81

Battle shouldn’t be such a shock to her. Not after four hundred plus years of it. But after a couple months spent pulled from the Fields, the depravity of those that fought in the churning and bloodied dirt caught her off guard. The viciousness with which they absolutely destroyed one a other had always been astounding, had reminded her of her Qishir at the height of his ruthlessness, when the absolute Truth of him peered out at the Worlds. When nothing could stop him, when he wouldn’t allow anything to so much as slow him down.

But she fell into her stride pretty quickly. Parried blow after blow with her tridents, ducked and dodged, threw curses and countercurses, hexes and spells. She fought back to back with Adïmshyl and countless others, always moving, always on alert. It felt so freeing to be reduced to such baser instincts; where one wrong move could see her maimed or worse. The stakes were high here and where she had balked at them at the start of the war, now she welcomed them. Now she reveled in them.

Reveled in the huh-twang of her bowstring as she loosed arrow after arrow. The meaty thunks of them connecting with her targets the heartbeat of her war dance.

Reveled in the schink and clan-clank of her tridents as she bobbed and weaved among the throngs of warriors. The ring of metal on metal a counter-melody to her bow’s heartbeat.

Reveled in the way her staff swung heavy and thick in her hands, the vibrations of it shattering bone and disarming warrior after warrior satisfying in a way she’d never expected. The joyous yip-yip-hoo-oop it pulled from her throat the lyrics to the symphony she was creating.

She ran and dodged and struck and parried over and over and over again, her true face on clear display. Her magick clogged the air around her with shimmering humidity, making the mark of her race on her forehead glitter like a desert mirage. All around her the music of war, the thick heartbeat that thrummed alongside her own, was loud and beautiful.

As she took the head of a Sinner Demon from his neck and sent it winging base over crown into another opponent several feet away she figured she finally understood Rhyshladlyn’s preference for the Fields.

Here things were simple: kill or be killed.

And by the Webs, she wished things were that simple off the Fields.

Wished that she didn’t have the sinking suspicion that she was being played. After all, it would have been so easy for her to fall victim to such machinations and she would willingly admit to that fault of hers. She craved attention and would seek it out in any form it came in, even if that form was dangerous. It was part of how her and Adïmshyl had gotten together. She had sought attention and found it in the arms of the Head Healer’s partner and been assigned to the most famous ward of Riverbank, Adïmshyl, who had been forced to be there because of what he’d done, stamped as “unsalvageable” and dismissed as a lost cause. She had been assigned to his case to teach her a lesson and she had learned one, just not the one her superiors had expected of Ta’jaeha’s daughter.

The rest, as they say, was history.

A roar shook the air and she whirled around to track the sound as mud and blood and goopier things flung in all directions as something flew past her. When it landed her breath caught and she touched her sternum and then her race mark in reverence as a battle lull fell over the Field as every last Dhaoine became acutely aware of the Field’s newest arrival.

Thayne was murderous not that Thae’a could blame the General. All knew that Zhalharaq was nothing but rubble now, rubble and bodies and fires that still raged too strongly for rescuers to breech the City’s boundaries to search for survivors and bury the dead. Knew, too, that for all that it was the unofficial official seat of the Eighth Army, that Rhyshladlyn had given the Grey Army strict orders to leave it be. It was neutral land and yet for all that it had been that, one side had attacked it and the loss of life was somewhere between Shiran and Majik World as far as devastation levels went.

And to the surprise of no one with a brain, Thayne Firesbane took extreme exception to that.

She’d heard that Thayne was visiting every battlefield looking for those responsible, looking for a trace of the infamous Anointed One’s rank and file so she could eliminate them. But this was the first time Thae’a had seen her since Rhyshladlyn had ordered them to return to their duties nearly a week ago. And seeing her now? She understood full and well why Lulphé had named her eldest her heir, why Thayne was just as fearfully respected as her mother had been. Watching crimson eyes so eerily similar to her mother’s pass over them all, Thae’a understood why Thayne had come to be known as the Honorable Qishir. Because for all that she was murderous, she would not kill indiscriminately.

Thae’a didn’t think she could say the same of herself were she in the General’s shoes.

“Speak if you are one with the Anointed One,” Thayne’s voice carried across the still Field, all eyes on her. “Speak truthfully and I shall make your end swift and merciful. But should I find you on my own?”

The smile she turned on them all just then was so much like Rhyshladlyn’s that Thae’a felt fear trickle down her spine at the sight and marveled as it did at how much of their Qishir’s mannerisms they had all adopted. How even when he wasn’t physically with them, he was still there.

“Not even the gods will Hear you.”

No one spoke up save one: a short, malnourished Neflim Demon, mirror-blank eyes averted, eir fear a palpable thing that came off em in hurricane force waves. But something was off about it, like it wasn’t genuine, not really. She’d seen and felt genuine fear and what the Neflim gave off? It wasn’t that. Not by a long shot.

What game are you playing here? 

“I am one with the Anointed One, honored be he who showed us the proper way of things,” the neodrach answered, head bowed as ey spoke with a devotion that made Thae’a’s skin crawl with disgust.

“And your name?” Thayne demanded, the words carrying a whisper of an attend. A promise of compulsion if the Neflim neodrach didn’t comply willingly.

“Luapít Greymend.”

“No, that’s not possible,” Thae’a blurted before she could stop herself.

“Do you have any children, Rel?” she asked as she handed him a mug of his favorite tea. 

“That is such an odd question to ask out of the blue,” he said instead of actually answering, grey eyes glazed as he took a sip of his tea and hummed in appreciation. 

“I was just curious. Seems odd for one as old as you and as powerful to not feel the pull to settle down with someone and produce heirs,” she answered with a shrug, sinking into a chair on the opposite side of his map table. “We tried,” she continued on a whisper, hands curled protectively around her mug, “but so far we’ve been unsuccessful. And with the war going on now? We haven’t focused on trying. This isn’t a good time to be bringing children into the Worlds.” 

Relyt gave her a look she couldn’t decipher but nevertheless made her heart ache. 

“I had children,” he said at length, a soft, shaky smile pulling at his lips as he looked down at his tea. “Unfortunately, I buried them all.”

The Neflim looked at her with those strange mirror-like eyes and raised an eyebrow and Thae’a tried to tell herself that she didn’t see him in em.

“The Greymend line is survived only by Relyt Greymend,” Thayne hissed, manifesting her long sword into her right hand as she advanced on Luapít. “All children he sired are dead.”

The neodrach snorted, spreading eir arms wide as ey looked back at Thayne. “He made new children. Ones that would restore his honor.” Ey tilted eir head to the side and the smile that twisted eir thin lips made Thae’a want to feed em eir own teeth. “Read my signature, oh Honorable Qishir, and tell me if I lie when I say the esteemed, trusted Grey Steward is my sire.”

Thayne didn’t say anything, just launched at the Neflim with a ground-shaking snarl, but she didn’t need to. Thae’a was able to read the signature as well as anyone else around them. And it was just similar enough for it to be believable that this Luapít shared at least a familial tie to Relyt, if not direct blood.

As the battle lull shattered and she got pulled back in the fray, Thae’a had the absent thought that she wasn’t even that surprised that things had been hidden from her, that she had been lied to, only that it had taken her so long to find out the truth. Only that Rhyshladlyn hadn’t known about this… unless he had and had said nothing to any of them.

And just like that, the feeling she was being played increased tenfold.

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