Stumbling forward until he pressed his left shoulder to the stone beside the window opposite Eiod, he felt his heart pound against his breastbone, felt the Fear run in a river down his spine and spread out into his legs until his knees threatened to give out on him and fill his chest until his lungs wouldn’t let him draw a good enough breath. Seeing the waves of creatures moving across the snow-dotted sands of the desert that surrounded Ryphqi City reminded him too much of a time when the Hounds had attacked the cabin what felt like eons ago.
The terror that followed on the heels of that ping made his bones vibrate as he threw aside the covers and raced for the front door of the cabin, raced to put eyes on his Qishir seconds before the link between them began to close. He made it to the porch in time to watch Rhyshladlyn slice a Hound from lower jaw to groin and kick it away before he whirled to face another one, his hair-bells a sharp, high ringing counter-melody to his growls and snarls and the sounds the Hounds made. He gripped the railing of the porch hard enough to feel it give a little beneath his hands with a whine but he paid it no mind. He was too caught up in the beauty of his Qishir meeting one Hound after another and dispatching them with a ferocity, with a surety, with an accuracy he hadn’t had before Azriel had died. He shuddered, steeled himself, called in his sword, and vaulted the railing to wade into the fray.
Relyt called Rhyshladlyn’s name behind him but before he could do more than think about snapping at the idiot not to distract him, four Hounds were converging on him and he was too busy trying not to get overrun.
But he ignored that fear, ignored the memories it and the sight of the Hounds brought roaring to the fore, because he didn’t have any other choice. Not with that many Hounds, Oiki, and Xhlëndïr descending upon the City, not with them smacking into the Shield that Ryphqi had erected with just enough time to spare with enough force the impact rumbled across the City. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slow and willed it to calm him, willed himself to ground, to be centered and even paced. Because he had to be. His Qishir wasn’t here to do it for him, to do it for them all, so it was left up to him.
He pushed off the wall with a feeling like the disaster that was surrounding the City was just the beginning. And he really didn’t fucking like that feeling.
*Make that all of us,* Malkuth murmured testily across their link.
*That’s an understatement,* Azuna commented and their laughter eased him enough that he could relax his jaw enough to speak.
“Jerald, you’re with me. We need to reach our respective Watchtowers before that Shield falls. Eiod, you’re going to join with the Second Army and start working to evacuate as many people as possible via the tunnels. Thae’a, make a Weave like what you did in Shiran with…” he took a deep breath, steeled himself, let it out and continued, “…with Rhyshladlyn to distract the Hounds. It may not work with the Oiki and the Xhlëndïr but right now my main concern is the Hounds. Make a false City and people running towards the main, above ground gates. Adïmshyl, join the other Demons and Benders with strengthening that Shield and add whatever Barriers to it that you can. I don’t need you to hold them off indefinitely, just long enough for me and Jerald to touch the Watchtowers. Once we link up with the City again, I should be able to tap into its full resources and keep it held together long enough to get everyone out or take out the creatures, whichever happens first.”
He didn’t wait to see if they’d heard him, didn’t wait to see if they moved towards their assignments, didn’t wait for them to get done blinking through the shock or to ask questions. He just turned on his heel and made to run down the hallway back the way they’d come when Thae’a’s voice rang out, “How will we communicate?”
Malkuth shivered into visibility around his neck and Raynfa landed on his left shoulder with a rustle of feathers at the same time that Azuna and Lycarn and Kitteia manifested behind him. He felt them assign themselves to their specific tasks and people. Azuna would move with Adïmshyl, Lycarn would move with Jerald, Kitteia would move with Thae’a, and Raynfa would be their eyes over the entire City and make sure that nothing snuck up on them.
“Oh,” he heard Thae’a say and he smirked, “I always forget he has Others. Which is so fuckin’ dumb.”
“To be fair,” Eiod replied, laughter making his accent thicker, “I practically live with him and I forget constantly.”
Jerald’s very masculine laughter made his smirk broaden into a grin as he felt the Alphenian racing up behind him before he fell easily into step with him on his right side, Lycarn running between them. Together they sprinted down hallways, dodged doorways and Dhaoine both slaves and not, rounded corners in a blur of speed that brought a whoop from his throat unbidden. He’d always been more at home in battle than he had anywhere else. That same deep masculine laughter rumbled out of Jerald’s throat again as they took the first staircase two at a time. He shared a grin with the Alphenian that reminded him painfully and suddenly of the ones he’d shared with his Qishir on the Fields with the bodies of their enemies and allies piling up by the second, of the ones he’d shared with Relyt in their bed with… with Rhyshladlyn, you’re going to have to get used to saying his name again, spread between them. It was a grin that spoke of thousands of shared memories and thousands of inside jokes that couldn’t be explained to anyone who wasn’t there at their inception. It was a grin that was more than just the connection two qahllynshæ had with each other through their Qishir.
And he knew in that moment why Jerald had been chosen as… as Rhys…hladlyn’s Warrior. Jerald fit so easily at his side as though he’d always been there, as though the time Azriel had spent with Relyt had also been shared with Jerald even though he knew it hadn’t. Even though he knew that the last three hundred years had been spent doing everything he could to keep the Court together, to keep them all alive, to keep himself alive, because in their Qishir’s absence, none of them had had the motivation to keep going. Him least of all. Though Relyt had been a close second. And in that moment, as he ran down more hallways, took more stairways two at a time, and dodged more palace staff with Jerald not even winded at his side as he kept perfect pace, Lycarn loping between them, he regretted that he hadn’t focused on forging a stronger bond with the other member of their Triad. But even without that stronger bond, the grin they’d shared had told him he could trust Jerald explicitly. Told him that he’d never question his motivations, that he’d never wonder whether his jealousy being quieted was more important than the safety and well being of everyone else in the Court. Because Jerald had been a slave, an unwilling one at that, and he still bore the scars to prove it. He still flew awake screaming in the middle of the night, still forgot to eat, still flinched when Thayne’s voice snapped out in the way only a Qishir’s could. And because of that Azriel trusted that the Alphenian wouldn’t stray, not purposefully.
He looked away from that grin and the memories and the feelings it brought up because he couldn’t afford the distraction. Not right now. When they survived this, if they survived this, he’d focus on it. But until then he’d put all his power and strength into his speed to eat up the distance as he and Jerald hit the main doors of the palace and spilled out into the City and the cacophony of sound that filled it. Because right now, they had to survive.
He felt Ryphqi shake itself awake in a way that was felt beneath and not in a way that was felt physically and he shivered, unable to help it when he felt that old and yet young awareness touch his mind and coo in an elation he didn’t feel was warranted. He wasn’t the Qishir, the Greywalker, tethered to its Heart. He was barely even the Companion tethered to the corresponding Tower. Ryphqi shouldn’t be that excited to sense him.
“Has it always been this…” he glanced over and saw Jerald flapping a hand, face scrunched up as he searched for the right word, one of the few times that not knowing the Alphenian’s native language made things difficult, “…excited? Elated? Am I using the right word?”
He shrugged when those brown eyes swung to him, the honeyed depths of them rippling in a peculiar way that told him Jerald had his power simmering at the surface, waiting to unleash it.
“I’m not sure. I’ve been in Ryphqi a few times since our Qishir’s disappearance but I don’t remember it ever feeling this happy to see me. Or feel me, rather.”
“Gods willing that means something good,” Jerald commented but he didn’t respond because he didn’t want to take his hope from him.
They trailed off into silence as the City came alive around them and the sounds of evacuating citizens and Eiod’s booming voice relaying the message Rhyshladlyn had thundered across the Steward Corps camp all those centuries ago about how to fight Oiki, adding in information about Hounds filled in the spaces their silence left behind. But he didn’t feel compelled to fill those spaces himself, didn’t feel compelled to do anything but run, to cross the cobblestones of the palace’s main courtyard, dodge around the Steward Tower that sprouted from those stones like a giant black shadow that was now glowing a blinding gold. Like someone had taken the sun and stretched it out before planting it in the ground.
He frowned as he ran, giving that Tower a surreptitious glance as he passed it, wondering not for the first time why Alaïs and the Second Qishir had decided to rebuild the palace at the base of the Steward’s Tower and not the Companion’s like every other City across the Worlds. Wondered not for the first time why he didn’t feel the thrumming call from that Tower like he had before. Wondered not for the first time if there was more to the memories he had of tearing out Relyt’s throat than he yet realized. But he didn’t dwell on them. He didn’t have the time. So he just shook his head and refocused on the job at hand, at the goal before him as Jerald called out over the cacophony around them that he was breaking off.
Looking at the Alphenian he held out his right fist and watched as Jerald stared at him with wide eyes, knowing that he hadn’t touched anyone in three hundred years unless it was absolutely necessary or entirely unavoidable. But to his credit, Jerald didn’t question it, just smiled wide enough to show all of his teeth, and knocked his fist against his own.
“See you on the other side of this bullshit?”
The smile he threw over his shoulder as he ran past the intersection where Jerald would turn right and continue on to the Warrior’s Tower hurt his face to make but he knew it was exactly what he should have done with Jerald’s own smile got wider. Knew that it touched his eyes in a way that no smile had in a good long while by the sparks of light that flew across his periphery.
“You fucking better,” he answered.
Jerald’s deep, rumbling laugh that reminded him so much of Rhyshladlyn’s own when it was startled out of him, that pure, unadulterated laughter that left him gasping for air, doubled over as he clutched his sides and shook, followed him down the road. Danced with Raynfa’s cry as he took to the air, caught an updraft, and went wheeling up and over the buildings that rose to either side of the street.
With a deep breath, he settled into the pace of his running stride and kept his eyes on the Companion Watchtower that sprouted on the other side of the Qishir’s Tower that Ryphqi’s Great Temple curled around like a sleeping snakat. Settled in and tried to ignore the rising sense of panic that was crawling up his legs.
When that rising panic hit his knees, he prayed. Prayed to the High Ones, to the Nameless, to the Soullessly Heartfelt, to the Faceless, to any and every god that still listened to Their children, that would hear him.
Please let us get there in time.