“So what the fuck is this all about?” the Qishir asked, arms crossed, hands tucked in his armpits to hide the damage to his knuckles that Azriel hadn’t been able to Heal completely before Thae’a had come flying through what was left of the camp to find everyone. The memory he had of the expression the Dreamweaver had sported hadn’t been on her face but he’d recognized it regardless of that: fury born of terror and remembered agonizing trauma.
Adïmshyl couldn’t meet Rhyshladlyn’s eyes, which was odd. Because Azriel specifically remembered that of all of them, the only one who made better eye contact with their Qishir than himself was the Lupherinre. And it made standing in their former shared home, for all that it was expanded and renovated and larger than he remembered it being, all the more surreal and unnerving. Made it feel smaller than it was, made him wonder what had happened that was so bad that the Lupherinre had lost his ability to look at that intense gaze.
“I was sent on a mission into Ryphqi City to investigate reports of someone breaking the Law of Peaceful Death,” Adïmshyl began haltingly, seeming to shrink in on himself. They all knew what that Law was about, it had been written by Lulphé predecessor after thirty million Dhaoine had been killed in the worst genocide seen before the one that wiped out the Greywalkers. He didn’t pick up speaking immediately and that told Azriel that whatever it was had been bad enough to rattle him to his very core. High Ones have mercy.
“And?” Relyt’s voice was even but there was an undercurrent of sharpness that set Azriel’s nerves on edge and he couldn’t explain why.
The Lupherinre looked at Thae’a whose expression shifted and dropped into a smooth mask of indifference when she looked back at him. He didn’t answer for long enough that it became apparent that he didn’t want to.
“Adïm,” Rhyshladlyn bit out, raising an eyebrow when the male turned to him with a jerk. He didn’t say anything else, but then again the Qishir could convey entire stories with just a look.
“All the reports said was that whatever it was was bad. ‘Worse than the stories about the Grey Qishir,’ to be exact,” he sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “But I had no idea where in the City to look. So I followed the sense of wrongness all over, to location after location, until finally I reached the compound that belongs to Xitlali Sha’i’akkensahn. It took me hours but I finally found the source of the wrongness that has blanketed the City. It was a room… an-and,” he stuttered to a stop and swallowed hard. Thae’a reached over and slipped her hand along his. “And what I found there was that she has thousands of Selves in jars in a room in her compound. All bound, sigils and plans scattered about the place. I didn’t stay long after realizing what those jars were.”
The Lupherinre had barely finished speaking before Rhyshladlyn was moving towards the cabin’s main door. Azriel’s hand shot out before he could stop himself, before he could think it through, and grabbed Rhyshladlyn’s arm. The Qishir’s forward momentum nearly jerked him off his feet but Azriel tensed his thighs, dug in his heels, and held on. Even when those glowing eyes met his, like setting suns in a face filled with a rage that could melt bone, he didn’t let go. Because he knew it wasn’t directed at him even if he had made himself a convenient target for it. Despite knowing that making himself a target wasn’t a healthy thing to do, he did it regardless because of them all, save probably Relyt, he was the safest to square off against Rhyshladlyn. Because he wasn’t afraid, not of the Qishir. Never had been and never would be.
*Despite how absolutely unwise that is,* Kitteia muttered testily from where she stood in the shadows of the long hallway that lead back towards the bedrooms.
Are you afraid of him? He questioned the panther. He fought not to roll his eyes at her silence.
Two words, nothing more, but the power that wove around them was just this side of an attend not that Rhyshladlyn needed to use one. Not with a voice that felt like silk even as it sliced one open from chin to groin before it buried itself in the hollow spaces inside.
He’d heard stories since he was reborn of that voice and the Qishir it belonged to. Had dream-memories of what it was like to stand beside him when he spoke so millions of Dhaoine heard him. Had heard stories of how it had dropped powerful warriors to their knees, sobbing and begging for death, without Rhyshladlyn ever laying a hand on them. Had heard of how he grabbed attention whenever he spoke, despite hating being the center of attention. But he was a gifted orator and with that gift came the curse of never passing unnoticed when he talked, regardless of who it was he spoke to or the subject he spoke about.
But no memory, no story told, could have prepared him for being on the receiving end of that voice; the one he used when commanding armies, when he Sang on the Fields as he moved like a death god made mortal. He didn’t have a memory of that tone being directed at him and it was unnerving if only because he was certain his physical response to it was not appropriate. Not right then at least.
“You can’t go,” he answered the raised eyebrow Rhyshladlyn gave him when he didn’t listen to that order. The gasps of the Court were loud in the ensuing silence, which was so stupid. This was him, when had he ever not challenged Rhyshladlyn? When had he ever just rolled over and accepted whatever thing the Qishir wanted to do or was doing without making damn sure he wasn’t running in half-cocked and stupid with it? Never. So just like his Others telling him to cool it and not be dumb, he ignored them. Because Rhyshladlyn was angry and scared and while Azriel may not have spent decades at the Qishir’s side in this lifetime, he still knew those two emotions were a bad combination. Especially if left unchecked. Knew that fear and fury made Rhyshladlyn blind to the red flags that he otherwise wouldn’t miss.
So even when Rhyshladlyn flexed the muscles of his left bicep under his fingers, a small warning that he could either remove the offending hand himself or Rhyshladlyn would, Azriel didn’t heed it. He didn’t let go. He didn’t back down. Not right now, not after the way Rhyshladlyn had looked after walking out of the Forest a few hours ago, hands torn and bloody. Rhyshladlyn had looked terrified when he’d asked if Azriel had just been in the Forest with him and it was too fresh of a memory, one that was so eerily similar to ones he already had, that Azriel wasn’t going to ignore it.
No one else may be willing to stand up to the obstinate male, but Azriel wasn’t going to be counted among them.
“What?” A word that spoke sentences within its single syllable, clipped and full of shifting shadows that fell to pieces against the walls. Walls that they hadn’t been in together since Azriel had promised to find him again, no matter what happened.
“You can’t go,” he repeated, hand still wrapped around his Qishir’s arm, meeting his unwavering gaze. Malkuth’s tongue ghosted across his neck before the Other shuddered.
*He doesn’t smell happy,* the serpent muttered, scales shifting as he curled tighter around his neck only stopping when Azriel patted a hand against him. Azriel didn’t acknowledge the statement, there wasn’t a point. He could see that the Qishir wasn’t happy, even a blind male could see that.
*What was your first clue?* Azuna rumbled as Lycarn and Raynfa snickered.
Behave, all of you.
He closed his eyes and shuddered as that voice dripped promises down his spine. Azriel doubted Rhyshladlyn was even aware of what he was doing, of the effect his natural voice had on him, especially when they were in contact skin to skin. Though he had been better about hiding it before his death, it had always struck at something deep inside him. Touching him was probably a bad idea.
*No shit,* one of his Others snarked, but he couldn’t pick out which one.
“It could be a trap,” he swallowed hard and opened his eyes. Rhyshladlyn was giving him a look that he had memories of on a much younger face but it conveyed the same message regardless, get to the fucking point. “If they have that many Selves in sigiled jars, it’s to Summon something capable of wiping out a race in one go. It’s the method that was used to eradicate the Dreamweavers. It was the only chance anyone stood of defeating them.”
He heard Thae’a’s hissed in breath, felt Adïmshyl’s energy shift to envelop the female but he didn’t look away from Rhyshladlyn. Didn’t dare because he was certain that if he did, the sneaky shit would manage to get away.
“I can free them.”
A simple statement. One that Azriel didn’t doubt for a second held more truth that any of the Court realized. None of them argued it, even though he could feel their worry though he didn’t think that worry was for Rhyshladlyn, at least not all of it and not from everyone. What did they think it meant to be a Greywalker? By my namesake, he restores Balance and that many Selves on this side of the River? It makes the Worlds unbalanced.
“But you shouldn’t. Not yet,” he countered.
“Why not?” Relyt’s voice was flat and sounded off. “He clearly can, none of us doubt that, so why stop him from doing so and foiling Xitlali’s plot before it can culminate?”
“Cuz the only Dhaoine alive right now that anyone would need that much power to take down is Rhys,” Nhulynolyn spoke up, voice hard and full of a darkness that made Azriel’s wings twitch. “The Greywalkers are gone save him, an’ Tee’s the last of her kind. So…” he waved a hand expressively as he trailed off.
“So it stands to reason whatever they’re cooking up is for Rhys,” Bayls finished for the Other.
“Still doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try and free them. It is no secret Thae’a exists and therefore that the Dreamweaver race isn’t entirely gone anymore. This Summoning could very well be for her,” Relyt argued.
Azriel glanced at him with a frown. He didn’t trust the Soul Healer after what he had done to Rhyshladlyn and the gods only knew it was hard to keep from ripping Relyt’s qahllyn’qir from his skin as retribution for it. And the fact that he was arguing so hard for Rhyshladlyn to do something that screamed trap didn’t help matters.
“I am not a threat on my own, not now that my mother is long gone. And even if she were still alive, two of my kind pose no real threat. Not like an entire Family would. So I doubt it’s for me,” Thae’a’s voice was sharper than he’d ever heard it, the tone undercut with fury and remembered pain. “That being said? I agree with Azriel that this is likely a trap for Rhys. Never mind how the fuck could they have a room like that and not have it warded? It was protected by a simple lock. Nothing more.”
“If I know my sister as well as I think I do,” Thayne sighed and he felt bad for his niece because out of their entire family, she was the only one that survived the war’s beginning that wasn’t insane, “she had some type of alert on that room, just it was so innocuous that Adïm wouldn’t have noticed it. Likely he’s marked so whenever he’s near her, she’ll know him immediately.”
Rhyshladlyn slid his gaze away to look at the other Qishir. “Could he have a tracker on him?”
Thayne shook her head. “No, Xitlali isn’t that skilled.”
There were several strained minutes of silence while Rhyshladlyn looked at them each in turn before the Qishir met Azriel’s eyes again. He didn’t say anything, just nodded but Azriel felt the pulse of gratitude and understanding through their Bond and he quirked a half smile at him. Rhyshladlyn’s own lips didn’t move but his face twitched. It was as good of a smile as Azriel was likely to get.
“I got one of the jars, it was the only empty one they had,” Adïmshyl said and Azriel yelped when Rhyshladlyn twitched his arm and jerked him behind the Qishir.
Before he lost sight of his face, Azriel saw Rhyshladlyn’s bared fangs, saw the way his irises blew out to engulf the sclera and shivered all over again. Not from fear, but from something far less appropriate for such a moment. He didn’t question that Rhyshladlyn’s first reaction to hearing that was to move Azriel to a protected position, to put himself in harm’s way, to make himself a more available target. Even though Azriel was just as strong of a warrior as he was, despite how much younger he was now. He knew that that immediate reaction was a knee-jerk one born of instincts that as a Companion he just didn’t have and couldn’t fully understand.
“Dïm!” Thae’a swatted the Lupherinre’s arm, the male jumping at the contact and looking like a scolded fledgling. He didn’t blame the male, Thae’a was formidable in a way that made him never want to get on her bad side. He valued living with all of his important bits way too much. “How the fuck long were you going to hold on to that info?”
The Lupherinre huffed. “They were havin’ a moment. You think I wanted to get in the middle of that? No thanks. I like my dangly bits right where they are.”
“Where is it?” Rhyshladlyn’s voice was like steel as it sliced through the air, bringing their attention back to him.
Adïmshyl flipped open his pack and pulled out an empty jar that was about a foot tall and a half that wide. The clear glass was marred by black sigils that were beautiful despite their purpose. It hummed softly, a cooing call of a sound, that had him desperate to touch it.
“Azriel!” Desperation mixed with Fear, pure and absolute. He looked up and saw Rhyshladlyn fighting to get away from Relyt who held him around the waist just as the peculiar feeling of something sliding in and out of him registered. Looking down he saw the hole in his abdomen and the blood pouring down. Just as he had the odd sensation of cool water lapping at his ankles, the World suddenly inverted.
There was a roaring of sound in his ears, the clamoring of the entire Court talking at once. His chest felt heavy and his back hurt and the ceiling was in his direct line of sight which was weird. He had no idea what was going on because one minute he had been listening to that cooing sound that was so much like Rhyshladlyn’s Call to him, and then he was here.
“What happened?” He asked his throat feeling scratchy and like he hadn’t used it in months. As he shifted, he realized that he was on his back with Rhyshladlyn straddling his waist, hands pressing hard on his chest. He blinked up at the Qishir, at how Malkuth was curled around Rhyshladlyn’s neck instead of his own, seemingly at home. Both Qishir and Other content with the arrangement. “I don’t… what happened?” he repeated, unable to really formulate any other question despite feeling full of them.
*You tried to touch the jar, Master.*
“You were aiming for the jar, you didn’t respond to us. So I moved you away from it,” Rhyshladlyn answered him, making the Court fall silent.
Rhyshladlyn jerked his head to indicate the kitchen around them.
“Oh. I don’t remember that,” he blinked and lifted shaking hands to rub at his face. “It was humming, calling me to touch it. It sounded like you do.”
“How so?” Rhyshladlyn frowned as he tilted his head to the side.
“It sounded just like how your magick calls me to be in contact with you,” he answered, dropping his hands from his face to where Rhyshladlyn’s hands were still pressed against his chest, though not holding him down anymore. “It was like I had to touch it, had to make that connection. Just like I do with you.”
Rhyshladlyn blanched and looked over his shoulder at where everyone else still stood in the sitting room. Azriel felt the cascade of fear and hopelessness hit him in a rush before Rhyshladlyn closed the door on their link.
High Ones have mercy.
“Rhys? What does it mean that Azriel felt like he had to touch the jar?” Thayne asked, voice soft, face showing that she knew what the answer was but wanted it confirmed.
“Nothing good, Thayne,” Rhyshladlyn answered at length. “Nothing remotely fucking good.”