He frowned when the first sense of wrong went chittering across the Currents and looked over his shoulder at the cabin because aside from the sandstorm ambling across the dunes off in the distance, there was nothing that could cause that wrongness to thicken the air. He frowned harder when that feeling intensified as he slid off the large stone he’d been sitting on at the oasis’ edge. That wrongness morphed into a feeling of danger that shook his nerves, that was the unmistakable feeling of being hunted. He knew this feeling, remembered it from somewhere, but the memory was just out of reach. There but not there enough and it made his teeth itch.
Turning in a circle, taking in the entire cabin, sitting quietly and unassuming against its Desert backdrop, the only lights being a few dimly lit lanterns he’d left on downstairs when he’d come out, he felt a knot of ominous anxiety take root in his gut. It made his wings press insistently against his back, demanded he have naked steel in his hands, that he be on the highest of alerts. But there was no danger, nothing that he could tell that warranted such a reaction. The only thing awake in the area was him, not even the sand sprites were awake at this hour. Stepping away from the oasis, aiming for the cabin, that knot of anxiety grew until it suddenly blossomed. And that was when he heard it:
The songs of Hounds.
The first sound swept through the air and smacked against him, one he’d recognize anywhere, and just like that he was back in Shiran City. Just like that, he was staring at where Nhulynolyn had been thrown against a wall, listening as the haunting wail made by a parent who lost a child and the child’s answering laughter bounced off the stone around him. Turned to watch as more shapes than he could accurately count while trying to keep himself from being surrounded danced in the unnatural fog created by Thae’a’s Weave.
As that second sound rent the air, sending the Shields to shrieking and the Barriers to rumbling like a mountain slide, the memory shattered. Before the third one had even started, he was running towards the cabin. He ran faster when he realized that what he had thought was a sandstorm ambling across the distant sand dunes was a wave of Hounds, their unnatural bodies becoming easier to make out as they covered the distance between the dunes and the cabin at a speed almost too quick for him to track. They’re going to make it here before I get to the cabin. Shit.
He threw his power into the Shields and Barriers as that undulating mass drew closer and closer. He had wanted to touch the cabin and send it away like he had when Anis had died but there just wasn’t enough time. He snapped off his connection to the Shields and Barriers, activated the wards to make up the difference, and resigned himself to facing the horde barreling across the sands towards his Court’s home alone and at diminished strength. Knowing full well that the lives of the Grey Court depended on him not failing.
The first Hound smacked into the retaining wall thirty yards away from him and went tumbling over it, melting and scattering stone as it went. It rolled to its hand-feet, gathered itself, and then launched at him. With a shout of indignation, he met it head on, punching his hand through its chest, gripping its heart and jerking his arm sideways back out of the thing, splitting its chest cavity wide as he poured magick into its heart to make it as tough as steel and threw it at the Hound that had followed on the first one’s heels. That hardened heart made a mess of the Hound’s face and the two lifeless bodies dropped as he spun in a circle, right leg extended out and shattering every bone in one’s arm as he kicked it, sending it flailing and screaming through the air to knock over a handful of its brethren. But for every two he took down, there was seven more to take their place.
Cursing long and harsh at that realization, he threw open the doors between his Others and his Companion and pinged across their minds, feeling all four fly awake simultaneously. He didn’t have time to answer the questions that came back at him because two steps later he was whirling to face another Hound barehanded just before it collided with him because he still hadn’t had time to draw his swords. As much as he didn’t want to involve his Court, he couldn’t face this many Hounds alone.
He loosed a war howl as he and the creature went tumbling to the ground in a spray of sand. As they rolled and tussled, as he fought to keep a mouth filled with too many teeth from connecting with his throat, memories of the last time he’d faced this many Hounds threatened to break free of their boxes and drown him. Growling just out of the subvocal range as he felt Nhulynolyn wrestle those memories back into their proper places, he pushed the Hound off him. With a vicious slice of his hand through the air, his magick arced out and severed its head from its body.
Before it had even hit the ground, he was already turning to face another, left hand drawing Mallacht with another war howl as he slid into the Hound’s path and snarled, his power hitting the surface of his skin and blowing apart the glamour that hid his true face. The Hound didn’t slow, just grinned and picked up speed. In an eye blink he was slicing through its abdomen and flinging its corrosive blood wide, dousing himself with it as he flung his right hand forward, grabbed hold of its intestines and then swung it around to his right, taking down three more Hounds that had begun to flank him. Letting go, he whirled to face the next set.
The fighting became a blur of corrosive blood and acidic saliva and body parts flying as he ducked and dodged and swung and sliced. A blur made all the worse as his magick crackled through the air like lightning, as the first ripples of his Court’s magick joined his own. A wall of coldfire flared behind him and took out a wave of ten Hounds before they could reach him, but he regretted the act as soon as he’d done it when a wave of exhaustion swelled up his body, nearly crippling him. It took every ounce of stubborn will he had to keep fighting off the tidal wave of creatures, to fight off the fear that threatened to cripple even him but he was rapidly running out of strength, out of reserves. But he could not fail, not here, not now. Not when his entire Court was present.
So he dropped another Hound, and another, and another, dropped so many he lost count. But they just kept coming. Worse than they had that night in Shiran City. Worse than when he had been a fledgling. This wasn’t just one colony, even though a single colony could number easily into the low thousands, there was no way he hadn’t dropped nearly tens of thousands since first contact.
He had just sliced yet another fucking Hound from lower jaw to groin and kicked it away when he heard his name called from somewhere near the cabin. But he didn’t answer. Didn’t turn his focus away. He didn’t dare. If it had been anything else sent here? He would have chanced it. But he was already starting to slow as his body began to catch up to the lack of energy that was needed to power it. It was just too much already after sending power to the Shields and Barriers to keep the fear Hounds created in Dhaoine from affecting his Court, fighting off said Hounds, and keeping himself alive long enough to give his Court a fighting chance.
Because without him, he knew they didn’t have one.
“The fuck are these things?” Relyt demanded as the telltale thwang of an arrow rocketing through the air sounded and a Hound four feet away dropped to the ground mid-leap with a heavy thud, an arrow tipped with slate grey feathers sticking out from between its eyes.
“Hôhyündír,” Nhulynolyn answered as a wave of shadowfire whooshed by him, leaving the burnt out husks of some fifty or so Hounds in its wake.
“Fucking Hounds?” Rhyshladlyn didn’t catch whose fearful exasperation that was.
“Yes,” Bayls’ clear voice rang out like Temple bells, “Hounds. Rhys fought them back in Shiran City. I remember them.”
*Do you need energy, Rhys?* Shadiranamen’s voice in his head made him jump and nearly get clipped by a Hound’s claws as it leapt at him but he planted his feet and leaned back so he was parallel to the sands, letting it sail over him.
No. I’m fine.
*Y’know we know you’re lyin’, right?* Nhulynolyn snarked but Rhyshladlyn ignored him.
He’d only left the conversational link open, so until he opened the rest of it, they couldn’t do more than talk to him. And even if the entire link was open? He’d close it because right now he was so dangerously low he’d likely drain them dry and the last thing he needed was the risk of killing his Others on top of everything else.
Any conversation among his Court after that was lost as he was quickly surrounded again. The damned beasts knew he was the strongest among the Court and sought to take him out the quickest. For all that they lacked a Self like any other living thing within the Worlds that possessed a working mind, they were highly intelligent, pack oriented, brilliant strategists, and they communicated silently mind to mind like Others with their kè. Half of where he’d learned his own tricks had come from studying Hounds. But for all he knew of their powers and their fighting styles and how they took down prey, there were too many here for him to fight with his reserves lowered from not Feeding in months, to the fight with Relyt, to his sleepless nights. And his Court had no experience fighting Hounds. He’d made sure they had never had to face them during the war.
He was regretting that now.
Fuck. He swallowed the scream that rose in his throat when a Hound caught him round the thigh and tore through his pants and the skin and muscle beneath. Gritting his teeth he leapt back several yards, tossed Mallacht to the left to catch a Hound between the eyes that was trying to flank him never taking his eyes off the one that had drawn blood. Pain lanced down his back as another Hound came from behind and sank its claws in. Howling, he called Beannacht to his right hand and stabbed it back into the side of that Hound, making it scream when he twisted the blade and pulled it back out. With a sickeningly wet squelch its claws disengaged from his back as it fell away.
Somewhere out of his sight line he heard Azriel yell his name, the syllables wrong and distorted. He shuddered hard as he dropped to one knee, the random thought of I hate that wet-not-wet feeling of blood dripping down your skin making him giggle hysterically and loud enough to make the Hound in front of him slow down and blink at him.
“Rhyshladlyn!” he didn’t look away from the golden eyes of the Hound in front of him, didn’t acknowledge his Companion even when the Anglëtinean tossed power at him through the door he hadn’t bothered to close, aiming to Heal the wound that had likely nicked an artery in his thigh given how much blood he had lost in such a short time. His back wound had likely punctured a lung given how difficult and painful breathing had become but he had to keep fighting. He had to take the Hounds out.
A sharp female scream cut through the air and made his already burning lungs burn all the more. Made his heart rate jump only to plummet seconds later when Nhulynolyn’s roar rumbled along his bones. He caught a brief flash through his twin’s eyes of Bayls sliding down the stairs leading up to the cabin, body boneless in a way that was far more terrifying than the beast he was staring down. Through Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú’s eyes he saw that the Hounds had surrounded the entire cabin, leaving no space within the retaining wall that wasn’t the damned creatures except where the Court stood and the cabin itself. Through Azriel’s eyes he saw Relyt beginning to speak the words to use his Soul Wave, saw himself surrounded by coldfire that was sputtering out with each passing second.
Fucking lovely. I don’t have a choice… If he went down, his Court would be easily overrun. There was no possible way they could escape this situation alive. Nameless Hear me.
“Get down.” His Court’s startled cries overshadowed the sounds of the Hounds as his attend caught hold and dropped them all to the sands.
The Hound’s eyes widened and it picked up speed again but it would never reach him in time. He threw a smile at it that made his jaw ache before he reached out and drained the Shields, Barriers, and wards on the cabin dry. As his magick, centuries old but no less potent for it, came thundering back to him, he called the Truth of him up from the depths he buried it in and tossed it out around him in all directions.
He collapsed fully to the sands as the Working completed with a ringing snap in his ears and the smell of burning flesh thickened the already copper-soaked air around him.
“Rhys!” Azriel’s voice was strained, still sounding weird and he realized that he was hearing it out loud and in his head simultaneously. “Release the attend! Rhys!”
How did they know where the cabin was? He thought, sparing the last bit of his energy to twitch his fingers and release the attend. The last thing he heard before consciousness left him was Azriel calling out his name again.