Azriel checked the time compulsively, checked it despite knowing Rhyshladlyn still had three-quarters of an hour to arrive before he could return to Ahkshen without being dishonorable. But knowing that didn’t stop him from checking. Didn’t stop him from wanting to scream and put his hands through something, to take up armaments and step onto a Field and leave a swath of destruction and death in his wake that would make his namesake proud.
“You just left him there? Are you serious?”
He turned slowly to look at Relyt who stood next to the island counter, leaning one hip against it, trying to look like even standing with aid didn’t wind him, as though the sensation searing down the nerves in his back from the phantom pain of wings no longer there didn’t make his vision black in spots.
“Yes, I did.” The words were clipped, short, his accent thick as it singsonged around the vowels and consonants.
“Why?” The distrust that clung to that word made Azriel bare his teeth in a clear display of dominance, only keeping his wings from manifesting by sheer will power.
Instead of answering, he flicked the grey feather-tipped arrow that Rhyshladlyn had pulled from his shoulder towards the island counter where it lodged with a huh’twung. By the way Relyt’s eyes widened and his face paled, Thayne hissed, Thae’a and Adïmshyl growled in tandem, Alaïs and Jaro muttered an epithet and prayer respectively in their native tongues, Bayls eyes narrowed as her demeanor shifted from concerned little sister to warrior, and his Qishir’s Others’ attentions hyper focused on Relyt’s reaction, Azriel figured it was answer enough.
But he didn’t do that. Just like he hadn’t punched Relyt for questioning him as though he was so dishonorable as to leave their Qishir behind to face a city-village on fire, injured, and against some unknown female that had gotten under his skin in a way Azriel hadn’t seen another Dhaoine do since Azhuri had been alive.
He’d just ordered everyone to pack up and move out, figuring the spot where their cabin had sat before Rhyshladlyn had tossed it to Fènwa World was as good a place as any for them to lay low until Rhyshladlyn joined them.
And once everyone had gotten settled, he’d sat on a large rock that rose from the river’s bank, staring off to the east, willing Rhyshladlyn to appear over the tops of the trees. Willing his Qishir’s power to slip-slide down his spine, raising shiver-bumps as it went, heralding he was nearby. It was almost impossible to fight back the urge to open the link between them and see through his beloved’s eyes what was happening back in Ahkshen. He needed to know what was really going on because Rhyshladlyn hadn’t tossed him away just because that female had lead them into a trap. And he sure as fuck hadn’t sent him away just to show that arrow to the entire Court. There had been more that Rhyshladlyn hadn’t told him and not knowing what that was was making him all but unreasonably cranky.
And the idea that Rhyshladlyn had thought he wouldn’t have noticed that he’d held back information caused a ripple of hurt across his qahllyn’qir. He may not have spent as long at the Grey Qishir’s side in this lifetime, but for all that four hundred years had passed, Rhyshladlyn was still the same as he’d been before Azriel had died.
“No one changes, Az,” he sounded so young and Azriel remembered that it was because he was very young. That no matter how wise he sounded, how wise he really was, he was still barely older than ninety namedays. “They just remove more of the masks that hide their true selves.”
And Azriel had read him like a book without needing to use their link to tell him what the Qishir was thinking, what he was feeling, what he was seeing when his eyes glazed over. It had been clear that Rhyshladlyn had recognized that female the second she’d appeared at Shiran’s Watchtowers but it hadn’t been until she’d reappeared in Ahkshen that Rhyshladlyn had recalled everything. And whatever that everything entailed? It had shaken Rhyshladlyn in a way that had made Azriel’s blood boil.
It had been obvious in the way his heart rate had sped up and sent the pulse-point in his neck to fluttering, the way the muscles at the bolts of his jaw had tightened and twitched, the way his face had lost splotches of color before it filled with the red flush of righteous, indignation-fueled rage. But despite knowing that the reason given for his ordered departure hadn’t been the whole truth, Azriel hadn’t pressed it.
Some battles weren’t supposed to be fought by anyone but oneself.
But it hadn’t meant he was happy about being turned away, even if he’d understood. Even if the grey feather-tipped arrow he’d carried back to the cabin and shown everyone had been important in a way he hadn’t realized until he’d seen everyone else’s reactions to it. Even if it wasn’t until he’d told them that Rhyshladlyn had ordered him to come back and get them all out of the cabin that he realized the depth of Rhyshladlyn’s worry: because the cabin was no longer safe, the Qishir himself was no longer safe, and now he was scrambling to protect them all.
High Ones, he better not fucking leave the Court again or I am going to have some unpleasant words with him.
*I would pay to see that, Master Azriel,* Lycarn murmured sleepily and Azriel rolled his eyes.
The breeze that had played through the trees and ruffled his hair died and all bird-song ceased, not even the creaking of tree-bark settling or the rippling waters of the river could be heard. Slowly he slid off the river rock onto the riverbank and turned to face the large tent that housed the Court some twenty yards from the river and swallowed a yelp of surprise when he saw a Xhlën standing a handful of feet from him, its featureless face a greyish-white and tilted to the left, as though regarding him, looming over him from a height of at least ten feet.
He didn’t move, didn’t blink. He didn’t dare. Not when a gentle whisper-touch of hopelessness brushed against his skin, like the tongue of a serpent scenting him. All around him the shadows cast by the campfire ten yards away lengthened and swayed, shifted and danced in a way no shadows should. The light of the campfire seemed the diminish with each passing moment, making the World darker and darker, with each moment, swallowed up by the undulating shadowy-darkness of its body.
After what felt like hours of silent staring waiting for the thing to attack him while the darkness of the night crept closer and closer and the soft click-chirrup he’d heard in Ahkshen echoed in the far distance, he couldn’t take it anymore and broke that silence. Because he was suddenly afraid of what would happen when he no longer had any light to see by, was terrified of finding out whether his impeccable night vision would be able to track a literal sentient shadow creature. Figured that so long as he had light to see it, if it attacked when he made even the tiniest of movements necessary to speak, he stood a better chance of surviving it.
“Why are you here?”
The undulating mass of shadows that made up its body shifted and a shadow-crafted hand extended towards him in a fist, fingers uncurling to show thirteen grey stones of varying sizes resting in its palm.
“What are these?”
The Xhlën shook that shadow-hand with an impatience that would have been amusing if he wasn’t so terrified and hesitantly Azriel reached out and took the stones. Soon as he did the creature was gone and all sound and light returned to normal in time for the perimeter wards he’d thrown up to announce that Rhyshladlyn was approaching the campsite.
He had but a minute to turn and face the furious form of his Qishir before he touched down, true face leaking through patches in his glamour, all eight wings snapping wide to keep him balanced as his forward moment ended in a split second. The sight of him stirred something deep in Azriel, a primal urge that he couldn’t explain but knew he didn’t really have to when their link blew wide and his qahllyn came to purring life between them and Rhyshladlyn’s fury and hatred and sense of betrayal and deep rooted disappointment slammed across the clearing. For a moment he stood frozen much like he had when that Xhlën had appeared but it didn’t last long.
He responded to that fury, hatred, betrayal, and disappointment with gentle laps of his own power, of the love he’d carried across the River into the After and back into the living realm, that he’d harbored for literal centuries, of the gentle Acceptance only a Dhaoine Oathed to a Qishir had. Rhyshladlyn didn’t respond to any of it, but he didn’t expect for him to. Just sank to one knee in full respect, the fist holding those stones pressed over his heart.
It wasn’t until he’d done so that he noticed that Rhyshladlyn had not arrived alone.
That unnamed female knelt in the dirt half hidden by Rhyshladlyn’s legs, and if terror had a humanoid form? It would be her.
High Ones See us all.
The compulsion to present himself to Rhyshladlyn washed over him and he was so thankful he had already taken a knee because he did not doubt that he’d have fallen. He stared at that trembling female whose hands were fisted in the tattered remains of Rhyshladlyn’s breeches, blue eyes wide and filled with unshed tears, as the rest of the Grey Court stepped outside the tent and knelt in the dirt and grass behind him. When they were all there, he looked up at Rhyshladlyn as he tensed and side-stepped, left leg twitching and dislodging that female who fell forward with a swallowed groan.
As she struggled to push herself up Azriel caught sight of the holes along her spine through her torn shirt, the wounds obvious against the backdrop of bruised skin, blood still oozing from them. He swallowed and his hand tightened around the stones the Xhlën had handed him. What is going on?
“Tell them what you told me, Axcil,” Rhyshladlyn’s voice was biting in a way Azriel had never heard it, not even when he’d witnessed him commit matricide had it held that edge. No, this edge was something new, something deadly, something that came after trauma and pain so profound it was either one became this or they broke irreparably.
And yet again he found himself wondering what his Qishir had suffered in the four hundred plus years he’d been away from the Court. Wondered if perhaps something or someone had kept him away. That it hadn’t been all conscious effort on his part.
Fuck if that isn’t a terrifying thought.
“I am thrice-and-ten Touched, honored with anointment and the stones to prove it,” Axcil’s voice shook as she finally managed to get her legs under her and knelt with her head down, shaking hands curled into fists on her thighs. “The Anointed One gave each of us our stones, ones he carved and embedded personally, and sent us on our way with a mission and his blessing.”
She glanced sidelong at Rhyshladlyn who raised an eyebrow, condescension thick enough to choke on dripping from the action. But she didn’t continue just stared at her hands and gave a minute shake her head in refusal.
Rhyshladlyn growled and flicked his left hand and Axcil’s back arched as a guttural howl was punched out of her mouth, her eyes wide and glassy with pain.
“Remember what we discussed, nshiiet,” Rhyshladlyn’s voice dripped danger and dark promises as he leaned down next to Axcil’s ear. “What I did to you in Ahkshen is not even close to what I am capable of and I will enjoy very much taking you apart piece by piece until all that remains of you is a husk that once fancied itself a proper Grey Soul Healer.”
Axcil’s eyes narrowed and she whipped around to glare at the Qishir who stood back to his full height, wings tucked docilely against his back but twitching just enough for anyone with half a brain to recognize the warning of those tiny movements.
But if Axcil recognized it, the female didn’t heed it.
“I am a Grey Soul Healer! I earned those stones, I was anointed and blessed! I received my knotwork!” She scrambled to her feet and invaded Rhyshladlyn’s personal space, poking his chest with a finger. The campfire spluttered and sparked but neither the Qishir nor the female seemed to notice. But Azriel did.
He also noticed the way the ground trembled. Noticed the way the air became thick and hot. Noticed the way heat shimmers danced above Rhyshladlyn’s skin. Noticed the way the dark green of the grass and the rich brown of the dirt faded slowly to grey as he sucked the life out of them. And with each warning of the the Qishir losing more and more control of his temper, he wished he and the rest of the Court weren’t kept in place by an attend order. If only because he wasn’t completely certain Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t just blanket the entire area with his rage.
“Just because you weren’t given the honor–” Axcil made a choking sound and stumbled back a step, hands fluttering at her throat.
Rhyshladlyn stared at her with disgust-filled eyes, face twisted with a frown. He snapped his fingers and Azriel jumped when Relyt was magickally carried through the air to Rhyshladlyn’s side. With another finger-snap Relyt’s shirt was gone showing the gretluos that curled down around his bicep from the curve of his shoulder and stopped just below the bend of his elbow.
“This is a real Grey Soul Healer, marked by the gretluos and gretkewq he earned through proper trials and testing. Your Anointed One is not the king of the Grey Soul Healer race, not by a long shot, because only one Gret’yinl is born at a time, and the current one is standing before you,” Rhyshladlyn’s voice sliced through the air and left tiny cuts all over Axcil as he advanced one step then another towards her. “There is no honor in what you and your bastard leader have done. There is no honor in what he sanctioned Iköl and Xael to do to me. There is no honor in what you did to me.”
Axcil twisted her hands through the air in a complicated pattern, moving too fast for Azriel to track the magick she pulled forth before it was gone and she gulped in a deep breath of air.
“There is honor in bringing justice against the Coward King by any and all means necessary.”
Rhyshladlyn blanched at her words and closed his eyes, head bowed as he shook. Relyt just stared at him, unable to move towards him or away, grey eyes filled with pain and disgust in equal measure, mouth contorted in a frown that darkened his eyes until they were nearly black while the firelight glinted and fractured off his gretkewq.
“What? Have nothing to say now?” Axcil scoffed and crossed her arms with a triumphant smirk. “Figures. You always were such a coward. No wonder no one–”
She dropped to the ground with a heavy thud, her head twisted all the way around on her neck. Azriel wasn’t the only one who yelled in surprise. He hadn’t seen Rhyshladlyn move — *because he didn’t,* Malkuth supplied — and he hadn’t felt him use magick. But despite that Axcil lay dead in the dirt in front of him, her clear blue eyes unseeing, face locked in a grimace of the pain she’d felt in the brief second before death had taken hold.
High Ones prevail us, how did he even do that?
The attend released as Rhyshladlyn opened his eyes and let out a deep breath, shoulders rolling as his wings stowed.
Azriel rose slowly and shakily to his feet, approaching the Qishir carefully. He might not be afraid of the other male, but it didn’t mean he was stupid. Rhyshladlyn met his gaze and his expression softened, his power a gentle touch against his frayed nerves.
“Do you have the stones?” Rhyshladlyn asked.
“Yes,” he answered, not bothering to ask how the Greywalker had known that he would have come into possession of them, and dropped them into Rhyshladlyn’s outstretched hand.
“So Relyt,” the Qishir said conversationally, tone light as he turned and looked at the Soul Healer who raised both his eyebrows in a what, I didn’t do anything expression that would have been comical if it weren’t for what had just happened, “wanna explain how a group of Dhaoine that aren’t remotely related to your kind happened to get their hands on genuine gretkewqi?”