your Court. Only one does not stand here with you, only one is not here to lend his magick to keep you from doing something so incredibly ill advised. But yet… despite that, despite the obvious risk of their lives, they ran here to help contain you, to help keep you from leveling the camp and Shiran City before I could stop you. Look, Rhyshladlyn. Do you see them?”
The Qishir stubbornly kept his eyes on the Soul Healer who sighed heavily, pain flashing across his face, a regret that was for an action this time following on its heels, before he spoke again, trying a different approach.
“Rhys, please, please. You cannot Oath him, you have to… you ha–”
“–no! I will not deny him! He will definitely die if I do!” Rhyshladlyn thundered, hitting the Shield again, coldfire whooshing out from where it encircled his feet to cover several feet of distance to either side of him before it returned.
Relyt paused and then as his face became marked with grief she marveled that a Grey Soul Healer had shown so much emotion in the last several minutes when they were known for showing none, were renowned for it actually. She held her breath, waiting for his response, waiting to see what would happen. It was like she was watching a play, something that wasn’t real, that didn’t have real life repercussions, real life results. But this was real. This was the fate of her brother, the brother that her family had denounced and disowned millennia ago, but still her blood nonetheless. This was the fate of the Grey Qishir, of the Grey Court. Rhyshladlyn’s reaction, his actions, his choices, from here on would decide the fate of millions.
I did this. This is my fault. He shouldn’t have to be faced with this.
“He is dead either way, Rhys,” Relyt’s voice was barely above a whisper and each word held the hesitancy that came with admitting that a loved one was lost forever. The sheer breadth of loss that filled those six words made her sway where she stood leaning back against the table in the War Hall and her entire Triad reached out to steady her at the exact same time. And feeling their qahllyn reaching for her, feeling their presence brush against hers, tasting the way their signatures mixed so perfectly with her own, made her want to vomit. Because there was a high chance that Rhyshladlyn would never have that now.
What have I done?
Before Relyt had even finished speaking, Rhyshladlyn was shaking his head, hands lifting off the Shield only to curl into fists and strike back down again and again and again. The sounds he made were not words but rather incoherent shrieks as the Shield trembled under the force of his blows, the Dhaoine that fed power into it calling out to one another to keep it steady, to hold strong. Though they had to know as well as she did that if Rhyshladlyn truly wanted out of that Shield, he wouldn’t have any trouble destroying it. But he wouldn’t.
Because Relyt was right, all of them knew that. And she especially knew that because she knew her brother. If Azriel had reached out to Rhyshladlyn with a Blood Oath then he was dying and desperate, desperate enough to chance that he would be killed regardless and that his death would lead to the Qishir’s and the chain reaction that would inevitably follow it. Desperate enough to forget that to deny a Blood Oath once spoken, once begun, would blow the act back upon the speaker and no one had been known to survive that. Azriel had a chance to live but whatever chance he’d had he had likely destroyed and not even been aware of it.
“High Ones see us all,” Eiod whispered in Anglë’lylel but she didn’t have it in her to reprimand him for it. Not when the rest of her Court spoke prayers to their own gods right along with him.
If she believed anymore, she would have done the same.
But as it was, she couldn’t pull her eyes away from Rhyshladlyn beating against that Shield, snarling and screaming, hands uncurling from firsts so he could tear at it with his nails, digging long gashes into it. But those gashes didn’t last long before they sealed up and the Shield’s surface was smooth again, thrumming strong as the hundreds that stood along its circumference threw more power into it to keep it up. She couldn’t look away from the Qishir who wasn’t even a full adult by his race’s standards, a fledgling that had seen and done and suffered more than any adult twice his age. He’d done everything right and still failure followed him like a dark storm cloud. Still he had ended up here, true face at full visibility, screaming as his Court fought to keep him just this side of nova and knowing that if they failed yet another World would be wiped off the map.
Several minutes passed before Rhyshladlyn went still and bowed his head forward until his forehead pressed against the Shield.
“I cannot do this, Rel,” his voice sounded so broken and she pressed a hand against her chest, listing to the side until she felt Kírtlaq pressing back against her. “I cannot be asked… cannot be made… to do this.”
“I do not know of any other way, your Majesty,” Relyt’s tone was flat but the expression on his face, his body language, betrayed the grief and the guilt and the fury that swirled beneath his nearly perfect mask of stoicism.
“There is always a way, Relyt. There is always another option, otherwise it wouldn’t be called making a choice,” Rhyshladlyn chuckled low and harsh, the sound mirthless and it made her skin prickle. His voice lost the discordant echo, the resonance, and the bone-aching power. “I think I get it now.”
A chorus of ‘what‘s went up in the War Hall in unison with those from the other end of the connection around Thayne and the loudest one that came from Relyt whose mouth had curled into a frown.
When Rhyshladlyn lifted his head up, face a serene mask of acceptance, her heart skipped a beat. “I think I get it now, what They meant that day.”
“Your Majesty, what are you talking about?”
The Qishir just smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Do you trust me?”
Relyt frowned harder. “You know I do.”
The other male nodded and pushed away from the Shield. “At least one of us does.”
A male form flickered into existence on the outside of the Shield beside Relyt, a near mirror image of Rhyshladlyn save for he had his hair cut close to his head and his eyes were ice blue. Terror, pure and absolute, darkened his face as another male with white hair that had a streak of violet the same color as his eyes and a female with charm-riddled black hair and sapphire eyes appeared on on Relyt’s other side.
“Stop him!” The first one hollered. “He’s going to–” but his voice cut off suddenly as a pulse slammed out from Rhyshladlyn and hit the Shield with enough force that it bowed outward, causing the blue-eyed male to slammed his shoulder against the Shield, his fellows doing the same thing, yelling words she couldn’t make out.
But it was too late.
Before anyone could say anything else, Rhyshladlyn tore his nails across his throat and opened the big vein on the side of his throat, thick life blood dripping down in a thick stream, dosing the flames that had licked up his torso as it went. Screams of alarm made the connection crackle around the edges and she clapped her hand to her mouth to stop her own sound from escaping as the sounds of chairs being toppled over and yells echoed around her in the War Hall.
Relyt’s wail was drowned out by words that Lulphé knew would haunt her until her dying day:
I Hear your Oath and in Answer I give my Life for yours.
And for the first time since Azriel had been born, she prayed to the High Ones in her native tongue.