The war had started much like he had expected, the first battle starting not even a full day after he had buried Azriel, though with far less violence than any of them had prepared for, at least in the beginning. Perhaps that was a good thing but in the same breath, he didn’t think so. Because when the violence had increased, hitting like a rogue wave brought on by a chunk of an ice shelf dropping into the G’roulír Ocean? It shook the Worlds nearly as badly as when Shiran City had fallen and Rhyshladlyn had killed Qishir Lulphé.
Millions had died in that first battle, nearly two times the amount of Dhaoine that had perished in Shiran City, but not nearly as many as in the loss of Majik World though not for lack of trying on the Worlds’ part. That first true battle had been catastrophic and he still struggled with the nightmares of it. Still struggled with the twinges of his right wing connector joint that had been fractured midway through the battle; a fracture he had ignored until Nhulynolyn had swooped in and carried him kicking and screaming from the Field to the nearest hospital tent. It hadn’t been the first time that had happened and he knew it wouldn’t be the last but that was the first time that Thayne had approached him about becoming General of the central forces. It was the first time anyone had acknowledged his fight abilities, his determination, and he had balked at the idea that he was being looked at for a General position over literally hundreds of others who were far more skilled than him. So he had refused for nearly two centuries, saying each and every time that there were other more qualified Dhaoine. He only gave in when the central forces had started calling him General Greymend by unspoken consensus and wouldn’t listen when he told them to cease. It hadn’t taken the nearly hundred thousand warriors and soldiers he commanded much long after he had grudgingly accepted that he was now a General to nickname themselves the Steward Corps. A name that was heartwarming, creepy, and hilarious all at the same time.
It was still a shock that he was so easily able to pick up a sword or knock an arrow to his bow and wade into battle without breaking a sweat. It hadn’t taken long after the first few skirmishes of the war before his race’s ingrained pacifism had evaporated with a finger snap. Had only taken seeing Bayls get sliced from left shoulder diagonally down to her right hip for him to stop flinching when he opened a wound on an enemy. Had taken Nhulynolyn’s howl of fear and rage at watching his beloved drop to the ground, nearly lost beneath the churning bodies on the Field, for him to stop worrying that he wasn’t cut out for any of this. The first time he’d used G’luôs g’Av was the first time that both ally and enemy began to realize that him being a Grey Soul Healer didn’t make him the weakest on the Field. It was the first time that anyone realized that he was more than just a powerful Healer. And the first time he combined the G’luôs g’Av with Adïmshyl’s berserker firestorm? It had been the moment that he had felt the closest to Rhyshladlyn he had in years.
Despite his position in Thayne’s forces, despite the reputation he had developed among the armies, he and the rest of the Court had worked as best they could to stem the violence, to help where they could, and run where they couldn’t. Had set up field hospitals, protected supply lines, and led evacuations. He’d bet his gretluos that the Grey Court was the primary reason that there was even still Dhaoine left alive to fight at this point. Though given that four centuries was more like four decades to many races, that wasn’t saying much. Especially when the Worlds had so neatly divided themselves: those that were on Rhyshladlyn’s side and those that weren’t. And with that division came the separation of the Court themselves, though they would reconvene at random and at the holy days, specifically their Qishir’s naming day. But aside from those times?
Thae’a and Adïmshyl could be found roving from one field hospital to the next, easing those that weren’t savable into their final slumber. Between Thae’a’s Weaving and Adïmshyl’s Ferryman abilities, the two were known as the Gravemakers for where they showed up, bodies dropped in a way that was wholly different from how bodies fell on the Fields. But in their wake, death was far more pleasant. Plus, they didn’t discriminate. Regardless of what side one fought on, if one was dying, they would work to see that one’s passage into the After was as painless as possible. The small, elite unit of Healers that worked for and with them had taken on the nickname of the Gravemaker Division. Somehow the enemy armies still hadn’t figured out they were as neutral as anyone sworn to Rhyshladlyn could be in this war and would attempt to attack them only to discover that Adïmshyl’s berserker was a force no one with even half a functioning brain wanted to contend with.
Bayls and Nhulynolyn were a team that were known to turn the tide of whatever battle they engaged in. It was rare for them to step off a Field and call it a loss. There was perhaps only a handful of battles the two hadn’t managed to win. And despite the intervening centuries and the hardship brought on by Time’s passage, the two had only steadily grown closer, developing a bond that was uncanny in its beauty; one that made them incredibly deadly when fighting side by side. Among the Court there were bets going on how long Nhulynolyn took before he finally asked Bayls to handfast him properly. Relyt had reluctantly partaken in that bet but had a sneaking suspicion that Nhulynolyn was waiting for his twin’s return before he took that final step. Figured that the first time the Other spoke verbally to anyone that wasn’t Bayls in the last nearly handful of centuries it would be to ask Rhyshladlyn for permission to handfast the Sinner female.
Xheshmaryú and Shadiranamen spent the majority of their time acting as personal guards to Thayne. For who else was better served to protect the acting Eighth Qishir than the Otherborn of the most powerful Qishir to walk the Worlds? And it wasn’t like Relyt needed them to act as his guards, Jaro was performing that duty well enough. Just the thought of his Soulless personal guard was enough to often induce an eye roll. Jaro had taken guarding his life to a degree that Relyt personally didn’t think Rhyshladlyn had in mind when assigning the Soulless the task, but Jaro wouldn’t hear of it.
He had last seen Alaïs on the day he’d accepted that he was a warrior, the day he had walked off a Field and felt close to Rhyshladlyn despite the distance that often separated them.
“You remind me a lot of Rhys, you know,” she murmured, clear blue eyes twinkling with mirth when he blushed, a soft, sad smile tilting her lips.
“How so, my Lady?” he asked, hoping that his voice wasn’t shaking as much as he feared it was.
“The way you carry yourself, the look in your eyes, how you don’t take shit from anyone,” the Sinner-Ancient murmured, a profound sadness coloring her words. “Back when he was younger, before everything went entirely to shit.”
She had left not long after that conversation to take over the enemy army and unite her mother’s and her father’s peoples and was often found in Ryphqi City, the new seat of the Lord King, or Lord Queen as it were, of the Sinner Demon race. It had been a ploy of hers and Thayne’s to fight just long enough for nearly all of the older generations to die on the Fields or fight long enough that when Thayne spoke the Chosen’s Blessing to Alaïs, her acceptance would unite the armies and bring peace. It was worst kept secret among the Grey Court that those two had fallen madly for each other and the best kept secret as far as the Seven Worlds were concerned. And he prayed every night to the Many that they succeeded where all other talks of peace had failed.
Thayne was leading the Grey Army, as it had named itself, taking on any who opposed Rhyshladlyn within the Worlds. She fought on the Fields while simultaneously ruling ad regent in the wake of her mother’s death. While there was talk that she didn’t deserve the Eighth Throne because she was Court to the Qishir that had killed her mother, Lulphé had made sure to name her publicly as her heir. But to appease those who were on the Court’s side, she had agreed to not take the throne until the war was over. That was, unless anyone stepped forward to challenge her in which case if she won, she would immediately take the throne of the Eighth Qishir and rule in truth and full. Never mind that challenging her would have been suicide for anyone dumb enough to try. He had seen her fight on the Fields, had fought side by side and back to back with her, and he personally wouldn’t challenge her but not everyone had the same information he did about her.
She was nearly as formidable on the Fields as Rhyshladlyn was. And the two had become synonymous because in the last two centuries whenever Thayne showed up to a battle, a ghost walked among the Grey Army, felling any enemy who came within reach of it. A ghost that left not just a trail of bodies in its wake, but a trail of white-blue fire and grey smoke that rose like steam from bare foot prints burned into the earth. And while no one alive had seen Rhyshladlyn fighting in any battle, everyone heard him, everyone saw the aftermath and they knew. For he sang the Song of War and Love, accompanied by the chimes of twenty-three bells woven into his hair and the twang of his swords as he moved from one target to the next.
Relyt had seen him only twice since the day the Qishir had brought Azriel home to be buried but had caught glimpses of him on the Fields and off them. Woke up in the dead of night tucked under the blankets of their bed when he was certain he’d fallen asleep on the couch. Had shuffled into the kitchen or woken in a tent on the battlefield to find a fresh cup of tea on the counter and a single red-tipped grey feather laying next to it every morning since the first time the Qishir had tucked him into bed. Had caught a passing glance of auburn hair, of orange-amber eyes, of twilight colored and red-tipped grey feathered wings. Had caught the barest hint of spiced honey and sage and sweet musk at random when engaged in battle, in the throes of a nightmare or sweet dream, or when merely buying supplies at the market in Hagirqi Metropolis.
And as much as those moments hurt, to know his g’Shieke had been right there but hadn’t reached out, he didn’t press. Didn’t hunt him down and make him stay, make him talk to him. Instead Relyt just followed in his wake, coming home when one battle ended and rested before the next began. He wasn’t the only one that returned to the cabin, but he was the only one who stayed for longer than a night or a handful of hours. Not that he blamed them. He hadn’t healed completely from the loss of Azriel and Rhyshladlyn’s purposeful avoidance, but he couldn’t live anywhere else. He refused to. It felt like an abandonment just thinking about it.
So he had painstakingly built a privacy wall around the cabin and the small oasis that butted up against it. Carefully wove wards and Shields and Barriers into every inch of stone that he set himself, into each swipe of mortar that held them all together. He had built additions to the cabin so the entire Court to use it to rest or live. Made sure that there were enough bathrooms, a larger kitchen, a dining area, several new bedrooms, a personal Temple with effigies for all the gods he knew were worshiped by the Court and spread it all out over an acre and a half and between two and a half storeys. It had taken him a century to finish it all, given that he had to often abandon the project to fight, help Heal warriors and soldiers, to give aid, and so much more. But he had done it.
I wonder what Rhys thinks of it. Wonder if Azriel would lose his mind to see what I’ve done.
He sighed softly, absently toweling at his wet hair, bare toes curling in the grass as he shuffled down the pathway between the tents of the Grey Army that spread for leagues between the Forest of Dreams and Darkness and Dhreän City to the south of it. He glanced at the Forest with a shudder. He always felt like eyes were watching him whenever he was near the tree line and had argued profusely with Thayne about setting his tent up one row away from the black barked trees and the weird mist and the shifting shadows that moved independently of the sun’s location in the sky beyond the treeline. But Thayne had said that as the General in charge of the central branch of the army, he was best placed close to the mess and supply tents; which happened to be in the row between his tent and that incredibly creepy Forest. He didn’t see the point of that, given that any chance he had he was travelling home but there was just no arguing with the female so he had given in.
Ducking into his tent with one last shuddering glance at the Forest, he smiled seeing the cup of tea resting on his desk, just as he had expected there to be. Grabbing it up as he passed on the way to the sectioned off area where his cot and trunk rested so he could grab a shirt, he stopped halfway and rested his hip against the map table to take a long whiff of the steam rising from the mug. He let out a happy purr at the smell of his favorite black tea imported from the Cold North, with one sugar cube and two splashes of milk.
It was rapidly approaching summer in Txiwteb World, bringing with it days that were nearly as hot as the days year round in Fènwa but by the Many that didn’t mean he stopped taking his tea piping hot and fresh from the kettle. Much to Nhulynolyn’s confusion, Bayls’ amusement, and Thae’a’s concern for how his naturally colder inner temperature would be affected. But despite their concerns, he still drank it every day provided he had the downtime to do so.
Raising the mug to his lips to take a sip he stopped halfway when his sleep-deprived mind caught up with his body and kindly informed him that there hadn’t been a feather beside his tea like usual. He whirled when a throat cleared behind him, narrowly avoiding dumping steaming tea all over himself as he smacked into the map table.
Rhyshladlyn looked him up and down, lips curling into that careless, soft smile that had haunted his dreams for four hundred years and his heart leapt into his throat at the sight of it. His ability to breathe was yanked from his lungs at the way Rhyshladlyn stood with a confidence that he hadn’t had all those centuries ago; now not just an Awakened Greywalker but also a seasoned warrior and a matured Sinner and Ancient. He had grown a couple inches taller, now practically eye level with Relyt though still not quite as tall as Azriel had been, shoulders broader, body more muscled but still more lithely toned than it was bulky. His face was peppered with days’ old beard growth that somehow made his sharp face all the sharper, his bell-laden hair falling into his face, chiming when he shook it out of his eyes, one hand idly scratching along the shaved sides. Dressed in a simple grey tunic over matching breeches and leather boots, his swords’ hilts peaking over his shoulders, Rhyshladlyn looked nothing like the Qishir Relyt had said goodbye to and yet looked exactly like the Soul Healer had dreamt he would.
“Heya, Rel,” the Qishir greeted as though it hadn’t been centuries since he’d last heard his voice, since he’d last been close enough to touch him. As though he hadn’t managed to slip in around all the wards on his tent without him being alerted in the slightest. Come now, Relyt, remember who this is. Honestly.
He squeaked in answer, voice failing him. Rhyshladlyn’s orange-amber eyes glittered with mirth at his expense as Relyt turned and carefully set his mug back on the table, studiously ignoring the way his own hands shook. Clearing his throat, he pulled the towel off his head and wrapped it around his neck to half cover his bare chest. Not because he was ashamed of how he looked after centuries of fighting and training with his leather breeches slung low on his hips, but rather he didn’t think this was a pleasure call. Though the Many only knows I wish it were.
“Your Majesty,” he began, voice cracking and he cleared his throat again, ignoring the way Rhyshladlyn chuckled at him. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Rhyshladlyn’s face lit up and Rely felt drawn to the stunning smile that nearly blinded him like a moth was drawn to flickering candleflame. It took everything in him to keep from doing more than rocking forward off his heels, to keep from taking the handful of strides necessary to close the distance and make sure this wasn’t a dream. To touch the hair that peppered his jaw, to see if he had the same amount of freckles as he used to or if he had more, to see if he felt as solid and real as he looked. To see if that smile tasted as sweet as he remembered it.
He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “How can you be so sure he’ll be reborn?”
Rhyshladlyn closed the distance between them, hands coming up to cup his face, before he kissed him gently. It was a goodbye without the words and while Relyt was not proud of the sound he made at it, he was proud of himself for not stopping the Qishir as he stepped back and walked to the tent’s entrance.
“Faith isn’t just for the gods, Rel,” he said with another careless, soft smile, and then he was gone.
“I found him, Rel,” Rhyshladlyn answered, practically bouncing on the soles of his feet where he stood in front of the small couch that rested next to his desk. He must have been lounging on it waiting for me to return. How did I not even notice him? He threw a mental derisive snort at himself. Five days without adequate sleep and spending four centuries bereft of his physical presence, obviously.
He raised an eyebrow, the motion making his gretkewq pull at the skin of his forehead, left hand lifting to rub at his bare forearm, the skin there prickling and itching as his qahllyn’qir chittered at him. But he did his level best to ignore it. It wasn’t the first time it had woken up and tried to get testy with him even if it had been a long while since it had done so this loudly.
“Found who, your Majesty?”
“Azriel,” the answer was not what he expected and the ground felt like it gave way beneath his feet, making him lean heavily on the map table for support. “He’s been reborn.”
Many See us all, finally.
“Where is he?” he demanded, trying to play off his excitement with nonchalance and failing. Miserably. “How did you find him? Is he Anglëtinean again or another race?”
“Slow down, I can only answer so many questions at once,” Rhyshladlyn chuckled, holding his hands up before his face fell as he looked at the entrance to the tent, catching his top lip between his teeth. Relyt fought the fond smile that wanted to tug at his lips at the sight; guess four hundred years couldn’t take away some of the Qishir’s nervous ticks.
“Where did you find him?” he prompted after a long pause when Rhyshladlyn didn’t offer anything else. His other eyebrow joined its brother when the Qishir looked back at him with a hmm? expression as though he hadn’t caught what Relyt had said. “Where did you find him?” he repeated, gesturing with one hand in the general direction of the camp outside his tent. “Is he in the same World as us right now? How did you find him? Is he Anglëtinean again or another race?” He was careful to repeat each question slowly, enunciating each word.
Rhyshladlyn’s face brightened a bit again and Relyt was left with the disparaging feeling that he didn’t know the warrior that stood before him. That while he looked and talked and felt like his Rhyshladlyn, there was several differences that also made him not his Rhyshladlyn and it made his stomach flip. But really what else had he imagined to have happened? Four centuries had passed and he had no idea what his Qishir had done in that time besides terrify both the army the Court fought against and the army they fought alongside. Before him stood a warrior, a Greywalker. Before him stood centuries of battles and death and loss and hopes and dreams and searches turned fruitless.
“He’s here, in this camp. He’s been part of the Grey Army for two and a half centuries. Been part of the Steward Corps for half that.”
Oh Many why must You test the strength of my heart like this?
“What? How?” he spluttered. “We’ve all been searching for him for centuries and for the last two and a half he’s been part of the Army? For the last century he’s been right under our noses, right under mine?”
Rhyshladlyn nodded and sighed. With the action his face shifted and the mask dropped and Relyt saw the Qishir he had fallen in love with. Only instead of a teenager that had lost everything, he saw an adult that was terrified of losing everything all over again. Saw the ghosts of a past he hadn’t deserved and didn’t want, ghosts that even centuries later were still just as strong as they had been at their conception. And his heart ached for Rhyshladlyn. Ached for all the lost time between them.
“His signature is different. You were probably doing what I did at first and searching for what his signature was like before his Blood Oath was completed,” he huffed a breath to blow his fringe out of his eyes, sending the strands tumbling over each other, making them chime sweetly. “But his magickal signature now is what it was when he died, a mixture of mine and his own. Plus there’s not just him, which I hadn’t remotely expected, and so that threw me off as well.”
Relyt frowned, pushing off the table and taking a couple steps forward before he stopped, hands coming up to grip either end of the towel around his neck as he fought back the instinctual urge to touch.
“What do you mean?” he asked. And even though he had a sneaking suspicion that he already knew the answer to that, he knew better than to assume.
Orange-amber eyes turned to him and he saw four hundred years worth of blood and pain and death and loneliness flash across them before Rhyshladlyn blinked.
“He has Others.”
Relyt cursed low and harsh, startling a deep, rumbling laugh out of the Qishir.
“Six,” Rhyshladlyn answered.
“Many prevail me,” he hissed and turned on his heel to head into his private quarters. There was a very potent bottle of g’dmayè stashed in one of his trunks. “I am going to need a bit of a stronger kick to my tea.”
Rhyshladlyn’s laughter make his wings twitch.
“Also, one of them is a snake. Like a really big, black, sassy snake.”
“Oh by the Many’s ten cocks,” he muttered. “Of course Azriel would have a sassy giant snake Other. Naturally.”