The Hall was finally quiet if only because she’d kicked everyone out after hours spent going in circles, bickering, and pointing fingers that netted her nothing but a headache. None of them had been willing to admit they had a source within the Grey Court. Which normally would have been odd — Xitlali and the rest had spent centuries trying to one up each other when it came to the Grey Court — but in this instance it wasn’t. If only because what had happened with the Hounds was essentially a war crime. Even though the attack had been enacted against their enemy, there were some lines one just didn’t cross.
And attacking a Qishir and his Court outside of a battle camp, outside of a Field? That was one of those lines.
So she had ordered her Generals, High General Hujiel, the dignitaries from the Anglë race, the Queen of the Ancients, Xitlali, and everyone else the fuck out of her Hall. Remembering at the last second to tell them to not leave the City’s boundaries. That until she had an answer as to what the fuck had happened, no one left the City without her express permission. And the oddest thing about it all was that they’d readily agreed to stay within Ryphqi; hadn’t questioned how she had known about the Hound attack before a runner had even made it to the Palace; hadn’t questioned that she spoke to those who technically outranked her as though she were a sitting Qishir rather than just the impromptu leader of the Eighth Army. They had just blindly accepted her orders where three days before they had railed against them.
Perhaps it was because they knew that Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t be kept at bay any longer. They finally seemed to believe her warnings, but it was too little, too late.
She hadn’t said as much out loud, but the entire Hall had stunk of the knowledge regardless. Even Xitlali had looked cowed, terrified of what this meant. Terrified of the future she and her followers had seemed so certain of seventy-two hours ago.
Now they didn’t know what to think. Because they all knew the story of how Rhyshladlyn had taken out Hounds in Shiran City. Knew of how he’d vaporized thirty Oiki with a finger snap. They all knew of his prowess on the Fields across the last four and a half centuries; to say nothing of his prowess before the war. But this? Incinerating literal colonies of Hounds? That was on a level that had them all quaking with a fear none had felt since the loss of Shiran City. They didn’t know how he’d done it, just that it had been done. And they all knew the first rule of magickal theory: if an act of magick was performed even once, then there was a good chance it could be done again.
Rhyshladlyn had always been stronger than any of them had anticipated or realize when he was younger. And really she shouldn’t be surprised that at centuries old he was showing greater and greater abilities, ones that were far more terrifying than those that had come before, but she was. With each new ability showcased, with each new battle fought with him at the center, she was left breathless. Left wondering what had happened to take the clenched-jaw determination and fire that she’d seen from the North Tower back home when he’d cut a path through their father’s army after giving it one final chance to disperse with their lives.
“My Lady?” Jaro asked, voice soft as he slipped in through a hidden door behind her throne, the click of the lock and sigh of the wards allowing him access loud in the silence of the Hall.
“I am here,” she answered, cheek resting in her palm, fingers fanned across her face.
“There has been a disturbance in one of the compounds.”
She frowned at the tone of his voice, shifting so she could look around her throne at him. He stood rooted to the spot, eyes a rich blue that reminded her of Shadiranamen’s deep sapphire and the clearness of her own twin’s, and it made her shiver. She had only ever seen his eyes get close to that shade and knew that the closer to blue they got, the most upset he was. He took after his father in that regard. So to see that hue and clarity now?
She didn’t have words for how it made her feel.
“What kind of disturbance?” she asked slowly, already knowing she wouldn’t want to hear the answer.
He didn’t look at her which made every instinct in her come roaring to life as she pushed to her feet and faced him fully. Because he was like Azriel in that he always made eye contact, too much at times.
“Jaro, what the fuck is it?” she prompted a little more harshly than she intended when he didn’t answer for several heartbeats. But by the gods she was exhausted and didn’t have time for this shit. She told herself she didn’t need to feel guilty for the way he flinched at her tone.
If it was a lie, no one would know but her.
“The compound no longer exists.”
She blinked and swayed on her feet, one hand blindly reaching for her throne to steady herself. “What?”
“As of twenty minutes ago, a ripple was felt along the northeastern wards. It was powerful enough to activate the level seven Shields around the compound there. Before anyone could react, the fifth floor blew out, dropping the upper ten floors down onto the lower four. It set off a chain reaction — or rather that’s what the first responders are calling it — that ended with the entire building as nothing but rubble. Efforts have already begun to search for survivors and to begin clean up.”
“Gods prevail us all.” She spun around and dropped heavily back onto her throne as the World tilted in time with her stomach’s protest of having anything in it. “How many were in the compound?”
“It was filled to capacity, my Lady,” gods I’m going to vomit. “So ten thousand residents listed. Though I cannot say whether all were present when the disturbance occurred.”
Rubbing shaking hands over her face she desperately wished Anis was still alive. He had been better at the logistics necessary to handle this kind of thing better than she was. Granted, he’d never had the actual hands on experience only the classroom training, but it was more than she had. And she was feeling the lack in the wake of this latest tragedy. Was feeling the loss of her twin and the distance — however faked and forced it may be — between her and Rhyshladlyn. She was flying blind and it terrified her.
Because an explosion that took out a compound with ten thousand residents? That was catastrophic and she didn’t have the resources to spare to clear the rubble, to find the source of the blast, to find and bury the dead. Never mind that Ryphqi was a City, for fuck’s sake. This kind of shit shouldn’t happen here.
Jaro made a sound of agreement and she pressed her hands against the armrests of her throne not letting up even when the wood creek in protest. I am not cut out for this. This is not my forte. It’s Anny’s and Rhys’. Not mine.
“Why didn’t it reach the rest of the City?” she asked, mind racing as she tried to figure out what the next step should be besides gather as much information as she could. “Was this a purposeful attack?”
“The Shields contained whatever blast wave there would have been, my Lady. As for whether it was an attack? I can’t say for certain, but I doubt it was an accident.”
The Soulless fell quiet and in the silence of that pause she heard a thousand things he didn’t say. But only one terrified her the most.
“You’re calling it a disturbance despite thinking it can’t possibly be an accident,” she pointed out. “Why?”
Those deep blue eyes met hers and the ghosts that danced in them made her blood run cold. “The City’s protections never registered the ripple, it was only the building’s wards that did. As far as the City itself is concerned? That compound is still standing right where it used to be.”
She cursed long and harsh in Sinxhët before pushing up from her throne and striding off the dais, calling in her sword and armor as she did so. Jaro didn’t question her, just jogged to catch up and fell into step beside her as she threw open the Hall’s doors, startling the two Guards standing watch. She didn’t stop and spare them a single moment or word of apology or explanation. She would feel bad about it later, find out who the Dhaoine were and apologize for her rudeness and sudden, unexplained departure later. Right now, she needed to meet with the captain of the Royal Guard, needed to reach Nhulynolyn, needed to meet with first responders at ground zero and not necessarily in that order. After that she would reconvene every ranking member in the Eighth Army back in the Hall and demand to know what the entire fuck was going on. Because there just was no way all of them were clueless.
As she sped walked through her Palace, mentally making a schedule of what she needed to do, the air shifted. Slowing to a stop in front of a wall of windows that faced the interior courtyard of the Palace, she frowned as that shift became a ripple. A brilliant flash of white drew her attention a bank of windows across the courtyard just before those windows blew out. The wards gave a cry of warning and the Shields engaged just as the Barriers came shrieking to life.
But she knew it was already too late. What had happened at the Northeastern Compound was happening here. She didn’t need to hear Jaro’s curse to know that. But the damage such a thing happening here would be worse. Because there were a million Dhaoine working and living in the Palace at any given moment versus the tens of thousands that had been in the Northeastern Compound.
And there was no time to save them all.
“Alaïs!” Jaro screamed as that blast rippled out along the floor, shaking the very earth seven storeys below them as it no doubt took out every single inch of the eighth floor across the Palace as it aimed for their side of the courtyard. They had seconds before it hit, minutes if they were lucky.
She didn’t have any other option. There just wasn’t time.
She tackled Jaro against the floor just as Ryphqi City awoke shrieking around her. As the Palace shook violently with the approaching blast she dove into the very depth of her Self, going beneath, and covered Jaro with her body as she erected the strongest Shields she could around them both.
And as the blast hit them she sent a single, pinpointed distress call to the only Dhaoine capable of hearing it.