Something about that injured, stumbling, unknown female had struck a chord with him. She had been familiar enough to catch his attention but not enough for him to recognize exactly where he’d known her from. The music her magickal signature had made wasn’t one of any enemy he’d cataloged over the course of his life, but still his skin had prickled and his instincts had murmured a soft, don’t trust, run, that had sounded eerily like Shiran’s voice and had only grown louder the longer he’d ignored them.
But ignored them he had, because he didn’t trust they spoke the truth to him. Not after the thing that had worn Anis’ likeness, not after seeing Azriel-that-wasn’t-Azriel before Nhulynolyn and the real Azriel had showed up. Not after his second break from reality in barely two months. He wasn’t supposed to have breaks like that, wasn’t supposed to question everything he saw around him. It made him a liability; one that put everyone he loved, everyone who depended on him, in danger.
And when she’d said she’d been injured in Ahkshen, Anglë World, that she’d come through an old Gateway that had been activated nearby? His murmuring instincts had turned to chitters that reminded him of the things that watched him from the deep shadows of the Forest of Dreams and Darkness; a warning and a lesson wrapped into one. He hadn’t wanted to take her at her word because he would have felt a Gateway being activated, after all only Qishir could authorize their use, but he had swallowed that retort because I had thought seriously that Anis is alive, so clearly what I know isn’t sound anymore.
Azriel and Nhulynolyn hadn’t understood why he’d been hesitant to send any of them to the city-village and help the citizens there fight off the supposed encroaching Eighth Army’s roving bandit units. But they hadn’t questioned him, they knew better by now. And regardless of her descriptions, of how her story had held a ring of Truth to it, he still hadn’t believe what she’d been telling them because there had been no chatter, no warning of these “bandit units.” Plus there was the fact that Xitlali was many things, but intelligent enough to recognize that an army of the size and skill level of the Grey Army stood relatively little chance against guerrilla warfare in urban settings and setting a trap for said army was not one of those things.
Never mind that the city-village of Ahkshen wasn’t supportive of the Grey Army in any way whatsoever, and even if it was? Attacking it served no real purpose. The only thing it had going for it was that it was one of many ports on the Uthiel Sea on the easternmost edge of Anglë World, further east even than any of the northeastern port cities, villages, and metropolises of Bondye World that also touched the Uthiel Sea. It literally had made no sense that anyone from either army wanted anything to do with Ahkshen and its barely one hundred thousand residents.
But Azriel, his beautiful bleeding heart Companion whose death and rebirth hadn’t tampered the warrior’s nearly unreasonable need to help everyone, had argued until he was almost literally blue in the face for going with the unknown female back through a Gateway that shouldn’t have even existed, let alone been usable, and help those in Ahkshen. Had argued against any attempt Rhyshladlyn had made to make either of them see sense that sure it was in Anglë World, sure even as a sea-port it wasn’t a major one, it wasn’t near any of the Grey Army’s holds, but “Those are still Dhaoine who deserve a shot, even if they aren’t fighting on our side.”
And Nameless prevailing, but he hadn’t been wrong. The fucker.
“What if we don’t help her an’ she was tellin’ the truth?” Nhulynolyn had argued and it had been a damned good argument. Because Rhyshladlyn had known just as well as his Companion and Other that if he said no and left her alone and it turned out she’d been telling the truth? It would have just been another thing he’d feel guilty about.
So he’d called Bayls to join them and sent her with Nhulynolyn and Azriel while he returned to the cabin to try and get some sleep and food in him because he couldn’t remember when he’d last had either. Told himself the entire way that his instincts couldn’t be trusted, not after what had happened just a few hours ago; that because of that, he had sent Azriel in his stead with Nhulynolyn, adding Bayls to the mix to make sure those two didn’t get their cocks involved and forget their brains. That doing that made more sense than terrifying the absolute truth out of that female. That not going through that Gateway himself made more sense if only because he didn’t trust himself.
He’d been back at the cabin long enough to check on Relyt, to talk with Thae’a about his Steward’s condition, and make sure that Relyt was recovering properly, when his instincts came to screaming life just as Xheshmaryú had stumbled against the back of the long couch, and Shadiranamen’s curse thundered from upstairs, and Nhulynolyn screamed across their shared consciousness.
*Rhys! We need you!* Nhulynolyn’s voice was thick with something he couldn’t name and it made his heart sink. Thayne’s head snapped up at whatever sound he made, crimson eyes narrowed and darkened with a warning he’d recognize in his sleep.
Nhulynolyn had once called it Qishir mode activated and Rhyshladlyn hadn’t understood just how accurate that was until that moment.
The sound of whooshing flames echoed down their link and he realized then that the emotion that thickened Nhulynolyn’s voice was terror and his jaw ached with how tightly he clenched it. I’m on my way, he answered, told Xheshmaryú to fill in Thayne, and promptly hit the door at a dead run, ignoring the calls of everyone else behind him. Cursing himself and the luck his Court had the entire way back to Shiran’s Watchtowers.
Cursed even harsher when he found the Gateway his Companion, Other, and that female had used to travel the three World’s distance to Anglë nowhere to be found.
His instincts were never wrong and he really should have fucking remembered that. Because now he was scrambling to make up for lost time.
Now he was racing to cross three Worlds, leaping over Dhaoine and jumping from Line to Line when he couldn’t get around those that clogged them up.
Now he was distinctly aware that even blinking wasn’t fast enough to cover three Worlds-worth of distance in the time that Nhulynolyn’s urgency and terror demanded.
Now he was aiming for Anglë World, feeling the gathering strength of several units of the Grey Army as those that were close to Ahkshen converged on the city-village following Thayne’s orders. “It’s a purposeful attack, Rhys. They were lured there with clear deliberation. It’s only by some miracle that you weren’t with them. I’m sending all available nearby warriors to meet you. That isn’t up for debate.”
I was supposed to be with them. I should have been with them. By the Scythe, Hourglass, and Scales.
The Steward Corps was too busy still with Ryphqi City otherwise Relyt would have had them meet him, too, making the argument via Shadiranamen that if this was a deliberate attack, there was probably traps set up for Rhyshladlyn’s arrival. But Rhyshladlyn had shut down any argument for the added support because frankly if he, Azriel, Nhulynolyn, and Bayls couldn’t handle a set of traps — if there even were any — for him, half an army at their backs wasn’t going to change that. Never mind that he had buried an entire City beneath leagues of desert sand without breaking a sweat and that had been when he hadn’t even been one hundred namedays. He was considerably older and more powerful now.
But still weakened from lack of a proper Feeding, sleep, and a meal that’s sat long enough to be worth it.
He ignored the voice that sounded like Anis’, mocking and dark, as he dropped from one Line and caught another, startling a family of five Swan Shiftkin as he missed hitting them by mere inches. He didn’t apologize, he didn’t have the time. Nhulynolyn’s urgency increased just as his connection to Azriel flared white hot and sizzled across his skin, nearly making him stumble off the Line as he ran as his Companion’s pain and fear hit as he pulled enough energy to Heal and keep moving. Rhyshladlyn swallowed with a suddenly desert-dry throat, pulled energy from the nearby Cities as he passed them to balance himself back out, and threw the leftovers into his speed.
He was almost there. He was nearly to the northeastern border of Bondye World and then he had only two handfuls of leagues of Anglë to travel before he was at the city-village. A sense of impending disaster building on the horizon tickled across the edges of his awareness as his god-Marks twitched with life for the first time since he’d seen the Soullessly Heartfelt turn the corner in Shiran City.
Nully, I’m close! I’m in Anglë, hold on, brother! He called as he ate up the leagues of distance between the Bondye-Anglë border and Ahkshen, able to just barely see the beacon Nhulynolyn threw up to mark their location in response, shimmering above the thick plumes of black smoke and flames that rose above the city-village at random points. He blinked and saw through Nhulynolyn’s eyes a panorama view of a city on fire, that one of the only buildings not completely consumed by fire was the one below that
*It’s an orphanage. We’ve got most of’m out but the buildin’s huge so that’s just a guesstimation.*
I see it and I’m almost there. I’m coming in hot and fast, just gonna dive right in and move from there.
*I’ll pass that along.*
Dropping from the Line, he spread his primary wings with a snap and aimed for that beacon. He was above the courtyard of the six-storey building that stretched across two blocks, seeing Nhulynolyn and Azriel catching young tossed from the windows as flames pressed in on all sides, the back of the orphanage itself aflame. He sent a ping to his males before tucking his wings to his back and crossed his arms in front of his face with a small Shield spread across them as he aimed for one of the upper windows. With a curse, he slammed through a window on the fifth floor and skidded across the ash-covered floor into the far wall on the other side of the hallway. Groaning he pushed away from the wall and shook the glass and dust and ash off himself and looked around, hearing the terrified screams of young and the distinct sound of Bayls barking orders somewhere above him, her voice magickally enhanced to carry easily over the roar of flames and the screams of the injured and afraid.
He shouldered open the nearest door and did a quick scan for any living Dhaoinic young, frowning as something tickled at the back of his mind; a whisper of music, soft and sweet and teasing. Shaking his head to clear it, focus, Rhys, gods, he stepped back into the hallway and moved to the next room, and then the next, and the next. Twenty doors, twenty rooms, and he had only found seven young, each one sent sailing gently out whatever nearby window faced the courtyard towards Azriel and Nhulynolyn and those Ahkshenites that were helping them.
Just as he tossed out the eighth young he’d found, the air vacuumed to the east before blowing outward with an explosion that he felt rattle his bones as he was slammed away from the window by the force of it.
The runes that Marked him as a Scion of the Nameless came to glowing, bristling life across his chest as the rushing, blistering heat of the fire surrounded him.