He stood still as the water lapped against his ankles, cool and soothing in the same way that a cool cloth pressed to fevered skin was. He wanted to bend down and see if that water tasted as sweet and refreshing as it felt against his skin but something told him not to. Something told him to stay standing with his eyes closed, told him to just enjoy the gentle breeze that brushed across his skin and circled his legs like a purring cat. Told him to enjoy the spicy scent of desert wildflowers that was carried on that breeze. Told him to enjoy the twittering song of birds that echoed around him. Told him to enjoy the drip drip drip-drop of the rain blood that fell from the sky from his wounds and slithered down his body to join the waters that encircled his ankles to pool on the floor at his feet.
He frowned but his face felt wrong, felt weird, like the skin was too tight like it was torn from a sunburn gotten after too many hours out in the sunlight without a break from the muscles below it failing to work as his body began to die. He shook his head and cried out as pain lanced down his spine, making his whole body jerk, the movement pulling at the muscles on his back and reminding him that he was missing half his wings. He screamed but the sound was garbled, making him choke on the blood that welled up in his throat, the cool waters lapping at his ankles gone, the birdsong replaced by shuffled footsteps, the spicy scent of desert wildflowers replaced by the heavy copper scent of blood.
His eyes flew open to find Anislanzir’s own barely a foot away. He jerked again, that not-scream that was nothing more than a whistling of air through the holes in his lungs ricocheting out against the walls of the Temple hallway that surrounded him as every nerve ending came alive in a way he emphatically wished they hadn’t. He blinked and sagged again in the hold of the warriors that had dragged him all the way from the Palace.
The trip to the Temple was a blank. He only remembered being dragged down the hallway, only remembered thinking that if he died, he could die happily knowing that the bastard un-male before him would go down with him. But it seemed he wasn’t going to die, that he wasn’t going to get that reprieve. At least not yet.
Had he been able to, he’d have laughed at how absolutely and unnecessarily dramatic Anislanzir was being. He finally had the ability to take his Rhyshladlyn down in one move by killing him and yet here the Lord King was, not doing that. All because he wanted to put on a show, wanted to terrorize Rhyshladlyn just a little bit longer. Wanted to make sure that Thayne’s advancing army was left shell shocked by his body pinned to the Watchtower at the City’s heart.
I wish there was a way to show you just how stupid the rest of us think you are.
On a long shot, eyes falling closed against his will, he reached for Shiran and felt fear skitter down his spine when the City responded but it was off, it was wrong. Like it was there but not all at the same time. Almost like he was trying to hear someone speak to him while he was immersed in water. He blinked open his eyes, staring at Anislanzir with a look that had his face been able to form it correctly, would have burned the un-male’s skin.
“Ahh, there it is. Just tried to reach for the City didn’t you? But it isn’t responding like it should?” Anislanzir chuckled, the sound grating and making his ears hurt. “It wasn’t my doing, don’t worry. Seems that Qishir of yours has some tricks up his sleeves.”
Well don’t leave me hanging, you know I can’t ask you to elaborate. Why? Oh that’s right! Because you punctured my godsdamn lungs. High Ones prevail me.
Anislanzir patted his cheek in a way that was nothing short of condescending, making him clench his jaw to fight back his body’s want to make him scream at the pain the action induced. The Lord King leaned back with an expressive shrug, arms spread wide. “It would seem that he’s gotten his hand on something, or someone,” you did not just wiggle your eyebrows at me, “who can manipulate their surroundings. The whole City looks different. And by different, I mean there’s flesh eating flora attacking anything with a heartbeat, and — this is the best part — there’s huge trees everywhere, like a damned forest sprouted around us. Oh! And the sneaky shit popped up seven obelisks. Can you believe that?” Anislanzir shook his head with a bemused chuckle, almost sounding like he was impressed by Rhyshladlyn tenacity.
Azriel just stared blankly at him, wishing his face would cooperate and shift into the expressions he wanted it to. Because he really wanted to tell the stupid un-male to fuck off and die with his face since his voice wasn’t an option. Especially because he spoke of something that should have thrown him completely off his game like one would speak of a comedy play that had a twist no one saw coming that only served to make everything even more hilarious than it already was. Insanity is too weak a word to describe you isn’t it?
“But, unfortunately for ‘Adlyn, we had made it to the Temple before whatever the fuck this magick is settled over the City. But he at least succeeded in making it more difficult than strictly necessary to find the chamber that houses the base of the obelisk,” the Lord King’s eyes took on a dark, sadistic glint and he felt his blood run cold. “But you’ll never guess what I found though!” he singsonged and Azriel barely suppressed the urge to snort in response.
Your sanity? The Lord King gave him a narrow-eyed look as though he’d heard his thoughts before turning away.
He watched with a sinking feeling as the Lord King walked a few feet down the hall, stepping over thick vines that he only just now noticed were growing up the walls and across the floor, uprooting several of the large stone blocks that made up said floor. Wait didn’t he say those vines were flesh eating? His nose twitched, body trying to respond to his brain’s order to wrinkle his nose at the idea that he was being held in such close proximity to Dhaoine eating plant life but it didn’t comply. Wonder how the fucks carrying me feel about this.
He glanced to the warrior on his left and stared hard at the side of his face trying to read his profile, to see if he was afraid or bothered, anything but the stony-faced indifference he seemed to be feeling. He stared long enough that the Sinner warrior fidgeted and glanced at him with a look that clearly snapped could you fucking not? Narrowing his eyes, his nose twitched again, this time with the need to snarl. Excuse me for being concerned about your mental health and safety, you oversized banana apple. But since he couldn’t snarl at him, he gurgled wetly at him instead, feeling blood froth over his lips and drip down his chin in response. He watched the color drain from the warrior’s face with an mental grin as his fellow giggled to Azriel’s right, only going quiet when Pale glared over Azriel’s head at him. Satisfied that the male would have nightmares of this moment provided he lived much longer, he looked back at Anislanzir who was staring at him with a raised eyebrow.
“I figured you’d have more maturity than that, Azriel,” the un-male commented before swinging open the door he stood in front of with a flourish as Azriel rolled his eyes at him. “Oh well, even if you’re not as mature as everyone has led you, and me, to believe, it won’t matter. You won’t be alive much longer.”
Before the un-male could say anything else the air in the hallway went ice cold and he shuddered hard, the action making his body seize as agony tore at him. He watched as shuddering breath he took puffed in front of him, warmer than the air outside his body. Looked down to see steam rising from his blood where it had pooled on the floor. His vision fuzzed around the edges and he closed his eyes. That cold seeped deep into his bones, making them ache in the way that only true cold can and with its arrival, whatever energy he’d been given by whatever it was that had woken him up was leeched away. But he fought against the pull of unconsciousness the loss of that energy heralded. Fought because something had made the hallway go dead of winter cold and there was no telling if it was friendly or not.
Though, if he was being honest with himself, it didn’t really matter did it? He was dead either way. Because he needed someone of Relyt’s power level to have any real chance of a Healing doing jack all to save him, and even then, he didn’t think even Relyt would be able to Heal him enough to keep him away from the River for much longer.
Because that water he had felt lapping at his ankles was the River. He knew that now. Knew it because with his eyes closed he could smell the crispness of that water again, could fee it swaying against his legs as the current ambled on by. With his eyes closed he could smell those spicy desert wildflowers. With his eyes closed he could hear the birdsong that reminded him of his homeland.
“Greetings, Lord King Anislanzir.”
His eyes flew open. No.
Judging by the way the Lord King’s attention shifted to whoever stood behind him, he wasn’t the only one thinking that.
“I warned you did I not?”
The Lord King said nothing, but he didn’t have to. His silence spoke volumes more than he ever could with words.
“Tick tock, tick tock, better hope that little ‘Adlyn runs fast.”
“If he doesn’t, I will. And mark my words,” her voice was biting in a way he had never heard before. If any part of him cared for her anymore, he’d feel proud, “you will die. By his hand or mine, it matters not, but die you shall. On my Patrons I swear it.”
The un-male snorted. “You have no Patrons, Lulphé Akkensahn.”
The laughter that answered him was derisive, derogatory in a way that only his sister could pull off. He tried to warn her, tried to speak, but all that he succeeded in doing was making the blood bubble into his throat all the more.
“You know nothing about me, Anislanzir Faolan Ka’ahne,” she retorted at length, that laughter coloring each word she spoke, her accent wrapping almost seductively around each syllable until she was practically singing the words in Anglë’lylel. “But don’t worry, I shall teach you soon enough.”
The unmistakable sound of a spell shattering rang around them, echoing off the walls of wherever it was they were, followed by Anislanzir’s cry of surprise and rage.
The temperature dropped further the closer the owner of that voice got and the spark of recognition he’d felt at the first words they’d spoken fanned into a full flame. It had been half a millennia since he’d felt this magick, sure, but it was unforgettable. It didn’t matter that the voice was slightly different, there was no mistaking that power and the signature behind it. He knew who it was even before Anislanzir finally spoke.
“Qishir Lulphé Akkensahn,” Anislanzir drawled, spreading his arms out as he bowed at the waist. “To what do I owe the honor of your presence?”
He didn’t have to see his sister’s face to know the look she was giving him.
“Your lack of decorum, your insanity, and your breaking of nearly every known Law and Etiquette,” was the answer, the voice that spoke those words deeper than it had been when she’d called his old two-way mirror. It was just different enough that if he didn’t know her inflection, didn’t know the way she enunciated each word, the syntax she used, how her tone would change mid-word, he may not have recognized her by voice alone. Wouldn’t have known it was her had her power not preceded her speaking, if Anislanzir hadn’t given her a proper greeting with her full name and title. Must be in her neodrach form.
“Here to arrest me are you?”
Lulphé snorted hard enough that his own nose twinged in sympathy.
“No, we both know you are far past that being enough,” she answered, coming to stand just past the warrior he’d gurgled wetly at, the male trembling faintly as she turned hooded crimson eyes to him, the right one glinting gold before she turned her attention back to the Lord King. That brief look spoke volumes even though it was only fleeting.
This was her making amends. This was her apology. This was her retribution freely given to him. It was centuries too late, it wouldn’t get him to forgive her, but she was offering this one act to him as the apology she couldn’t speak and he wouldn’t accept.
And for the first time since they were fledglings, he was left in awe of his sister.
“Though if you wish,” she continued as though she hadn’t paused, as though she hadn’t looked at him, “I can play that game with you. One last game for old times sake? Consider it a parting gift for when you spend an eternity on the Cliffs.”
Anislanzir raised both his eyebrows at her, advancing one step, then another, his face twisting into something dark and full of danger backed by a fury he hadn’t seen on another Dhaoine’s face since Father had still been alive.
“You dare come into my City, meddle in my affairs again?” He snarled, baring impressive fangs at her as he reached his right hand up over his shoulder, the hilt of a sword materializing at the whisper of his will. “And you come alone? Truly, Lulphé, I did not peg you for such abject stupidity.”
His body wanted him to close his eyes, wanted him to rest, to sleep; his psyche wanted him to look away from the fight that was about to happen, to not watch his sister die because while she was powerful, while she was a skilled warrior, she was not good at medium range combat with swords like he was, she was either long range or close combat. Anislanzir was in his element here and Lulphé had to have known that, had to have prepared for it and yet she’d come alone anyway.
So he couldn’t close his eyes, he wouldn’t look away. This was too important. He had to see this. Had to see what his sister had planned because the un-male goat fucker was right. Lulphé was an expert strategist. She would have known better than to infiltrate Shiran City when it was overrun by a very enthusiastic forest of some sort, to go up against a foe like the Lord King when there was even a tiny chance that she’d find herself in a position like this where her skills meant nothing, where her skills were of no use to her. And on top of that, to be by herself? It made no sense.
Lu, what are you doing?
“And I figured you’d be more aware of your surroundings,” Lulphé retorted, one corner of her mouth lifting in a smirk as the Lord King’s eyebrows furrowed. “I never go anywhere alone. One would think that was a lesson you hadn’t forgotten.”
Before the Lord King could so much as take a breath to question her, the point of a blade pierced his chest and disappeared. Between one breath and the next, the un-male’s head was severed from his neck and the body slowly fell to its knees then forward onto the floor. Azriel stared at it with wide eyes, stomach twisting with disgust as those weird vines slithered across the floor and covered it and Anislanzir’s head in a matter of seconds. He told himself that the wet chewing sounds emanating from that writhing pile was definitely not those vines eating him.
“My Qishir,” Eiod murmured and Azriel pulled his gaze from the vine-covered form of what had once been the Lord King in time to see his sister’s personal servant flick his sword twice before sheathing it and vanishing it out. Gold eyes met his and for a moment he was struck by the absurd thought of I had forgotten he was of mixed heritage when he noticed that Eiod was dressed like a Sinner Demon. No doubt to blend in better. Hold up. A glance at Lulphé showed she, too, had dressed more like a Sinner Demon on top of shifting forms. Against his better judgment, he was actually impressed.
The warriors holding him let go and he fell to the blood covered stones with a grunt as they drew their weapons and advanced on Lulphé. They made it two steps before her attend whisper-cracked out along the hallway and brought them to their knees, heads bowed, swords discarded at their sides. Idiots. You should have known better.
Lulphé turned and looked at him, an expression he couldn’t read on her face. But he didn’t look at her for long. Instead he looked back at that lumpy pile of vines. It had been too easy to kill the Lord King. There was no way it had been that simple because if it was Rhyshladlyn would have done that days ago when he’d been within striking distance of the bastard. So how could it have been that easy for Eiod to kill him? There was something nagging at him, a memory he could sense but not quite bring to the forefront, about why it couldn’t have been that easy.
“Azriel,” his sister called as she approached him, bringing his attention back to her. She had her hands held in front of her, palms facing him, like he was a skittish animal posed to bolt at any second. Which was laughable. He couldn’t even stand on his own, how in the whips of Ckushayel was he going to run? “You’re safe. He’s dead now.”
Why are you not bothered that the vines are eating him? How are you even here? How was Eiod able to stab him in the heart? It shouldn’t have been that easy. Why shouldn’t it have been though?
He gave her a flat look and gurgled at her. Pale snickered from where he was still kneeling, Giggles doing the same. She rolled her eyes as even Eiod snorted.
“Fair enough, but your thoughts are loud. You need to calm down. You’re safe now,” she spoke as though he’d actually said something rather than do something, nearly close enough to touch him but her words did everything but calm him down.
Because try as he might he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was too easy. That there was no way that Anislanzir was dead. Something was wrong and it had nothing to do with the weird flesh-eating vines or the way Shiran City felt like Shiran City but wasn’t all at the same. Had nothing to do with the way he could sense Rhyshladlyn but couldn’t hear him through their connection. Though the memory of why Eiod shouldn’t have been able to kill Anislanzir without any issue became slightly more clear as he thought about Rhyshladlyn. But not clear enough.
What is it though? What about how that fucker died is bothering me?
It hit him just as Lulphé’s hand touched his cheek.
Armor. He always wears ar–
He stood still as the waters lapped against his ankles, cool and soothing in the same way that a cool cloth pressed to fevered skin was. He wanted to bend down and see if that water tasted as sweet and refreshing as it felt against his skin but something told him not to. Told him he could open his eyes but he couldn’t drink that water.
Something with a kind voice all but yelled in his ear, the urgency of its words shattering the peace of where he was:
“Azriel, wake up. I need you to wake up! We have to go.”
He knew that voice, and the something that had told him not to taste the water lapping at his ankles had told him he could open his eyes so he did. And he immediately wished he hadn’t.
Because in a rush every nerve in his body came awake and howling with it. Every ounce of pain he’d felt before he’d passed out returned to him but seemed a million times worse and he groaned at it, throat too weak and abused to bother trying to use it to scream properly. Because when he met Thae’a’s eyes, her face bleached of color, fear and some other emotion he couldn’t readily place making her features shift, her true face rising up to beat against the glamour she wore over it like a Ne’lnahtiav in the Uthiel Sea. Because behind Thae’a who seemed utterly unaware of how his blood was soaking into her pants, he saw Rhyshladlyn and Anislanzir engaged in furious hand to hand combat, the air filled with feathers, blood mist, and gold dust. Their growls and hissed words in their native tongue reverberated off the walls, making the stone groan under the added strain as their magick arced out around them.
Thae’a’s hands came to his shoulders and shook them a bit, the pain caused by the action bringing his attention back to her. Back to the fear that made her eyes almost chestnut colored, back to the guilt that twisted her features, back to the way her race marking glowed and throbbed with her power.
“Come on, Az, time to move,” she grunted as she slipped her shoulder under his right arm and lifted him up onto his feet. Feet that easily caught beneath him and supported at least some of his weight.
His shock must have shown on his face for she commented, “Rhyshladlyn touched you and sent a burst of power to Heal you just enough to make you mobile so long as you had aid.”
He didn’t argue that they were leaving the Qishir behind as Thae’a swung them around to face the opposite way and began shuffle-running down the hallway. He was vaguely aware of the weird vines and roots that made traversing the hallway difficult. Absently wondered what had happened to the warriors that had carried him. But he didn’t ask, didn’t even try to. Because it didn’t matter. He was safe, Anislanzir was about to die, and Rhyshladlyn would soon be in his arms again.
He caught sight of grey pants and tunic as a figure ducked behind the corner at the bend in the hallway. Frowned at the sound of bells chiming just as his body took on the weightless feeling that he always felt when he was flying, a feeling he was worried he would never feel again with the damage that had been done to his wings. But when Thae’a didn’t say anything about whatever had been at the end of the hallway, he pushed thoughts of it aside. If the Dreamweaver wasn’t concerned, then he wouldn’t be either.
“No, not now! Not yet!” he looked over his shoulder to see Rhyshladlyn with an arm outstretched towards him, to see the abject terror that blew apart the glamour on his true face, before a new pain, sharper and more pronounced, bloomed in his back and his chest.
His only thought as the World tilted violently was that the water tasted just as cool and refreshing as he’d thought it would.