Four hundred years of war should have prepared him for the landscape of horror that had become of Ryphqi City. Should have prepared him dropping from the Line before what had once been a sprawling skyline of multicolored buildings and scale-roofs but now had pieces missing. Like something had flown by and taken huge bites and left only plumes of smoke hundreds of feet high behind.
Four hundred years of war and following on the heels of battles to ease the journey to the After for the fallen should have prepared him for the screams and moans of agony, for the pleas for help and aid that thickened the air of the City. Should have readied him for the feel of hopelessness, of loss, of fear that crackled alongside the out of control magick that made the air even more difficult to breathe.
Four hundred years of war should have prepared him for the barked orders of those warriors capable of movement, Healers’ soothing laments, the sobbed cries of gut-wrenching grief when one that still lived discovered that their loved one did not. Should have prepared him for the way his chest grew tight that had nothing to do with the poor air quality when he thought that this could have been them, this could have been the Court. That had he not discovered the Room of Jars almost two weeks ago, he would still be here in the City, looking for proof of the accusations lodged against Qishir Xitlali.
But this was not a Field, this was not the aftermath of a battle fought by warriors and soldiers that knew the risks going in. No, this was a City, one that was filled primarily with innocents that were simply trying to live amidst a war that was trying desperately to tear the Worlds apart. A City that had the expectation of safety per agreements made between the Grey and Eighth Armies.
But for all those agreements had stood the test of centuries it seemed that even agreements signed in blood could be broken.
He watched as Ka’ahne dropped down from the Line into the main square of the City, eyes a pair of firepoints in a face that was a riot of fury and pain and a cold sort of detachment he hadn’t witnessed since he’d watched the Qishir fight Mykshäl. A shadow trailed down from the Line behind him, a darkness that moved independently of the shadow his body cast. It was unnerving enough that he shuffled closer to Thae’a at the sight of it here, where everyone before Ka’ahne’s gaze was an ally, reluctant or not. Because he had seen that shadow before when Greymend had flown at the Qishir after Ka’ahne had destroyed the Oiki, seen it in the split second before the Qishir had moved and shown his Steward that four hundred years of free reign didn’t mean that he no longer deserved the same respect he had once been shown.
Ka’ahne shook himself, that shadow disappearing with the movement, and strode cross the square up to what looked like a Royal Guard captain, barking out questions before he’d even made it within arm’s reach of the female. For all that her City was in shambles and she was on the opposing side in the war, she didn’t blink in the face of the infamous Grey Qishir barreling down on her with his full Court dropping from the Lines behind him.
Well almost the full Court; they were shy a few members.
Nhulynolyn Otherborn heaved in great gulps of air and shook his head, hands braced on his thighs. “There was an explosion at the Palace and one of its compounds in Ryphqi. Alaïs got out a distress signal but that’s all I got ‘fore the connection got cut.”
“What connection?” Greymend questioned but the Other ignored him.
“Shadi, you stay here with Bayls,” the female Phuri nodded once, as though she had already planned to do so even before her fellow Otherborn had said anything. Nhulynolyn Otherborn then turned to him. “Adïmshyl, I want you on sentry duty.”
He was shaking his head before the Other had even finished his sentence, “No. I am not staying here. I would be better placed in the City given my abilities. Especially if someone blew up the Palace.”
For a moment the Other looked ready to argue but he didn’t. Instead he nodded and turned away to address everyone else, “Xhesh, I want you to take Thayne to Zhalharaq, but don’t go inside the City. I don’t want to chance that whatever happened in Ryphqi is going to happen in every one of the Cities across the Worlds. But she needs to be as close to the Eighth Qishir’s seat as she can and find out if her contacts there have any fuckin’ clue what’s goin’ on.” The Nochresi and Firesbane nodded in tandem before they lifted their hands, caught a Line and were gone.
“The rest of us are bound for Ryphqi. I know it’s the seat of the enemy, with the exception of Al and Jaro, but we’re gonna show we’re not heartless fucks. So get your shit an’ let’s get movin’.”
“Where is Rhys?” Greymend asked as they prepared to depart.
“He’s meetin’ us there,” Otherborn answered, his tone one of flippancy that Adïmshyl barely caught but it held an edge the Lupherinre could understand. Before Greymend could do more than open his mouth, the Other had caught a Line and was gone.
His mate side-eyed him, one eyebrow raising as she did so. He shook his head and looked back at Ka’ahne. Thae’a’s hand slipped into his and squeezed before she let go and walked up to the Qishir.
He didn’t hear their words but he didn’t need to. He knew Ka’ahne well enough to know the exact order of his questions: what happened, causalities, search efforts, locations, how many Healers, supplies. And once he had those answers? He’d begin giving orders. They may not have fought any battles together besides the ones that occurred before they’d stormed Shiran City, but Adïmshyl had fought alongside those who had been trained under Ka’ahne, who had fought alongside him, had stood side by side with Lord Queen Ka’ahne. And every single one of those Dhaoine had told him how Ka’ahne was when it came to a crisis. How he reacted, how he acted, how he handled it. And he suspected by the way the Royal Guard captain didn’t seem remotely reluctant to answer any questions the Qishir lobbed at her, but rather seemed relieved that he was here, that their enemies had heard those same stories.
He only hoped that those stories would keep anyone from being foolish enough to think this was a prime opportunity to attack the Grey Qishir.
“I have memories of this kind of destruction,” he looked at Veratone as the Anglëtinean stepped up beside him, mismatched eyes roving over the smoking buildings, over the search parties, the bodies both whole and missing pieces lined up across the main square. Veratone missed nothing and saw everything, just like he had before his death; every line of tension in his body giving voice to the pure warrior he from his Self to his name. He was bred to be a warrior, to be a force of nature on the Field and at the right hand of the head of a Court, and it showed. “But they are old, from my first life. Before I met Rhys.”
“What happened back then?” He asked, partly because he was curious and partly because a small part of him hoped that what had caused the events of Veratone’s past was responsible for the present. It was a long shot of a thing to hope for, but he couldn’t help it.
Veratone licked his lips, one hand swiping across his mouth before dropping to pet the serpent Other that always seemed to be curled around his neck. The snake’s black scales rippled as though it were happy at the touch, eyes that matched its kè staring at him unwaveringly and he felt that gaze down to his Self. He raised an eyebrow and smirked when the Other jerked its head up once in a nod and looked away. Guess I pass whatever the test was.
“My sister and I were tasked to find out. Though the closest we’d ever gotten was the theory that someone was making Oathing Sacrifices out of non-Court members to get back at a Qishir that had wronged them. Ten villages, two cities, and one metropolis were taken out by several unexplained explosions before we were handed the dossier.”
“What made you think it was an Oathing Sacrifice?” He followed Veratone’s example and glanced around the square, taking note of everyone. “And I thought only Qishir’s could do that?”
Veratone nodded and shrugged at the same time. It had always amazed him that the Anglëtinean could do two things that contradicted each other like that as an answer to something and have that answer be perfectly clear. If he tried to do the same thing? He just looked stupid or constipated. Or both.
“Anyone can speak an Oathing Sacrifice–”
“However,” Greymend interrupted as he came up on Veratone’s other side, “a Qishir is the only Dhaoine who can speak an Oathing Sacrifice that targets just them.”
“Is that what happened here, you think?” Adïmshyl asked, not really caring who answered, just so long as someone did. Though he prayed that this wouldn’t end in another of the their now well known and well expected fights. Because the last thing they needed was the Grey Steward and Grey Companion fighting when the Court was here on a humanitarian mission.
Greymend shook his head, an unreadable look on his face. “I doubt that is what happened here.”
“Then how do you explain the same magickal blasts felt when a Qishir performs one being felt back when I saw destruction just like this?” Veratone retorted, tone filled with sharp edges that made Adïmshyl feel desperate to put some distance between them. “Let alone why the magick that is burning the air around us has the same scent as an Oathing Sacrifice?”
Greymend shrugged, calling over his shoulder as he headed over to where Thae’a and Ka’ahne were talking when he saw Nhulynolyn Otherborn come out of one of the buildings off the square, eyes hard and jaw set. “I don’t have all the answers, Azriel. Though the Many only knows I wish I did.”
“Thought you had abandoned the Many,” Veratone called out after the Soul Healer.
“I realized my mistake,” Greymend answered without stopping.
Veratone crossed his arms, one eyebrow raising. “Oh? And what was that?”
Greymend didn’t answer and Veratone growled beside him, muttering something short and harsh in Anglë’lylel that made the hair on his arms stand straight up.
Adïmshyl was quiet for several long minutes before speaking, “Veratone, may I ask you something?”
He took a deep breath, scratching absently at his beard making the beads woven into the strands there click against each other. He watched the way Nhulynolyn Otherborn’s gaze darkened when he looked at Greymend, the way his body language screamed get the fuck away from me. It was odd, to the say the least and it caught his attention in a way few things did. That coupled with the way Thae’a glared at him without her face actually taking on the shape of that expression and the way Ka’ahne seemed to lean away from the Soul Healer without actually moving? Oh fuck yeah, his attention was definitely caught. But he needed answers to a few things first.
“Why are you so determined to give Greymend grief? I don’t remember you two butting heads so much.”
Veratone looked at him with an expression that was more intense than Adïmshyl remembered ever seeing it. One that made his very Self shiver.
“He blames Rhys for keeping my return secret from the Court,” he began, gaze sliding away to look at their Qishir who was gesturing widely now, every line in his body tense and poised to strike. Even from this distance, his fury was palpable. A living breathing thing that hungered. That twisted and danced and slithered, hunting for its next meal.
Thae’a just rolled her eyes in the face of that fury, just like she always did. Unafraid, unconcerned with the rage their Qishir had banked within him at all times, ready to call up to full force at a moment’s notice. But Greymend? The Soul Healer actually took a step back, hands held up in a placating gesture, eyes wide, every ounce of his body language that of submission, of look I’m harmless, peace please. But something was off about it, something subtle enough that he didn’t think anyone not looking closely would catch. But he couldn’t say what. Not yet.
“But despite that? Every one of you still looked for me. Everyone but him.”
“How do you know we looked for you?” Adïmshyl asked, feeling like he was on a ride down a dangerous river after the winter thaws, each rough patch of water hiding rocks that could shred his boat and kill him.
“I got curious and checked the Records Hall of the Eighth Palace. I asked around my old contacts in the Eighth Army if anyone had ever asked for me by name before I defected. They may not have known all of your names, but they described you well enough. And those of you that had used glamours? The Records knew enough of the Truth from the Storytellers that keep them that I knew who all looked,” Veratone answered and of all the things he’d expected the Anglëtinean to say, that hadn’t been among them. “Rhys kept the knowledge I was reborn from the Court for his own reasons, reasons I only know the half of, reasons I accept regardless of whether I know the whole of them or not, but at least he didn’t lie.”
The Anglëtinean shifted, his energy rising and falling around him, dancing like an playful autumn breeze but Adïmshyl knew better. For all that Veratone wasn’t the thousand year old warrior he had been when they’d first met, when he’d said that faith wasn’t just for the gods, he was still powerful, was still a formidable opponent. One that Adïmshyl was thankful he’d never encountered on the Field before Veratone had defected from the Eighth Army. And in that moment standing just inside a Greywalker City that was half rubble, watching Veratone stare at Greymend and Ka’ahne, Adïmshyl saw something he hadn’t noticed before.
Veratone looked at Ka’ahne like an equal, like the four hundred years they’d spent separated had been nothing more than four minutes. The love and worry and pride the warrior held for their Qishir was just as pure and intense now as it had been all those centuries ago when he’d asked him how he handled Ka’ahne stepping onto a Field. Death, time in the After, rebirth, and fighting unknowingly against him hadn’t tempered Veratone’s love for Ka’ahne. He was just as willing to do anything and everything for the Qishir as he had always been.
And that same look had once been on Greymend’s face, too. That same devotion and love and pride had shown from eyes the color of slate. Every action the Soul Healer had taken, every command, every word, every act of magick had been in service to the Qishir he had saved, that had done everything to keep him safe. But four centuries was a long time to spend in the shadow of someone one loved, to hold on to the memories of who that Dhaoine used to be and find out when they came back that they were completely different and yet not. And that was when he realized what was off about Greymend’s submission, the way he stood and acted around Ka’ahne. That look that he had one shared with Veratone, the expression of his feelings for their Qishir?
It wasn’t there, not in the same way it had been. It was warped and twisted.
“By the Blood Mother,” he murmured and heard Veratone snort.
“I hope that She hears you, Adïm,” Veratone said, tone twisted in a way he didn’t have words to describe. “Because I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Adïmshyl frowned, grabbing hold of Veratone’s arm before he could walk away when Ka’ahne gestured for them to join him.
“That male,” Veratone nodded at Greymend, “abandoned his people’s god just as it had abandoned them back before the raid on Shiran to get him and Alaïs out.” He paused and looked at the Soul Healer. “So tell me what changed in four centuries to undo an abandonment that had been building for a millennium?” Shaking his hand off his arm, Veratone sighed, rubbing one hand up his face and through his hair, a nervous gesture that Adïmshyl remembered well. “And why not look for someone you claim to have loved? Why not do everything possible to find and help the living love of your life grieve the death of the one you shared?”
Adïmshyl had no response to that.