Bayls watched from one of the outlying sand dunes that surrounded Shiran City as Rhyshladlyn ran full tilt towards the City with nothing as far as armor save the breeches that made him decent.
She marveled at the power in each looping stride, with each bunching and relaxing of his back muscles and the muscles in his arms, shoulders, and chest. He was truly a work of art and strength that seemed boundless and indestructible, his determination mixing with the fury that sent his true face to flickering through the only glamour he’d kept active. He left a trail of sparks and golden dust from his wings as he ran, gaining ground on the army that was double timing it for their assigned locations along the City walls. His wings beat at the air around him, spurning him faster and further until he was taking great running leaps versus looping strides.
He crossed leagues without strain despite the fact that not even two hours ago he’d knelt in sand made sticky with his own blood and spoke a sacrifice few had the balls to even think of doing. It took him minutes to cross a distance that had taken the army an hour to get halfway across. And still he didn’t stop.
In moments like this, he seemed untouchable, almost like a phantom out of a story that no one would believe existed unless they’d witnessed it firsthand. And he wasn’t the only one; it was a trait that he shared with his twin.
Glancing side-long at the Other who stood to her right, she cataloged the differences between Nhulynolyn and Rhyshladlyn for what had to be the millionth time. But she couldn’t stop herself even if she tried. It had become second nature at this point. Ever since she’d first laid eyes on the Other and felt the thrum of a connection her mother had spoken of when Da had left, she’d watched both the Qishir and the Other. Because she just couldn’t shake the lessons school had taught that twins were two halves of one Self and wondered just where the similarities ended.
They were of the same height, nearly six feet and a half, lithely muscled but bulky enough that when they appeared in one’s eyeline the image they cut was imposing. But Rhyshladlyn was all angular jaw, high sweeping cheekbones, kissable cupid’s bow lips, and strong jaw and chin, dainty nose that slopped up into a forehead that stopped at a soft widow’s peak. Rhyshladlyn’s facial features and body makeup gave credence to his neodrach gender, an androgynous mold that screamed masculine in spite of that androgyny. Whereas Nhulynolyn was wholly and undeniably male.
The Other was identical to his twin, a nearly literal mirror image were it not for the ice blue eyes and jaw that was more square, longer nose, and sharper cheekbones and a body that while tall and lithe almost to the point of being lanky, was solid muscle bulked just enough that the definition of those muscles was clear even through the black tunic and leather vest he wore over it, even through the thick cotton breeches he wore tucked into knee high leather boots.
But to the untrained eye, to anyone not afforded the right to spend hours memorizing the two, watching them interact together?
It was easy not to see them as individuals whose differences went beyond their eyes and the way Nhulynolyn kept his hair cut close to his skull all over so it looked more blonde than the fiery auburn it actually was whereas Rhyshladlyn kept chin-length auburn fringe that was braided from widow’s peak back and the sides shaved down to the skin.
It was easy not to hear how Nhulynolyn dropped the “g” at the of “ing” words, how he made consonants roll and vowels sharp in one sentence and flipped it in the next where Rhyshladlyn had the same drawl as his twin only the Qishir took pains to enunciate every word he spoke, regardless of the language.
It was easy not to see how Rhyshladlyn walked like he was performing an elaborate dance where Nhulynolyn moved like a boulder rolling down a hill but held the fluidity of a rushing river.
But unlike many Dhaoine, she had been given months to watch them, hours to memorize every scar and dip and hollow on Nhulynolyn’s body. Had been given hours to listen to them tag team an argument, to hear them speak the same words but with different intonations, syntax, and emphasis. Had spent more time than she could calculate the length of trying to determine if the feeling that made her heart skip beats and butterflies dance in her gut was love or something else.
He shot her a grin that was full of cocky arrogance that somehow looked good on him and didn’t make her want to punch him in the throat.
“So… come here often, eh?” he drawled and she guffawed, the line so cliché it was unexpected. The way his ice blue eyes lit up with his smile told her she was in trouble. The infectious nature of that smile made it impossible for her to be mad he’d used such a cheesy pickup line on her.
“Nope,” she popped the “p” and watched that smile morph into a grin as his eyes widened while he leaned his shoulder casually against the pole that held up the front of her tent, arms crossed over his chest in a way that she knew was meant to show off his muscles. But the sight was pleasing so she didn’t call him on it. “My first time here, actually. How about you?”
“Eh, I’m not new but I sure ain’t a regular neither,” he retorted.
“Hmm,” she stepped closer to him, watching his eyes track from her face down her body and back up, making the small hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention. No one, male, female, or neodrach, had ever looked at her with such open, naked lust before and she didn’t know how to handle it. But she liked the feeling. And plus she trusted him. Not just because he was Rhyshladlyn’s Other so he couldn’t be that much of a threat, but because something about him made her instincts sigh in relief and flounce off to take a nap. “So… what’s a good boy like you doing in a dangerous war camp like this?”
It was a test and she knew he knew that but he still laughed, head thrown back, the throaty sound rumbling up from deep in his chest; a genuine sound no one could fake well enough that it turned the heads of those around them.
“Oh, sweetlin’, I ain’t no good boy,” he said as he caught his breath, a mischievous glint in his eyes and twist to his grin. “But the same question could be asked of you, yeah?”
She took a chance and reached out to run her hand down his sternum, watching as his eyes became heavy lidded at her touch, took in the way his scent changed as his arousal hit the air. Her own smile shifted to mirror his.
“Why don’t you come inside and find out?”
Her eyes slid away from the Other as her chest grew tight. She still didn’t know where they stood in their relationship, but wherever it was it was definitely not just casual lovers. Not if the way he’d broken down in her arms when they’d brought Rhyshladlyn back to camp after he and his fellows had kept the Qishir from speaking a death attend on Relyt was anything to go by. Not if the way he sought her out every time he was corporeal and Rhyshladlyn didn’t need him for anything. Not if the way he seemed to need her touch as much as she needed his, far more tactile than she ever expected him to be. Not if the way that he had stopped flirting with anything that had a pulse like he had when she’d first arrived at the camp since the night she’d taken a chance and invited him into her tent. If that’s what it means to be casual lovers with no feelings involved, the definition of the term needs to be changed immediately, cuz that’s some seriously misleading bullshit.
Looking back at Rhyshladlyn she wondered absently, and not for the first time, if Nhulynolyn had the same scars his twin did. Wondered if the body he had was a mirror image of his kè‘s. Wondered if he had the same amount of wings his brother had, wondered if he had any wings at all. Wondered if his scars were received while he was corporeal or when he was in control of Rhyshladlyn’s body so they only attached to the Self that had powered it at the time of receival. Wondered whether by sleeping with Nhulynolyn, by falling in love with him, if she was in reality falling in love with, sleeping with, Rhyshladlyn. Wondered where kè ended and Other began.
She wondered how much longer she’d be afforded with them, how much longer she had until she ran out of time to ask.
That is the worst topic of thought to have right now.
She watched as Rhyshladlyn ran feeling as though she were watching a play rather than real life as it happened. She watched as his face shifted, watched as worry and fear rioted against each other for control over his expression before it went blank. She watched as he stumbled to a stop for all of a few seconds, face contorted with an emotion she didn’t recognize from this distance before he took off again, speed doubling, angling away from where she stood with the Healers and Nhulynolyn, and instead aiming for a section of the City walls that was closer to the main gate. Yells of surprise rang up as the army sensed his presence and parted like water around a rock as he ran through them. But he never broke that stride, didn’t falter beyond that few seconds’ worth pause. It caught her breath in her throat before the need to question his change of course got her breathing again.
“I thought he was supposed to be meeting up with us at this door?” she commented hesitantly, eyes never leaving the Qishir for fear she’d lose track of him.
“He was,” Nhulynolyn responded, “but something’s wrong.”
“What now?” Jylen asked from behind her where he leaned against the City wall, sounding exasperated and she couldn’t really blame him.
“Whatever it is, it is bad enough that he changed course without warning anyone,” Chebnir observed.
Bad enough that he didn’t even tell his Others?
Turning so she could keep sight of Rhyshladlyn but see Nhulynolyn in her periphery, she watched his face go blank and his eyes lose focus which meant he was speaking to his twin along their connection and she frowned. No, he didn’t tell anyone at all. By the Great Mother’s quivering bits, what is going on now?
Chebnir shifted in the sand ahead of her, pale eyes wide but there wasn’t an ounce of fear coming from her like there was with Jylen and Yrei, but even they weren’t crippled by their fear, only made more alert by it. It was impressive given that the three had lived far closer to the horrors the Lord King bred in the Palace than she had. Given that the task they had been assigned was one none of them could fail.
Because failure meant a fate worse than death.
Rhyshladlyn was nearly to the wall when he came to a dead stop with such force that a plume of sand kicked up around him, briefly hiding him and the warriors and soldiers on either side of him from view. The sounds of surprise from the Field rose up as a wave passed over the army like a concussive wave from an explosion but no one actually moved.
“What was that?” Yrei asked, voice wavering around the edges as she smoothed her hands absently down the front of her sleeveless deep purple dress, shifting it so it settled better over the black leggings she wore beneath it. It was a gesture Bayls had come to associate with nervousness.
Before she could answer the Sinner Healer, Nhulynolyn jerked hard beside her like he’d been struck and she looked away from the whirlwind of sand that surrounded Rhyshladlyn to reach out and steady her lover as he swayed on his feet, a soft sound breaking past his lips.
“Fuck,” the Other hissed, a hand coming up to press against his chest as the other gripped her shoulder for added support, her own hands curled around his hips, feeling the muscles that twitched there as the Other fought to stay on his feet. “Fuck.”
“What ails you?” Chebnir asked, those pale green eyes that were more white than green swiveling to look the Other over with the intensity only Healers could possess.
The Other shook his head, hands moving to press over his ears, face scrunched with pain. But whatever noise he was trying to block out was inside his mind and thus inescapable.
“Nully?” She coaxed, hands lifting to grasp his wrists gently and pull his hands away from his ears. “Kjeiru?” His eyes cleared a little hearing the Sinxhët word for “dear one” and she gave him a small smile. “Talk to us.”
“Azriel ain’t respondin’ to an’a’thin’ that Rhys is sayin’ to him. But he’s alive… barely. All my twin could get outta him was that they’re movin’ him.”
“Moving him where?” Yrei asked, iridescent violet eyes that reminded her a lot of Xheshmaryú’s not looking away from Rhyshladlyn, her black skin shining like obsidian in the light of the setting sun.
It would be dark soon and with nightfall, the chances of casualties rose exponentially for not everyone in Thayne’s army could see well at night. Though those that were could likely aid the ones that weren’t enough to keep those numbers low.
Maybe if we’re lucky but I’m sure as fuck not holding my breath on that.
“Rhys says all he got before the connection went dark was that they were aimin’ for the Great Temp–” the Other cut himself off mid-word and snarled low and fast in a language that sounded like Sinxhët but wasn’t all at the same time before he took off towards his twin. She’d only heard him speak in that language once before. It had been just before he’d hauled ass back towards the City when Rhyshladlyn had turned on Relyt with the intention of killing the Soul Healer. Shit.
“Nully! Wait!” Bayls yelled, taking off after him. He stopped and turned to face her. “What the fuck is going on? Do not leave us in the dark. If we need to move locations, you’re our only way of knowing.”
The Other pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and shook his head before turning those unnervingly ancient eyes on her, one of his canines worrying at his lower lip in one of the few nervous ticks that he shared with his twin. The action didn’t settle her own nerves at all.
She watched as he stood there, muscles twitching in his forearms, debating what to tell her while clearly wanting to run. But she stood her ground, shifting her weight so it was clear that if he ran, she would follow. His eyes tracked the movement and his fang released its hold on his lip as he let out a gusty sigh and rubbed at his face with both hands.
“They’re takin’ him to the Watchtower,” Nhulynolyn replied after a heartbeat. “But I don’t have time to explain why that’s bad, just that it is. I’ve gotta go, Bay, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t give a fuck that you’re sorry,” she bit back, advancing a step, delighting the tiniest bit at the way he seemed to shrink away from her. “Someone is going to explain what the fuck is going on. Because I’m not gonna sit here and thumb twiddle if my Qishir has changed course. I’m not risking he’ll need me and I won’t be there.”
“Uh uh,” she held up a hand. “Don’t flutter those eyelashes at me, Nhulynolyn. Give me an answer or get me someone who can.”
Nhulynolyn stared at her blankly for a moment before his expression shifted into one of pride and a pout. I will never understand how he can mix two totally different looks like that and not look dumb as fuck.
“Shadi is on her way here so that there’s at least one’a us with e’ery major group to aid with comms. But I have to go.”
Before she could even reach for him, before she could even open her mouth to say anything, he closed the distance between them in two strides, cupped her face and kissed her solidly. Her hands fisted in the front of his shirt he held the kiss for two heartbeats before he pulled back and rested his forehead against hers. She whimpered, knowing he didn’t display affection like this, true affection that didn’t have an ulterior motive or wasn’t part of a joke or a show, so publicly unless something was really wrong. And it made the anxiety already twisting in her gut all the worse.
He shook his head, cutting her off.
“I will come back to you, Bay, but you have to let me go for now, okay?” He leaned back so she could look at him without going cross-eyed. He smiled at her but it was shaky and only brushed at those electric blue eyes she loved so much rather than light them up like it normally would. His thumbs danced over her cheekbones, his smile growing when she sighed and leaned into the touch, allowing herself this moment. “It’ll only be for a little while, I promise. And if Rhys an’ I need you, Shadi’ll blink you to us.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” he replied cheekily and allowed her to pull him by the front of his shirt after her.
“You better come back to me, Nhulynolyn Otherborn,” she tried to sound intimidating but her voice wavered with her worry and her fear; it wavered with the all but overwhelming sense that someone in the Court wasn’t going to leave Shiran City alive by the time this was all over. And it made fear chill her blood in a way that hadn’t happened since the day her brother had died defending their mother, since the day Rhyshladlyn had touched down in front of the Great Temple after Lord Prince Anis had been murdered.
Nhulynolyn chuckled. “Aye, m’Lady, I will,” he pressed another kiss to her mouth. He pulled away, took a breath, swooped back in for one more kiss and spoke against her lips with a conviction that had rattled her bones like an Oath, “Whatever this is between us, it is strong enough that no matter where you go, I shall always find my way back home to you.”
Then he was gone, her hands falling to her sides as the shirt they had been fisted in was no longer there and she swallowed conclusively against the sob that threatened to escape. Because his words were eerily similar to something she had overheard Azriel say to Rhyshladlyn, something that at the time had made her stomach turn over with a sense of foreboding so violent she’d had to empty it several tents down so as not to be caught eavesdropping.
And now? Now with those same words coming from someone she knew she could lose if Rhyshladlyn died?
Her heart thundered against her breastbone and tears pricked the back of her eyes. But she fought them because now wasn’t the time to lose it. Nhulynolyn said he’d come back to her? Then he would. It was that simple.
Gods willing it is today or tomorrow and not a lifetime from now.
With another swallow against the lump in her throat as she furiously ignored the way her stomach twisted itself into knots, she searched out her Qishir again, wondering where Adïmshyl and Thae’a were as they should have been with him. As her eyes fell on Rhyshladlyn again, the sound of the air displacing beside her was the only warning she had before Shadiranamen’s imposing, tall form appeared beside her in the spot Nhulynolyn had occupied, startling cries out of the Healers. She suppressed the chuckle that threatened to bubble out at their expense.
“Warn a man before you suddenly appear like that!” Jylen snapped, bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to slow his breathing.
“It takes some getting used to,” Bayls tossed over her shoulder at him.
“Oh so that happens often then? Naturally,” Jylen snarked and she snickered.
“Usually only with Nully. The rest of us have more tact than that,” Shadiranamen responded, voice a rolling, sibilant hiss that made the hairs on her arms stand on end. “And we aren’t assholes. Usually.”
As Jylen continued to grumble under his breath, Bayls watched the sand that had been kicked up settled with an unnatural swiftness as Rhyshladlyn turned and looked right at her, or perhaps it was at Shadiranamen. Even from the handful of leagues that separated them she could see the way his eyes glowed, the god-Marks on his chest and wrists shining white and silver in the light from the setting sun that made his hair a halo of fire around his head. Could make out the intricate swirls that those odd grey flames had burned into his torso and arms. He bared his teeth before letting lose a war howl that shook the ground and rattled the air in her lungs before he took off for the City again.
“What does it mean that Anislanzir is taking Azriel to the Watchtower?” Bayls asked.
Shadiranamen turned to slowly look at her, sapphire eyes filled with shifting shadows that she tried not wonder about, tried not to be afraid of. For a long moment, the Other didn’t speak but when she did, it was with the tone of a teacher reciting from memory.
“The Watchtowers, or obelisks, in each City built by the Greywalkers were tethered to the Qishir and the Court that was Blood Oathed to them that occupied the City. The Watchtower known as the Heart of the City would be tethered to the Qishir and doing any damage to it was thought to damage the Qishir who worked to protect it. When Rhys strengthened the wards and Shields on the City when we first breached the walls to get Relyt and Alaïs out, he tethered himself as the Qishir of Shiran City,” those ancient, shadow-dancing eyes looked away from her and back to the Qishir who still ran towards the City. “If Anislanzir knew that and now knows that Azriel is fully Oathed to Rhys? All he would have to do to taint the City and destroy Rhys is to kill Azriel at the Watchtower. At least, if one is to believe the stories. None of that has ever been proven.”
“So there is a chance that it won’t have the effect that bastard is hoping it will?” she asked.
Shadiranamen shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps, yes. But if Azriel dies now that his Oath has not only been completed but Accepted?” The Other looked away from her, those shadow-filled eyes looking instead at her kè. “His death will no doubt lead to Rhyshladlyn’s own. That is a proven thing.”
Jylen, Chebnir, and Yrei all cursed, theirs barely loud enough to drown hers out.
“Will he make it in time to stop Anislanzir?” Yrei asked after several minutes of silence.
“He has to,” Shadiranamen replied.
“Wait…Your kind can get into the City undetected right? You did it before when we were trying to save Alaïs,” Jylen started.
“Aye,” Chebnir continued for him. “So why can’t you all do that now to get to Azriel and get him out?”
Before Shadiranamen opened her mouth to reply, Bayls felt the World shift and go fuzzy. She frowned and looked around before the feeling of a couple hundred pounds of muscle dead weighted against her front and the sound of–
–his sobs were terrifying to hear, body-wracking they were so powerful, his nails digging crescents into her arms until she felt blood trickle down her biceps and gather in the crooks of her elbows, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how anyone should respond to grief this profound; grief that stole the breath, boiled the blood, and made one beg for death to strike them for anything was better than living without the Dhaoine one lost.
She felt her heart break as she wrapped her wings around him. “He’s gone. How can he be gone, Ba–“
“–yls!” She jumped, the Vision evaporating as she came back to reality to find Shadiranamen shaking her shoulders, sapphire eyes wide, the shadows dancing in those mercurial depths still. “Bayls? Where did you go just now?”
She blinked slowly at the Other before looking over her shoulder at where Rhyshladlyn took to the air, leapt over the wall and punched his way through the wards that shimmered to life as he drew near. The City cried one short, deafening note of elation before the glow of the walls brightened until it was nearly blinding and pulsed three times before returning to normal.
“I don’t know,” she answered shakily as the Vision disappeared completely before she could get a good hold on it. She didn’t know who it was she’d held, only that his grief was palpable, only that it had left a sour taste on the back of her tongue that she doubted she’d ever be able to wash out. “I don’t know.”
Gods above, below, and surrounding, we’ve lost enough people. Please don’t take anyone else.
The only answer she got was the foreboding that knotted her stomach climbing its way into her chest to constrict her lungs. And as it did she realized her Vision was a warning. She cursed, pushed Shadiranamen out of the way and ran for the City, ignoring the shouts behind her. She didn’t have time to explain, to tell them about the Vision, the warning it held.
Because someone was going to die and she’d be damned if it was any of the males she cared for currently within those walls. Not if she had shit all to say about it.