He had been here before.
Not here in this City, but in this situation.
Been surrounded by the broken and the dying and the dead. Faced with the impossible task of saving someone he didn’t know wasn’t going to make it. Tasked with finding an answer that didn’t exist but everyone believed he had regardless of that. Been walking streets that were at once so familiar and yet completely unknown, praying as he turned his face skyward that things would work out in his favor. That he wouldn’t fail.
It made his teeth hurt, made his skin flush with the heat of his rage as it pressed against the lid of its cage. Made him want to raze the City to the ground and be done with it. Made him wish he could rewrite history, that he could go back to the moment he had learned that he was a Multitude, that he was a neodrach. Back to when all he had had to worry about was his father, was keeping his sister and brother and mother alive. Back before he came into his heritage as a Qishir, before he learned that the love of his life, his Companion, had to die in order for him to be able to Awaken as a Greywalker.
He wished he could go back to when everything had been so simple and he didn’t have to carry the weight of the Worlds upon his shoulders, when the problems of his Court and the Army that had sworn fealty to him didn’t rest at his feet. But no. He was here, stuck with that weight, with the nightmares of his failures, of the moments when he had been so close to succeeding and yet still fell short of the mark. He was here standing in the warmth of the mid-morning sun while every search for his sister and her personal guard turned up empty handed.
“If the Palace was destroyed, there is a chance she didn’t make it, your Majesty.”
“So I’m supposed to just what, give up on her?” he snapped at the Soul Healer, feeling that rage reach a tipping point, felt it find a mark and lock on.
“I did not say that,” Relyt answered, holding up his hands in a see, I am harmless gesture that he wasn’t remotely buying. Not again, never again. “I am merely trying to prepare you for the worst case scenario.”
Growling low in his throat, he raked hands he refused to acknowledge were shaking through his hair, pushing it back and out of his face, closing his eyes against the unending sound of his native language spoken on all sides. But that only heightened his awareness of it.
He should have been prepared for hearing it when making the decision to come here. Because when Shiran had fallen, Ryphqi had taken up the slack caused by that loss. And so those Sinner Demons that had survived the fall had evacuated to Ryphqi and made their new home out of the sprawling City. He’d known that, had known that those that had escaped had primarily been the less affluent families and merchants, those that wouldn’t have known Common that well or would have but preferred not to use it. Because those that had gotten out of Shiran had been the ones that were near the wall, where the slums and the merchants and the farmers had lived. But it hadn’t been obvious until this moment.
Until he was in what was now their home, the seat of the Sinner Demon kingdom, in the wake of another tragedy that had befallen his native race.
“Why did you come here really, Rhys?” Relyt asked with a curiosity that didn’t quite hide the edge in his tone. “You had to know that doing so is dangerous.”
“No fuckin’ shit it’s dangerous, Rel,” he turned a glare on the Soul Healer, wondering where the Relyt that had been so afraid of hurting anyone had gone; wondered when he’d lost both his Companion and his Steward to Death’s unforgiving embrace even though only one had walked in the After. “But I can’t let innocents die when I could do something to help.”
Relyt snorted. “They aren’t innocents, your Majesty, they are your enemies.”
“I am fighting the Eighth Army, Relyt Greymend, not the innocent people who occupy the same space in this City as said army.”
They’d been searching the rumble of the Palace for days and had found nothing. He’d stopped counting after three sleepless nights spent moving rubble, after three days spent tanning under the ruthless desert sun tending to the dead and the dying. He’d stopped counting after seventy-two hours of coordinating new quadrants to search within what had once been the Palace. The problem was no one knew whether Alaïs had been in her rooms, the Hall, Temple, some random hallway, or if she had even still been in the Palace at all. All any of the survivors had known was that she had been in the Hall after news of the attack on his Court had reached her, had spoken with all the residing dignitaries from the Eighth Army’s allies. Whether they had still been there or not at the time of the explosions was unknown. And it was that unknown that was killing him.
Because he couldn’t see this Palace.
Couldn’t see this City with the ghosts that were already starting to walk its streets.
Couldn’t see the destruction and the fires and the piles of the dead and the pieces of the dying.
Couldn’t see the Healers and the mourners moving in tandem.
All he could see was Thayne bringing him an envelop that she handed to him with shaking hands.
All he could see was Anislanzir pressing Alaïs against the wall, her skirts hiked up over her thighs, his gold eyes filled with danger and lust.
All he could see was the smile that split his only sister’s face when he cracked a joke.
All he could see was what had happened the last time he’d stepped foot in a Sinner Demon controlled City with the intent to save his sister.
And for all that everyone told him that wouldn’t happen again, it didn’t stop the fear, didn’t stop the anxiety that made his gut feel like it was doing kick flips. Because he remembered that letter, remembered how he felt the second he read what Relyt had written all those years ago. Knew the second he’d seen it what it heralded. Knew because he hadn’t forgotten what his Patrons had told him. But he hadn’t been able to abandon his sister and his Steward. Hadn’t been able to just look the other way even when he’d known that doing so would have kept Azriel alive, if only for just a little while longer.
So when Nhulynolyn had kicked open the door on their link and played him the warning he’d gotten from Alaïs? He hadn’t hesitated, hadn’t had to even think about it. He’d left immediately after making sure Nhulynolyn knew that he wanted those able-bodied in the Court to meet him in Ryphqi. Because just like he hadn’t been able to abandon Alaïs back then? He sure as fuck wasn’t able to abandon her now. Even if the fear that he risked losing Azriel again, that somehow Relyt was also in danger, let alone everyone else in the Court threatened to cripple him.
He felt the eyes of those that were working to identify the bodies that had been recovered, to Heal those that were still savable like a physical touch against his back as he came upon the main square of the City. But despite that he had the attention of everyone within a span of seconds, no one questioned why he was here and not with the search parties like he had been the last few days, not that he expected them to. He was the Grey Qishir after all and with that came a certain expectation to go about one’s business without being accosted. Though for all that no one said anything to him, that didn’t mean they didn’t say anything to each other or watch him. He just hoped that word didn’t reach his Court before he was finished here. Because if they knew he was here and what he planned to do, they’d try and stop him while yelling at him for making the decision without them.
Hold on, Al. I’ll find you. I promise.
But there was no way they would succeed in stopping him. He’d already lost his brother, he’d already watched his Companion die, he couldn’t lose his sister. He refused to. Not when he had the suspicion that this had happened in some part because of him, not when he had the power to try and save her.
With a deep breath he strode across the City’s main square to the Watchtower that stood humming softly, the golden veins that crisscrossed its sleek black surface throbbing in time to his heartbeat. The closer he drew to it, the more the large square tiles that made up the square glowed gold. With each step, that golden glow brightened as Ryphqi trembled gently beneath him, the air thickening with its awareness as it shook off the lethargy that had encased it. It was dying, left without a Greywalker Qishir to tether to it, to give it hope and life. He swallowed down the guilt that he had failed his Cities just as much as he had his Court.
One thing at a time.
Coming to a stop before the Watchtower he smiled when he felt Ryphqi become more aware of him the longer he stood in close proximity to its Heart. Ryphqi wasn’t nearly as old as Shiran had been, wasn’t as mature as his birth City, but despite that it was intelligent and old enough for its power, for the essence of it, to be like a rich whiskey sliding warm and burning down the throat. And as it became aware of him, it chittered and cooed reminding him so much of Shiran he felt his throat grow tight. Reaching out a hand that shook only slightly, he pressed his palm carefully against the smooth, cool side of the Watchtower, feeling the pulse-pulse of the City’s happiness at his arrival through that connection.
Greetings, Ryphqi. I need to ask a favor.
Anything for the Grey Qishir. It answered though less in words and more in emotions and his smile grew fond and sad as he leaned his forehead against the stone next to his hand.
I need you to wake up.