Adrenaline burned hot and fast through the lingering guilt and anger as he darted around warriors scrambling to answer the alarm’s call to battle. Everywhere he looked warriors flew out of their tents in various states of undress, dropped their cooking duties mid-motion, dismantled camp fires, put stasis spells on half finished meals, and donned battle armor as they ran for the camp edge. It was the type of chaos one only found at the beginning of a new battle and it made his blood sing. This was what he was made for. This was what he loved doing the most. He had never quite been good at handling the calm, communication-heavy moments. The Fields had always been where he’d thrived, and four centuries of battle had made that no different. If anything it had only made it all the more pronounced.
But even with his singing blood and the feeling of acceptance battle always gave him, there was an underlying current of worry about what was attacking their camp. It couldn’t have been Hujiel, the High General was pompous and idiotic with it, yes, but there was no way ey would have come back so soon after Rhyshladlyn’s threats. Because everyone in the Worlds knew that what Rhyshladlyn said he would do he followed through on, regardless of how long it took. And after Lulphé’s exceptionally public death? No one was willing to test him. At least no one with a lick of intelligence was.
Then again High General Hujiel had been stupid enough to walk into the camp in the first place to not just challenge him but to try and plant seeds of doubt as to Azriel’s trustworthiness within the Steward Corps he had fought alongside for centuries. So it wasn’t a complete stretch to think that Hujiel wouldn’t repeat that just up the ante in the process.
Fuck, this cannot be anything remotely good.
He swords shimmered into visibility on his back, their weight a comfort that he vowed never to take for granted as he called over his shoulder, “Thayne, take the east side; Bayls, you and Thae’a take the west. Shadi and Xhesh, take the north. The rest are with m–”
Screams of “Oiki! We’ve got Oiki!” interrupted him and he felt his blood shake with the force of his head to toe body shiver, stride faltering with it enough that he almost fell. A glance at where his Court ran beside and behind him told him he wasn’t the only one that had nearly tripped at the calls.
It’s worse. Naturally.
The only creatures in the Worlds nearly as terrifying as Hounds were Oiki. And as the reports, shot from warrior to warrior in a warning system that only the Steward Corps had mastered, Rhyshladlyn found himself remembering the very first time he’d encountered the fearsome things. Remembered how deadly that encounter had been, how he had barely escaped it alive. And while the Steward Corps’ warning system was usually used on the Field only when something fundamental about the battle shifted and the Corps was spread too thin to know of it en masse, he was grateful that the Corps fell into using it just as naturally now. Because without it, they’d have run into the creatures blind. And the one creature in the Worlds one didn’t want to encounter without any type of warning was an Oiki. And even then very little could protect one against them.
Well that or I could call the only things besides myself that could, he thought with a glance at the Forest that loomed behind them to the north as they ran down the main thoroughfare, not stopping despite the news. But he couldn’t tap into the Forest and the things that watched him, waited for him, that lived beneath that dark canopy and stalked among the black barked trees. Not yet. Those were better saved for a moment where even he had no hope of saving anyone around him. For some things were better left in the grey twilight that birthed them.
“Change of plans, we’re sticking together,” he ordered even though he knew by the way the energy of his Court had changed that that decision had already been made without any of them confirming it aloud. Knew it even before the chorus of agreements danced out around him.
“What fucker would unleash Oiki of all fuckin’ things?” Nhulynolyn hissed, coming up to his left on Rely’ts other side, leaning forward as he ran so that his electric blue eyes met Rhyshladlyn’s own. The fear that shimmered across them made Rhyshladlyn clench his jaw as the anger rose up again just with a different flavor.
“Someone who knows Rhys is here and apparently didn’t hear how many Hounds he butchered in Shiran before it fell,” Bayls quipped from where she ran at an easy lope on Nhulynolyn’s other side, eyes alert, fingers twitching to call in her own weapons.
“That or they are beyond moronic,” Relyt added blandly, grey eyes swirling with a dark mirth he hadn’t had before the war had started. “Never mind that I would like to know where they even found any. I thought Oiki were extinct.”
“Suicidal and pissy with it is my wager,” Thae’a commented and the smattering of chuckled agreement made his heart ache. “There was rumors a few months back that one of Xitlali’s Generals had found a colony on the outskirts of Dar’jwahli in Bondye, remember? But no one has been able to confirm or deny them yet.”
Their back and forth continued as they collectively ate up the distance between Relyt’s tent and the main entrance to the camp in the south and with each new jibe at the absolute pissfuck who had unleashed Oiki on a war camp, his heart ached all the more and his mood soured.
He had known his family, his Court, had moved on without him, knew they had gotten closer despite his absence. But knowing it and seeing it were two very different things. And he tried not to be jealous, tried not to let the envy curl dark and spiky around his heart at the proof positive of it. But try as he might, he was only partially successful. These weren’t the same people he had walked away from all those centuries ago but at the same time, they were. The echoes of who they had been when he had left followed them like after images; there and gone before he could see them fully. But regardless of those echoes, regardless of the shadows of a past they all shared and never wanted, the loss of their closeness was no one’s fault but his own.
There was nothing he could do to rewrite his choices and even if there were he wouldn’t utilize it. He didn’t regret his choices, just the pain those choices had caused the ones he loved. Just the divide that yawned between him and them. A divide that wouldn’t have been there had he not been such a complete failure.
“Rhys!” Azriel’s voice was sharp and he blinked himself out of the spiral his thoughts had gone into and looked at the Anglëtinean with a raised eyebrow. “What’s the plan? You know more about Oiki than we do.”
Gods only know I wish I didn’t.
“Is that how you got that mangled shoulder?” Thayne asked and he looked back at her in time to see her gesture at his right shoulder. It throbbed with the memory. “I heard about your run in with a set of creatures that decimated an entire unit; you were laid up for months healing from the damage. I didn’t know they were Oiki.”
“Aye. I met them back during the Mah’ragdea Metropolis raids. If I hadn’t fought Hounds already, they’d’ve likely done worse damage than just obliterate my shoulder joint,” he confirmed. “As it was, even with my experience, I barely escaped alive. And the unit I was working with had only one warrior walk off the Field only to die by eir own hand hours later.”
“Run! There’s monsters!” a warrior screamed as ey ran past, half eir face a river of blood, the twitching muscles that held eir jaw in place visible crisscrossing over eir teeth. How ey was even able to speak with a wound like was beyond him.
“Monsters?” Ikiil asked, white eyes narrowed as she shared a look with Rhyshladlyn. “Like magickal creature monsters?”
None of the warriors running passed them had time to answer before what they ran from showed its face around the edge of a destroyed building that had once been a school and Rhyshladlyn’s blood froze in his veins.
Letting out a deep breath as he beat the memory back into its particular box, he threw his voice and hollered, “Fire weakens. Steel and magick can kill. Steel has one chance to succeed before death follows the failure. Pack hunters, larger numbers work in your favor. Winged Dhaoine, the air is your advantage; they can clear a fifteen foot vertical jump but cannot fly and cannot remain suspended.”
Once he heard the information echoed back at him from all directions as it was relayed, he reached back over his shoulders, gripped his sword hilts, and pulled them free with a pair of ethereal twangs that made him smile. Despite the innocent blood on Mallacht, despite dropping Beannacht in Shiran’s Great Temple that fateful night, his swords had never let him down. Their weight was as familiar to him as his wings, as Azriel’s even breathing as he kept easy pace, as Relyt’s footfalls as he lengthened his stride just so in order to keep up. Twirling them once, twice, and a third time, he let out a yip yip that echoed back at him. All around him the sounds of his Court calling in and unsheathing their own weapons rang out and it was a melody he wondered if he’d miss when the war was over.
They rounded a turn in the main thoroughfare and abruptly halted at what they saw blocking the path. It was so reminiscent of the first time he’d encountered the beasts in Mah’ragdea Metropolis that he felt his stomach drop to ping back and forth between his knees, making him feel like he was a fledgling again facing off against his father.
Twenty feet away stood an Oiki and at the sight of it his Court gasped and swallowed back screams. He didn’t blame them the loss of battle calm; Oiki were formidable and terrifying creatures. Cousins of Hounds, Oiki had the appearance of a Dhaoine, to a degree, but it was only in the vaguest of ways and primarily in the bone structure of the face, hands, and feet. The rest was something straight out of a nightmare. Where Hounds struck fear that could kill a Dhaoine before the creature even sank its talons in, Oiki did something far worse. Oiki were the living desire to end one’s life. That combined with their clairvoyant abilities, they were nearly impossible to defend against. One’s only hope was to strike them down quickly but the chance to do so was often robbed from any opponent of the creatures as they were incredibly skilled at sneaking up on their prey. It was why his first encounter had gone as badly as it had. He and his unit had never seen them coming and by the time they had seen them? It was too late.
The one before them was not the largest Rhyshladlyn had ever seen but it came very close, standing a full two and a half heads taller than him. Spiky, membranous fans arced from the crown of its misshapen head down its spine and along the tail that protruded from the soft skin just above the rise of its flanks. For all that it was a deadly, horrible monster in every sense of the word, the kaleidoscope hue of its scales and fans reflected the sunlight into a rainbow colored halo, eyes the color of sea foam quick and intelligent and missing nothing lent it a beauty that was nearly disarming. It caught sight of him and its neck fans spread wide and rippled as it hissed.
“If it isn’t the Coward King himself,” it taunted in a voice that was all sibilant consonants and twisted vowels. Were he not already familiar with the language it spoke, he would be covering his ears like his Court and the warriors around them were to stave off the pain of it. “I am to be honored well for bringing your glistening spine to the Anointed One.”
“I welcome you to try given this “Coward King” has hunted many of your kind and wears the scars of those conquests with pride and vitality,” he returned the insult three fold, mouth contorting in a smile that darkened his eyes as his Greywalker markings rose to the surface and his skin began to smoke. The glow-light his god-Marks made shimmered off that smoke in a display that never ceased to catch his breath with the beauty it held. His grip on his blades twitch-shifted every-so-slightly as the Oiki’s top lip curled back off teeth that were thick and flat edged but set in a jaw strong enough to snap a Dhaoine’s femur in half with ease. He spread his arms wide, one eyebrow raising in a clear challenge. “What? Nothing to say to that? Or shall I show you the fan bones I collected as proof of my prowess over your Light-cursed kind?”
It roared and launched at him. With a responding roar of his own, Rhyshladlyn leapt to meet it, coldfire rippling down his sword blades, his hair-bells playing the melody to his Song. Just as they collided the first lyrics rang out around him, bringing with them the magick he had woven into the Worlds slowly over the last four hundred plus years.
From so long ago.
A memory we used to know–
A message from me unto you,
Of words that say,
‘I love you, I do.'”