Mallacht‘s coldfire-drenched blade pierced the membranous flesh that connected the spines of the Oiki’s back fans, making the beast shriek. Landing on its other side, the flames on his blade doused by its blood, Rhyshladlyn grunted as the Oiki swung its great tail too fast for him to dodge it completely. The spikes at its tip sliced across his abdomen, cutting through the armor there like a knife through warm butter. The scent of blood and poison thickened the air as he cried out with the pain of it, wobbling dangerously on his feet. It had been quite some time since an Oiki had managed to pierce his armor and he had forgotten just how painful the bastards’ poison really was.
“Fuck,” he gasped out as his lungs seized around the air he tried to gulp in as every muscle in his body starting at the wound-point began to lock up.
He heard Azriel’s responding howl and the sounds of scrambling to keep the Anglëtinean from wading into the fray but he didn’t spare a glance for his Companion, he couldn’t afford the risk. Instead he flipped Beannacht skyward, slapped his now free right hand to the wound and poured his magick into it, Healing it enough to shift it from being a death wound to something much less serious as his magick burned through the Oiki’s poison. Let his magick pure and concentrated eradicate the paralysis that had made it to his chest in a matter of seconds.
The Oiki whirled to face him, tail whipping around it a wide arc as it did so and Rhyshladlyn watched as Relyt jumped to avoid it, Nhulynolyn blink‘ed himself and Bayls out of the way, and Azriel took to the air with one powerful pump of his wings. Every last one of the creature’s fans flared wide and rippled with its displeasure, the beauty inherent in its coloring only lending to the fearsome sight. It was hard to forget that it was the flesh and blood representation of a Dhaoine’s wish to end their own life when faced with the iridescent scales that reflected the sunlight into various arcs of color. In the moments when Oiki moved slow enough to see that they were covered in tiny scales, versus just streaks of color, it was hard to remember that the only magickal creature in the Worlds deadlier than them were Hounds.
“Coward King, how did you get rid of the poison so easily? Only my kind’s saliva can negate its effects,” it growled, its language rumbling out around them and making his bones shake with it.
He just grinned at it, holding out his hand to catch Beannacht as it came whistling back down to earth. He swung the blade down and around behind him with the momentum of its return before sliding his right foot forward and his left slightly back as he fell into a deep crouch, shoulders loose, blade-tips pointed at the ground.
“Rhyshladlyn! Straighten your form!” A sharp voice whip-cracked out and the garrison turned as one to see the Lord King leaning forward in his vaulted chair at the head of the training grounds, gold eyes hard and unforgiving as he snarled at his second born son. “You’re getting sloppy again!”
With a sharp sigh, he pushed the memory away, refocusing on the present and staying in his position, despite how Father would have scolded him for it.
“Do you not know me?” he retorted, grin crooked with the taunt. “This one would think your Light-cursed Anointed One would know what I am.”
It bared its teeth at him, what amounted for feet shuffling in the dirt of the pathway that cut through the center of the camp.
“The Anointed One does not talk to those outside the Inner Circle, Coward King, any more than Qishir do.”
Rhyshladlyn inclined his head as it was a fair enough point, loathe as he was to admit it.
“Rhys?” Relyt called and Rhyshladlyn tilted his head to acknowledge that he was listening. “Why is it calling you ‘Coward King’?”
He should not be able to understand that language. His heart stopped and his eyes flicked to the Soul Healer even though he knew better. He had just enough time to see Relyt’s slate grey eyes go wide as he realized the mistake at the same time that Rhyshladlyn did before the earth shivered as the creature shook itself and moved. Even as practiced as he was in watching things moving faster than the average eye could track, Rhyshladlyn still didn’t have time to do more than brace for the impact and pray it didn’t shatter another joint.
But the impact never came. Rhyshladlyn opened eyes he didn’t remember closing and found Nhulynolyn standing in front of him, eyes blinking rapidly before he looked down at where a the white bones of his left ribs and pelvis gleamed wetly in the sunlight as blood soaked his pants. Rhyshladlyn looked around for the Oiki and found it rising unsteadily to back to its feet, looking dazed.
“Stehshik,” he bit out, speaking Sinxhët for the first time in half a millennia, “why did you step between us. I had it in hand.”
“Brother…” Nhulynolyn gasped wetly, hands fluttering at his sides as though they wanted to cover the wound but couldn’t figure out where to press that wouldn’t make things worse. And with a wound like that, even if the Oiki’s poison wasn’t a very real worry? There was very little that wouldn’t make shit worse.
Rhyshladlyn watched as the light in his twin’s eyes flickered and he loosed a war cry. Vanishing his swords out, he all but slapped his left hand against his twin’s chest and threw open every door, let down every Shield erected between them, and pushed every ounce of power he had to spare into the Other. Pushed until he felt the poison recede. Pushed until he felt the torn muscles and severed ligaments reknit. Pushed until he felt the wound itself begin to heal, until he felt the blood flow and felt Nhulynolyn’s connection to the living realm become stable again.
Then he was moving, hand staying in contact with Nhulynolyn’s body only until Relyt and Thae’a’s Healing powers slithered along his skin as they made it to his twin’s side at the same time. His left hand came up, wrist flicking just so, and one of the Oiki’s front legs detached at its middle joint, dropping to the ground with a wet twump. The beast yowled its agony, the air vibrating with it. He flicked his wrist again and several cuts appeared on its face, dangerously close to its eyes.
“How dare you,” his voice was like steel, echoing like the distant warning rumble of thunder that precedes a storm, as he moved away from Nhulynolyn, Relyt, and Thae’a, focus tunneling on the Oiki. “How dare you come here and attack my people. How dare you attack a group that has done nothing to your kind.”
“You have killed many of my kind,” came its whimpered reply, but it didn’t sound nearly as confident that this warranted its attack on the Steward Corps’ camp.
“Only ever in defense of my life, I have never hunted your kind,” he snarled, fully baring his teeth. “And regardless of what I have done, my sins do not attach to them.”
He didn’t give it a chance to respond before he was launching at it bare-handed, to furious to care that the only real chance he probably had against an injured, cornered Oiki was with steel in hand.
Time blurred after that into a flurry of blows and blocks and dancing steps that took him away and back as he circled the Oiki. Both knew this dance they were doing was all for show. The Oiki was slowly bleeding out from its lost limb and Rhyshladlyn had the upper hand regardless of the weakened state the creature was in. There was only so long anything could stand against him before it fell. It was an inevitable thing. But for all that it knew its death was imminent, the Oiki still held its own remarkably well. Even managing to send him flying away and into Azriel, the two of them tumbling to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, finally calling his blades back in as he slid in front of the Anglëtinean, assuming the beast he fought would take advantage.
Only it didn’t. And in the quiet of the battle lull the sounds of fighting elsewhere and screams of the dying and injured rose on all sides. Rhyshladlyn sent a prayer to his Patrons for mercy for the Steward Corps. They didn’t have the experience necessary to fight these creatures. Fuck, he barely had the experience necessary to fight them. Hearing the sounds that were so much like the ones he’d heard during the Mah’ragdea Metropolis raids, his jaw clenched and he tightened his hold on the hilt of his swords enough for the leather wrapped there to creak loudly in protest.
“Why are you here?” he demanded, advancing one step and then another, watching as the rainbow-colored blood soaked the ground around the Oiki, pooling not just from its severed limb but from several wounds across its long, iridescent body. None of them were a death blow but the longer it went unHealed, the more assured its death became.
“We were contrac–“
“I know you speak Common. So speak it,” he interrupted, tone hard and clipped. He was sick of things threatening the lives of those he cared for, sick of those he cared for harming themselves in an attempt to help him.
This is why I ran from you fuckers in the first place. But noooo let’s just be dumb and be all noble and shit. He side-eyed Nhulynolyn who looked chastened despite the hole in his torso and the pain he was so obviously in as Thae’a and Relyt did their best to Heal the damage. He closed the doors and rebuilt the Shields between them now that there was no longer any danger of him dying. The power burst he’d sent through the Other had been enough to take care of the poison that coated Oiki claws.
“You speak my tongue well enough,” it retorted and Rhyshladlyn’s attention shifted back as he narrowed his eyes at it.
“Yes, but my Court does not,” he answered, tone making it clear that if the beast got on his good side it may yet survive this encounter. It wasn’t technically a lie, if only because he didn’t say it aloud.
“We were contracted to attack this camp.”
“No, really?” Thae’a snarked, voice hard and unforgiving. Rhyshladlyn could hear the desire for blood in the inflection that leaned towards her native tongue. “What I want to know is why attack a camp that is protected by the Battle Lull Agreement?”
The creature’s neck fans rippled gently as though it were floating in water rather than standing on stable ground. If Rhyshladlyn didn’t know any better, it almost seemed like the damned thing felt properly scolded. Of course it’s Tee who manages to make a deadly magickal creature feel like a misbehaving child.
“We were told freedom would be granted should we attack this camp.”
“Freedom? Are you enslaved?” Azriel sounded absolutely disgusted by the concept and Rhyshladlyn only barely kept from rolling his eyes at the naïveté of it. It was going to take some getting used to to remember that this Azriel was not the thousand year old warrior he had been when they’d first met.
Shadiranamen’s snort sounded like it hurt. “Of course they are, Azriel,” the Other said with a roll of her eyes. “This is a war and our enemies don’t have anyone who can hold their own with any worthiness against my kè. The only option they have left to them is by enslaving magickal creatures that do present a challenge.”
Rhyshladlyn stared at the Oiki that was studiously not looking at him, which if anything made him all the more certain that his Court had discovered the truth of its purpose here.
“Call them off.” His voice held a danger that was less of a threat and more of a promise; a danger that thickened the air around them until it was like trying to breathe with a wet blanket over one’s face.
Sea foam eyes looked up at him, that angular, scaled face tilted downward, jaw slack as it breathed heavily through the pain of its numerous injuries.
His wings pressed insistently at his back at those words, the warmth of his Greywalker marks across his skin increasing until it was nearly burning, the smoke that rose from them thickening as he tried to decide what course of action to take. Because the course he wanted to take wasn’t the one he should take.
“Why?” Thayne and Xheshmaryú questioned in unison.
“My mate and spawn will be killed if I fail here. Failure is leaving without half the camp dead and the Coward King severely injured or worse,” it answered.
A heavy silence fell around them, broken only by the battle cries and screams of the Steward Corps. He growled low, wanting to pace, wanting to just let go. He knew he could take out the entire pack that was attacking his people without struggling, without even needing to physically touch them. But he didn’t want to reveal his new abilities too soon. It would amount to strategic suicide and right now the only chance they really had to win this war was for him to hold out until the last possible second. Was to hold out until when showing the true breadth of his abilities as an Awakened Greywalker would turn the tide of the war fully in their favor and end it once and for all. But at the same time Dhaoine were dying. Dhaoine who had sworn to fight at his side and protect himself and his Court at all costs.
And even if saving them meant killing a sentient creature and damning its own blood to certain death or worse, then so be it. But… he took stock of the energy of his Court, reading their reactions to this news without taking his eyes off the Oiki. I don’t think they’ll go for that.
“Why do you call him ‘Coward King’?” Relyt asked apropos of nothing and Rhyshladlyn was pulled from his thoughts at the question.
The Oiki glanced at him before shifting its attention to Relyt.
“My kind views alphas as unafraid. They do not run from things, no matter how difficult. He ran from his people, from those who needed him. All my kind know this. It is why we agreed to hunt him the first time and were nearly successful, too.” It moved its shoulders in what was probably a shrug but the near-constant shifting of its fans made it impossible to tell for certain.
“Enough! Call them off,” Rhyshladlyn bit out, silencing any more questions before they could be voiced as he stepped forward, lifting Mallacht to aim the tip at the creature’s face. “You will return to whoever promised you your freedom for my severe injury and the death of half the number in this camp. You will tell them you failed but that I let you live solely to deliver the message that I am Hunting them and nowhere in the Worlds is safe from me.”
“Rhys, what of its family?” Thayne spluttered and Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes skyward, asking for patience from the gods as he did so.
“They are not my concern,” he replied and knew that was not the answer his Court had expected before any of them had even made a sound of shock. It was inherent in the way the air around them changed, the way the scent of them shifted.
“You cannot be serious,” Shadiranamen sounded equal parts exasperated and shocked. Under any other circumstance, Rhyshladlyn would have found it hilarious.
“That is atrocious!” Relyt gasped out, his accent thicker than Rhyshladlyn had heard it since they’d first met what felt like eons ago.
“How can you say that!” Bayls barked out, her voice the sharpest of the lot as it rose over them all.
Azriel, Nhulynolyn, and Xheshmaryú’s lack of response was more telling than Rhyshladlyn thought any of them realized. They understood why he could view the Oiki’s family as necessary collateral damage even when the rest could not.
“Easily, Bayls Qaeniri,” his lip curled up off his teeth as he fought the urge to turn and glare at the Sinner female, choosing to answer the question she had spoken like a statement.
“That is not an answer,” Thae’a scoffed. “The Rhys we know wouldn’t condemn innocents to death when there was a chance he could save them.”
Rhyshladlyn couldn’t fight it anymore at that. Because how dare they say shit like that. How dare they question him like they had any idea what he’d gone through these last four centuries. Sure, he’d gone through it alone of his own volition, sure it was not they who abandoned him but the other way around, but that didn’t mean shit. He had followed them as best he could, made sure they weren’t without some help when they needed it most even if they never knew he was there. Not once did any of them come searching for him. And now they wanted to act as though they had any right to say they knew him? After four hundred plus years of focusing more on themselves? Fuck that.
He took the chance of being attacked by the Oiki when his back was turned and leveled a dark look at them all, spreading his arms out wide, seeing them through shades of grey as he wobbled dangerously close to the edge of losing total control. He was already half a foot into Chaos, if he so much as leaned towards Order, they were all fucked.
“It is an answer and the Rhys you knew is dead. The Rhys you knew was a child with childish ideals and a childish understanding of how the Worlds really worked,” he snapped, rolling his shoulders to dispel the tension created by the insistence of his wings that he release them and do a proper dominance display. But he did his best to fight it off. “That was who I was before I had watched my beloved die, before I walked away from my Others, my Family, my Court. That was before I stepped onto the Fields of a war that was started because of me and the actions of those around me and my responses to those actions. That was before I learned that the choices we make are our own; that even if they are heavily influenced by outside forces, we are still the ones to make those choices. No one can force us.”
He glanced at the Oiki to see that had pressed itself against the ground, fans laid flat in a clear sign of I mean no harm as he bitched out his Court. A monster that was trying to kill them just minutes ago had recognized that Rhyshladlyn was something more than what it had expected when it had taken this contract. Had recognized that he was no Coward King as its kind had dubbed him, and in recognizing its mistake, gave him the proper respects his Court was forgetting he was due.
“I cannot save every single creature or Dhaoine and their families with a sob story that come across us. I would never get shit done that way. And if that makes me cruel and horrible? So fucking be it. I’ve sacrificed enough to help others and the only ones I’m going to keep doing that for anymore are those in my Court or Family. That’s it. Because every time I have helped anyone besides the lot of you? It’s been thrown back in my face and I am sick of it.”
In the quiet that hit after his outburst he met the eyes of each of them before finally turning back to the Oiki that was licking at its wounds to seal them and stop the bleeding. It looked up at him and rose back to its full height, but it no longer seemed imposing. Like its cousins, it knew when it stood before a better.
“How is it that you speak my tongue?” The sudden return of its language made everyone but him jump.
“I am a Greywalker,” he replied, smiling when it blanched, every fan flared wide and shaking. “I know your cousins, I know your kind. I know why of all the terrifying creatures that walk the Worlds, it is you two that still thrive uncontested.” He paused and sighed softly. “Unfortunately, I can only allow for you to leave here alive. None of the rest of your pack will survive.”
For long moments neither it nor his Court moved and Rhyshladlyn waited with as much patience as he could. Waited while its gaze slid off into the middle distance and he felt its magick dance gently around them as it communed with its fellows. Waited until the sounds of fighting slowly faded off until they ceased entirely. Waited until the rest of the Oiki pack strode onto the road, making those of his Court not already standing behind him dart around to join Thae’a and Relyt where they knelt beside Nhulynolyn. Waited until the leader dipped its head at him.
“Rhys… what is going on?” Azriel questioned, voice quivering at the edges.
“What have you been saying to it?” Relyt added.
He didn’t answer either of them. They’d know what had been discussed soon enough.
“We agree to your terms.”
He nodded at the Oiki and twirled his blades before sheathing them as he closed the distance between them and laid his right hand on the creature’s forehead between the multicolored horns that curled down along its jaw from its temples.
“Then go with the knowledge that this Coward King is not as unworthy as the Worlds would have you believe. Bring word to your Anointed One. Henceforth, we are allies,” he reached up with both hands then and grabbed hold of its horns. “Go and tell your master that I am on the Hunt for them, that with your failure here you bring their death. And I will deliver.”
The Oiki nodded when he released it before slinking around him and crawling with its belly on the ground towards Nhulynolyn who flinched. But it just slowly leaned forward and licked at the Other’s wound, the magick in its saliva Healing his twin within seconds.
“My apologies, Blessed One,” it whispered but in the absolute stillness it may as well have shouted. “I did not know what you were when I struck you, my intended target was your Heart.”
It took off at a swift clip towards the entrance to the camp. It had made it some twenty yards when a glint of sunlight arced off its scales and it was just gone.
Turning back to face the rest of the Oiki pack, Rhyshladlyn raised his hands then spread his arms wide, head tilted to the side. As one each creature dropped until its belly pressed to the ground, several of them twice the size of the pack leader he had let go. Not a single one made any move to protect themselves, all accepting the fact that they were going to die here.
“Rhys…” Azriel started as the Bond between them flared white hot, chittering at Rhyshladlyn with clear worry.
He didn’t answer Azriel, didn’t acknowledge any of the murmurs of confusion and worry that filled the air around him, that made the Currents hum anxiously. Not that it mattered if he did or not. They wouldn’t approve of what he was going to do. Wouldn’t accept the necessity of it, hadn’t accepted the necessity of it. And even if they did, he’d still have to answer too many questions.
But he had to make an example of these creatures. Had to use them to strike a fear into their master’s heart, a fear that would see that the Steward Corps was kept safe. A fear that would spread like wildfire and make any of their enemies think twice before violating the Battle Lull Agreement again.
I wish there was any other option than this.
With a snap of his fingers and a prayer to the gods, he vaporized the Oiki gathered before him and closed his eyes to sounds of screams from his Court as the Currents cartwheeled and shrieked right along with them.