He dropped down from the Ilzuhdae Line onto one of the sand dunes that surrounded where Shiran City had once stood proud and glowing but now only seven sleek, black obelisks remained.
The valley that spread out below him was just as untouched as it had been the last time he’d been here. Untouched by the carnage that spread around it, untouched the passage of time. If Rhyshladlyn hadn’t been born and raised in the City that had stood here, he wouldn’t have believed there was ever anything here but the wide expanse of untouched sands that shifted under the gentle finger brushes of the winds. If he hadn’t been the one to sink that very City, he would never have believed there was ever anything here but the seven structures that marred the white and golden yellow landscape. And even though the lack of City in the valley that had been named for it was all his doing, it was still disconcerting that it was gone. That his childhood home, however loosely one could use that word to describe where he’d lived, was buried beneath the desert floor. But despite its visual lack in reality, he could still see its multicolored roofs, its golden retaining walls and building faces, the Sparkling River that bisected it, the spires of the Great Temple that had been built around the Heart Watchtower that stood at the City’s center, the towers and great dome of the Palace. But it was only a memory echo, it wasn’t real.
And he studiously ignored the way his heart ached at the emptiness of Shiran Valley and how it had nothing to do with the carnage he’d perpetrated here.
So he stood at the top of the sand dune for several minutes, just looking, gathering his courage to step over the boundary line and into a part of the Shiraniqi Desert that belonged solely to the dead. Watched as flickers of memories and ghosts danced among the shifting sands and the sang along with the sighing wind. And all while he watched, he marveled that it didn’t look any different from the day he’d last been close enough to see the valley and the Watchtowers at its heart. Marveled that even with nearing five centuries between that day and this one, they remained as pristine as they had been when he’d called them from the sandy depths, parted them from the City they had once stood watch over, to forever marker this land as what it was: a graveyard.
And although the valley and its occupants had remained undisturbed in their isolation, he knew it wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of many Dhaoine within the Worlds on both sides of the war. After all, the why behind these seven structures had been all that was risen of the sunken City had baffled all walks from around the Worlds, drawing many to the borders of the valley in search of answers. But very few ever made it into the valley let alone to the Watchtowers that stood silent and waiting at its heart because when he’d raised them, he’d made sure to surround the valley with a barrier to keep out anything and anyone not seeking to pay respects to those who had perished here.
It was the least he could do for those he’d killed, for those who were forever lost to the shifting sands several hundred thousand leagues below him. The City remained intact but those who had been within its walls had suffocated under the weight of the sand that that flooded the streets much like a tidal surge. Those who hadn’t gotten out in time remained just as they had been when the desert had swallowed the City, turned into grotesque statues that gave a glimpse into a past only a few knew the truth of. Caught in various poses with expressions of fear, of hope, of last moments of expressed love, of regret, of a thousand others. He’d spent an entire day walking the streets of the City before he’d raised the Watchtowers; had spent those long hours trying to decide if it was worth it to bring the City from its final resting place or merely raise the tether points that it had been built around. In the end, his decision had seemed inevitable. In the end, despite feeling all the more guilty for doing so, he’d left Shiran City where it was and raised its Watchtowers instead.
But the dead that lay beneath the Valley were not the only ones that existed in the area. All around him corpses in various stages of decomposition and mummification spread for leagues, piled one on top of another until they were stacked nearly waist deep in some places and knee deep in others. They were all that remained from the first true battle fought during the war. A testament to the bloodbath that it had been, even though he’d fought among the ranks. A bloodbath that had forever stained the sands beneath those bodies red with the blood that had been spilled that day; though that stained sand was likely not going to be seen for several centuries because there was no one capable of disposing of the dead from any of the battles in the war. After all, any spare Dhaoine that were capable of fighting were sent to fill the ranks of the armies engaged in the war; and those that weren’t capable of fighting were put to work supporting those armies.
Those who had fallen here weren’t just the Sinner Demons that had flooded in after the death of their Lord King, weren’t just the Eighth Army fighting under Lulphé’s banner, weren’t just the first wave of Anglë and Ancient warriors and soldiers. No, those who had fallen here were also those in the Grey Army that hadn’t been quick enough or strong enough to fend off those combined forces.
Those who had fallen here were among the ones that Rhyshladlyn had been unable to save because by the time he’d heard about the battle it was two-thirds of the way through. And even though he had dropped everything and came running back, he had still arrived almost too late to help.
“Maestrx, I have to go,” he didn’t look at em while he swiftly packed his travel bag before strapping on his vambraces and checking that the rest of his armor was in place. He hadn’t wanted to keep the armor that Shiran had given him, but it had seemed insulting to toss it aside. So even though he rarely wore it, even though he could barely stomach looking at it, he still kept it.
“No,” ey replied, voice hard, eyes even harder, eir bells chiming a series of frustrated notes that he tried not to hear disappointment in as he called in his swords and made sure they sat comfortably against his back between his wings. “What you have to do is stay here and train. If you do not get your bells soon, Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn, your Ancient side going nova will pale in comparison to what will happen.”
“Maestrx,” he sighed and finally looked at em. Whatever expression was on his face made the hardness in eirs soften slightly, “that is my family on that Field. They are dying and I cannot in good conscience stay here when my skills could be the one thing that tips the balance in their favor. This war is being fought because of me. The least I can do is make sure that those who fight on my side, fight for me, are protected.”
Ey looked up at the patches of sky visible through the forest canopy, eir lips forming around a prayer for strength before ey nodded. “Come back alive and as soon as the battle is won or over. Do not dally.”
It had seemed ironically fitting that the place where the events that had laid the foundation for this war was the very place said war officially started. Had seemed fitting that it was here that Relyt had earned his marks as a warrior. That the Grey Army had gotten its name. That Rhyshladlyn had found Azriel again, had crossed swords with him, had swung on him with the very blade that had killed his Companion fifty years prior to that meeting. That it was here where his heart had stopped, restarted, and shattered again, all in an eye blink’s time.
That battle was the last time he’d come this close to the Watchtowers, to the obelisks he’d raised from the sands. Seeing his Others, his family, his Court, and especially his Companion on that Field? Seeing them surrounded by death and drenched in gore, all because of him? It had been too much. So he’d vowed that very day that the closest he’d ever get again would be to stop by the cabin and make Relyt his tea and leave a feather for his Soul Healer. And the only times since that Rhyshladlyn did not fight on the same Field as his Steward and the Corps that was Relyt’s namesake was when the battle was here, or close enough that it was too close to here. Because of all the battles he had fought in, started, or ended, both before Shiran’s fall and after? The one that haunted his dreams the most was the one that had left the sea of rotting corpses around him. The one that left him swinging awake, swords drawn, and chest heaving as he cried out unintelligible words that were lost to time as quickly as he’d spoken them, was the one that had divided the Worlds so perfectly that Anislanzir would have been proud.
His Maestrx often said that he was being cowardly by avoiding the valley. That if he would just come to terms with his failures, with his actions and accept them and the consequences, he would no longer be under their control but would instead be in control of them.
“Your Soul Healer cousins have it partially right,” ey imparted as ey turned to stoke the fire back up to a fuller blaze. “By controlling one’s emotions, one has better control over one’s magick. Sure, the strength one possesses matters greatly, but if one is controlled by their emotions, any magickal act stands a chance of going wild. However, if one controls their emotions, any magickal act becomes more precise, more focused. And that makes it twice, at the very least, as effective.”
And now he was back. Back after being confronted by his twin and the majority of his Court. After Relyt nearly walked out on him. After Hujiel of House Jaunyr called him out for his crimes in front of the entirety of the Steward Corps. After having his first flashback in front of his Court, in front of anyone else really. After he had felt Nhulynolyn’s heartache and loss in the brief moment when Rhyshladlyn had cracked open the door between them. He felt sick to his stomach but he couldn’t vomit, there was nothing in his stomach for him to expel.
Gods only knew he wanted to be anywhere but here, wanted to be anywhere but back in Relyt’s tent at the border of the Forest surrounded by those he had abandoned. Wanted to be anywhere but in this timeline where his brother was dead, his sister was walking a fine line of espionage, his twin was simultaneously furious with him and feeling betrayed, the only two members of his Triad made his skin prickle in a way that he couldn’t tell if it was good or not. He wanted to go back to when it all started; wanted to go back to that crucial moment sitting in front of the Nameless in its Shadow Chamber and say no. To reject Fate’s Call, to reject the mantle made specifically for his shoulders.
But he had given his word, he needed to be here, to recollect himself. He needed to find the grounded center that he had lost centuries ago when he’d sunk his fingertips into the base of the Heart Watchtower, Called to the magick of his homeland, and scattered it. And when he did he would remember clearly that what had happened was Fated to happen regardless of whether he had Answered Fate’s Call with Acceptance or not. His Patrons had told him that much at least the last time he’d spoken to Them.
With a shaky breath he cast one last look across the sea of corpses mummified by the desert heat before he crossed through the barrier and made his way down the dune towards the Watchtowers that awoke at his approach, that hummed and begged for his touch, that welcomed him with soft sighs and happy chitters that he didn’t doubt would be audible to other Dhaoine had any that were alive been within earshot.
And as he walked he sang softly just like he had the night he’d raised the Watchtowers after he’d retrieved his swords, after he’d walked the streets of what had been his childhood home.
It wasn’t nearly enough, but his songs were the only apology he could offer to the millions of innocents that lay dead beneath his feet; were the only solace he could offer himself. And if he just so happened to sing the Nameless’ Song? Well no one else would know but him and the dead that surrounded him.
“Et ú Les Suol Endïrk
Nyhien mör kieshú
Mahadahve ii shiema tavelïr.
“Oonma vishtè cú
Et na oo kevu
Et naveh kiestzi
Manawemo wa otesoo ut ve ma ek a ner.”