He’d spent a century, a century, fighting alongside his birth race, a race that had never loved him, that had taken one look at his mismatched eyes and wings and rather than see the gift inherent in them and the Touch of the High Ones they signified, had instead loathed him from the start. Instead of letting him prove his worth as a warrior, as a son, as an heir, they had instead ostracized him, made him work twice as hard as his fellows in an effort to be recognized as a true member of the Race; a recognition he would never receive. Twice he had earned all thirty-three notches, the highest number any Anglëtinean warrior could; two separate lifetimes he had risked his life, his Self, for the sake of the Race. The difference was the second time around he had assumed that they had learned from the mistakes of the past. That with his honorable death, the Race had seen him instead as a hero, as the great warrior that he had been, that he in part still was. But instead?
Instead he was in the position he found himself in now.
And he really should have seen it coming. Especially given his history with his people, especially given his people’s history with Rhyshladlyn, however brief and few the interactions had been. Never mind that he still bore the mark of the enemy, one that wouldn’t go away unless he cut it out and the High Ones knew he would in a heartbeat if it would mean anything. But it wouldn’t, and even if it would, he couldn’t remove it. The branding was magickally scarred beneath his skin; burned deep with magickal fire, Healed only by sheer will power alone but unable to be removed because of that. It only took because the receiver wanted it, believed wholeheartedly in what it represented. A mission, a creed, that Azriel had thought he’d known in truth but when he saw the warriors bearing the symbol of the Eighth Army marching among the tents towards the training pits? He cursed harsh and low in his native tongue. Because he should have known they’d had some way to track him. Had some way to make sure that even though he’d strayed from the main course, he wasn’t truly a lost cause.
He cursed again, harsher than before, when he did a deep scan of himself and found the tracking spell used to locate him. Surprisingly it wasn’t in the brand the Elders had placed on his forearm just above where Rhyshladlyn’s Oathing mark was a shiny knot of scarred skin, but rather on him, on his magickal signature that wouldn’t be altered; one even more unique besides that it was so tightly woven with Rhyshladlyn’s own.
And he should have known there was one. Should have known they’d have made him a patsy, a way find the Grey Army. Or rather, its most elite warriors and soldiers, by tricking him into fighting against his Qishir so that when he encountered Rhyshladlyn on the Fields, he’d convert to the correct side. They did the same exact thing they had done before, unchanged save for this time their goal was to have him lead them to Rhyshladlyn. And he’d have never known that his sole purpose was to lead the Eighth Army straight to the camp until the very moment when the enemy arrived. If he hadn’t been so elated that he was being allowed to defect without losing a limb or his life, he would have realized that it had been too easy. That the Elders would never have let someone like him leave without a fight unless there was a damn good reason.
And it truly shouldn’t have taken a delegation of the most elite of the Eighth Army’s warriors striding into the center of the Steward Corps’ camp for him to realize any of that. He should have known something was wrong before High General Hujiel of House Jaunyr stopped before him with a smile that made his own teeth ache and every instinct he had scream nope at full volume. He should have known and the fact that he hadn’t was something he didn’t doubt would haunt him for the rest of his days.
“Many thanks, Esteemed One,” the Anglëtinean warrior said with a bow of respect towards him, pitch black wings tucked against eir back, arms spread wide to either side with the palms facing skyward. Azriel ground his teeth together to keep from striking em because the bow and the honorific title was all for show and it made fury swirl fast and hot in his gut. “You played your part perfectly.”
*What is this feathered fuck talking about?* Malkuth questioned from where he hung in his customary spot around Azriel’s neck.
I wish I knew, Mal. I wish I knew.
“His part in what exactly?” a warrior barked, voice low and harsh and Azriel fought not to flinch at the distrust that danced around those five words.
But he didn’t take his eyes off the Anglëtinean before him or the warriors that stood at eir back to look at the Corps warrior that had spoken to his left. Because he knew the High General and what ey was capable of; knew that if ey was here, the Corps was in trouble. Knew that they were all in danger because the Race wanted Rhyshladlyn’s head and if the Elders thought they had found the Qishir? They wouldn’t send anyone but the most elite of their warriors. Which is exactly what Hujiel and eir unit were. They were not called the Ghost Makers for no reason, after all.
High Ones See us all.
Hujiel rose from eir bow and smiled serenely at the warrior who had spoken.
“Why, little one, the part of leading us right to you all,” ey replied, that serene smile just as much of a lie as the words ey spoke. “We worried he wouldn’t be up for it, but I always spoke highly of Lord Azriel, he was my star pupil after all, and it would seem my faith in him rang true.”
“So, that’s how you handle him putting on armor and stepping into battle,” Adïmshyl said at length.
“Faith isn’t just for the gods, Adïmshyl Xh’taphïrd,” Azriel answered.
Azriel shook off the memory with a soft growl. He hadn’t led them anywhere. He had never had anyone speak highly of him within the Race. And he sure as fuck wasn’t anyone’s “star pupil.” No one had wanted to apprentice him. He had all but been self taught, had only sought out Generals and Lieutenants when he needed another notch Trial performed, when he needed another notch inked beneath his skin along his spine over the scars of where his first thirty-three had been. Otherwise? He lived alone, he trained alone, he fought alone. He had no siblings this lifetime, had no extended family save those within Veratone House itself, but he wasn’t nearly as high born as he had been his previous lifetime. So any secrets the House had, any plots the High Generals and other warriors who were part of his family’s ranks? He didn’t know any of it.
But by the way his fellow Corpsmen began to murmur around him, he wasn’t sure he would be believed if he tried to gainsay Hujiel’s words. Because they knew he had defected from the Eighth Army, knew he had left the ranks of his race yet again to fight alongside Rhyshladlyn, to be with his Qishir. They knew because he hadn’t made an effort to hide it, to keep it secret. They could clearly see the brand he wore, the one that everyone who served under Lulphé’s symbol and in defense of the Sinner forces that supplied aid and fought alongside the Eighth Army had. But because of that branding, because of how he hadn’t been there from the beginning, because he hadn’t defected until he’d found Rhyshladlyn again, until he realized when they crossed swords that he had been tricked into fighting on the wrong side? A lot of his fellows in the Steward Corps had given him side eyes, had carefully watched him for one wrong move. Had only grudgingly accepted him because someone with his skills and his connections was invaluable to their cause. But he wasn’t one of them, he was merely an orbiting force that joined them on the Fields and occasionally was treated like a comrade.
But with Hujiel’s arrival? With the damning words ey’d spoken? Azriel doubted that he’d ever be accepted now. Even though it had been nearly three centuries since he’d left the Eighth Army, and nearly a century and a half since he had joined the Corps, he doubted those he’d fought beside would see him as anything more than an aid they begrudgingly accepted. Only now it was likely that he’d be seen as an enemy. And it made him feel not just sick, it made him feel furious.
“Hujiel,” he spoke up, pulling the warrior’s attention back to him. He tried to keep his tone nonchalant, tried to keep it even, one hand moving to stroke idly across Malkuth’s shiny black scales in an effort to keep himself grounded. One wrong move, one wrong word, and he could set off the ticking bomb that was the Anglëtinean before him. He could bring a danger down on the Steward Corps that he didn’t think he would be able to fully save them from. A danger that was likely going to happen regardless of how well he played this. “You know very well that I defected from the Eighth’s ranks, you also know I willingly labeled myself anathema to the Race for deceiving me into fighting against the Qishir to whom I am Blood Oathed. So why are you here speaking words that contradict these known truths?”
Crimson eyes that reminded him so much of his sister and niece narrowed at him but Azriel wasn’t going to back down. He didn’t dare. He’d been trained alongside Hujiel, had been trained by Hujiel when the neodrach became High General and he was left at Lieutenant, a rank that was begrudgingly given to him because enough of the warriors he’d fought beside made a lot of noise when he was passed up time and again for the position. So he knew what ey was capable of. Knew that short of himself and Rhyshladlyn, perhaps Relyt as well, no one in the Grey Army was able to go against en and last long enough for everyone in the camp to be evacuated.
Lycarn? he called.
*Aye, Master Azriel?* the ice wolf answered and he could see his head tilted to the side, ears pricked.
Find Thayne and tell her she needs to get as many of the warriors and soldiers in this camp out as she can. Meet up with Azuna and Raynfa, coordinate the evacuation efforts with them, too.
*Master, what spurred the need for this?*
Hujiel is here with eir unit. There’s at least ten Anglëtinean warriors and five Sinner warriors at eir back. Ey’s saying I led them here.
No worded response came but he heard and felt the ice wolf’s growl of rage before the connection grew thin as Lycarn carried out his orders. Focusing back in on Hujiel, he took a deep breath and let it out slow, telling himself that there was still hope. That while this was bad, it wasn’t horrible. He’d dealt with worse.
Anislanzir cooed somewhere out of sight, sounding not unlike a gleeful child awaiting the gift exchange that followed the Darkest Night celebrations.
“Esteemed One, you wound me,” Hujiel replied, voice taking on the barest hint of bite, a tone that thickened eir already heavily accented Common all the more. It was a tone he recognized easily just it wasn’t from Hujiel; it was from a Qishir who had eyes like captured setting suns and a strength that made the Worlds tremble before him. “Do you not remember the discussion we had when you received your 33rd notch and your brand?”
Azriel knew the warning those words held, knew the play Hujiel was making with them, but he didn’t care. He was never part of any discussion that involved him acting as spy for the Eighth Army, he need only imbibe a truth serum to prove that, but given the way the Corpsmen’s murmuring grew all the louder around him, he didn’t think he would have the time to ask for such a thing before they ripped him to pieces right after they went after Hujiel and eir unit. Fucking double fuck.
“Only discussion I was privy to was that I was being given an honor not many received. For it was not every day that an anathema Anglëtinean was reborn to the Race and allowed to remain in it,” he smiled with a levity he didn’t feel as he spread his arms wide, palms facing Hujiel. Look at me, I am innocent and sweet. I mean you nor anyone else harm. See? “But as I previously stated, I was named anathema again, I even willingly named myself that. Yet here you stand calling me a spy. Do you also call me a liar, Hujiel Iki of House Jaunyr?”
*Oh shiiiit. Better be careful, Huhu,* Malkuth cooed and Azriel bit the inside of his cheek in an effort to keep a straight face, *or my master here is gonna fuck you up.*
Hujiel growled lowly. For to say one Anglëtinean was calling another a liar was an insult almost as great as calling them a liar. Azriel had just that sound as a warning before the warrior hissed at him in Anglë’lylel and launched at him, materializing his curved blades as he did so. Azriel had just enough time to draw his own sword to parry the initial blow from Hujiel’s left hand, but wasn’t able to keep the right hand from drawing blood.
As that blade sliced open his Oathing mark, memories rose in a tidal wave that swallowed him in seconds, bringing with them begging sobs that thundered right along with the blood in his ears and he screamed as pain he hadn’t felt in this lifetime sang along his nerves. The only sound that he could hear over the cacophony in his head was the wards and Shields shrieking to life as chaos erupted around him, as a blast of power went winging out in all directions in a powerful wind that made the canvas of the nearby tents crackle as it buffeted them.
None of the Steward Corps moved against the Ghost Makers, gods be thanked, merely made a wall of warriors to keep them contained to the training pits. Breathing through the pain that had coalesced into a single point centered on the opened mark on his arm and the influx of memories he hadn’t been prepared for, Azriel caught the tail end of what Hujiel was saying as the neodrach disengaged from him, landing a few feet away, mouth twisted in a triumph smirk that Azriel wanted to cut off. Slowly. With a rusty spoon.
“…you claimed yourself anathema but as no true Anglëtinean would do such a thing to himself, you are still part of the Race,” Hujiel hissed, voice clipped and filled with a disdain that left a hundred tiny cuts across his arms and face and plucked at the fabric of his tunic in an effort to get to his torso. “But I will happily change that as soon as you tell me where the Grey Qishir is.”
“No one knows where he is,” Azriel answered, ignoring the way Malkuth had shifted around his neck so the serpent’s head rested atop his, eyes that mirrored his own staring hard at Hujiel while his forked tongue scenting the air ruffled through his hair. “He travels at his own whim and without alerting anyone of his whereabouts or his intentions. He jumps from Field to Field indiscriminately and cares not for the worry of those who fight for him. I told you and the Elders this when I was first questioned about how he operated. Yet, to my ever increasing shock, none of them listened.”
“Preposterous!” Hujiel retorted and a smattering of giggles erupted around them as those in the Corps began to openly mock the High General, drowning out whatever else ey was saying.
“Who talks like that?”
“Yeah, let’s go with pompous fucks.”
“Little neos like em who don’t know prop’ manners, I’d wage’a.”
“–he’s got a pretty mouth for someone so mean spoken–”
“‘Preposterous! How dare you say this one knows not how to listen properly and retain information imparted upon emself!'” Wow, that was a pretty good imitation of his accent.
“–think ey’ll still talk so prettily after I get em under me for a night?”
“Oi, mah friend, you wear frilly underthin’s, too? If so, can we see? I bet they’re really pretty an’ match that proper way o’speakin’ you got.”
The last voice came across clear over the increasing laughter of his fellows. It was immediately recognizable despite having not heard it in centuries and Azriel closed his eyes at the feeling of home that washed over him.
“You must be Lieutenant Nhulynolyn Otherborn,” Hujiel commented with a nonchalance that fooled exactly no one.
“What? Where is he!” Nhulynolyn clapped his hands together and jumped up and down excitedly as he looked around. “I’ve been dyin’ to meet him since, like, forever.”
At Hujiel’s blank look the Other snorted hard and rolled his eyes.
“What was your first clue? How all these fine warriors jus’ parted outta my way like a river moving ’round a rock or was it my dashin’ good looks? It was good looks, huh?” Nhulynolyn snarked as he came to stand beside Azriel, bumping his shoulder against his, clear blue eyes filled with a mischief that made homesickness lance hard across his heart. “Heya, Feather Duster. Been a while, huh? I knew I made the right decision comin’ here today. Had a sense that I was needed.”
Azriel snorted, raising his eyebrows at the Other. “A sense in your special spot?” he asked and Malkuth who was accessing his memories as they resurfaced guffawed across their connection.
Nhulynolyn pointed an index finger at him and clicked his tongue. “Aye, that very one.”
“I advise seeking a Healer then,” he retorted with a crooked grin, the words coming just as easily as they had the first time he’d spoken them, “that doesn’t sound very healthy.”
Nhulynolyn threw back his head and laughed, the sound like the rumble of thunder. Hujiel huffed with impatience, which Azriel ignored outright. But Nhulynolyn’s laughter cut off abruptly at the sound and he turned narrowed, darkened eyes to the Anglëtinean who almost took a step back but aborted the movement before the thought of it could fully form.
“You will wait your fuckin‘ turn, you winged dick,” Nhulynolyn hissed as his power began to swirl around him. “I haven’t seen Old Red Eye in centuries. We got some catchin’ up t’do. I’m sure you understand right?”
But before Hujiel could say anything, before any of them could, a ripple moved across the gathered warriors and soldiers. The entire air of the camp shifted ahead of a voice that had haunted his dreams for several hundred years and was accompanied by a magick that made his bones ache and every hair on his body stand up.
“Who dares attack my Companion?”