38

Tears burned his cheeks as he whirled around and pressed his back against the stone of the Tower. Feeling Rh… Rhy… his Qishir’s magick again for the first time in three hundred years had been something he hadn’t prepared for. Feeling the way his qahllyn had crowed its happiness at feeling that connection again, even if it was just with residual magick, even if it was just through the link that tethered the entire Grey Triad and their Qishir to this one Sanctuary City, had stolen his breath and brought a sob from his throat before he could swallow it down. Even as he heard the Shield give way, even as the sounds of screams hit a fever pitch, even as the sounds of Hounds and Oiki and Xhlëndïr converging on the City and the citizens who hadn’t made it out yet thickened the air around him, he couldn’t breathe passed the sudden and intense grief that made him feel like he weighed two hundred pounds more than he did. Couldn’t think passed the way he could hear Rh…Rhyshladlyn’s laughter, rolling and sweet and dark and filled with promises as it danced around him, as it buffeted his skin like an angry wind.

Because he had been prepared for a lot of things when he touched his Watchtower, when he and Jerald reestablished their tether to Ryphqi City, but feeling the echo of the Qishir he had lost hadn’t been one of those things. Feeling Relyt’s grief at a distance and from behind a thousand closed doors and nearly that many Shields and Jerald’s awe and Alaïs’ fear, only made it worse somehow. Because he knew that Rhyshladlyn would have known exactly what to do with the power of a City at his disposal. Knew the Qishir wouldn’t have hesitated before harnessing it to the best advantage for everyone before he moved and got shit done.

But the High Ones See him, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. He thought he’d handled his grief. Thought that the three days he’d spent getting his qahllyn’qir inked as tattoos beneath his skin had allowed him to move on enough to be a decent substitute for the Qishir they all needed, the Qishir he most certainly wasn’t. But he had been so very, very wrong.

*Master?* Malkuth’s voice made him jump and loose a shout, his eyes flying open, hands coming up in a reflexive movement. Normally the Other laughed at him whenever he managed to startle him. But this time he didn’t and that told Azriel more than anything else that he wasn’t Shielding, that everything he was feeling his Others were as well. It also told him that he was more out of it than he should be, than was safe, than was healthy. Gods, we’re in the middle of a fuckin’ crisis and I’m breaking apart. I’m stronger than this.

*You don’t have to be, Master Azriel,* Lycarn’s voice was quiet and gentle, more so than he’d ever heard it before.

*That’s why you have us,* Kitteia added.

*Where you can’t be strong,* Raynfa began, *we shall be it for you,* Azuna finished and he made a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sob.

None of them commented on it but he didn’t need them to. It wasn’t necessary. Because their presence was more than enough. Taking a deep breath he nodded and shoved everything into a box and kicked it into a random room to deal with later, promising his Others that he really would. Because he couldn’t afford to ignore it and have it blow up on him when he least expected it, when he needed to be focused. And if the Worlds were being overrun by the three deadliest magickal creatures to ever exist? Well, he needed to be at the top of his game. Anything less just wasn’t acceptable.

*We’ve got incoming,* Malkuth almost sounded afraid and it made him open his eyes in time to see a Hound come around the bend in the road in front of him, body low to the ground, golden eyes filled with an emotion he recognized vaguely but didn’t really have the words to describe. It opened its mouth, black tongue rolling out to swing down between those eyes, its teeth already bloody with pieces of what he didn’t doubt were Dhaoine stuck between them. It wailed at him and he rolled his shoulders, releasing his wings with a snap of displaced air and a roar of his own that made the City tremble before Ryphqi echoed the sound.

He smiled as three more Hounds joined that first one as he reached back and over his shoulders, fingers curling around the hilts of the swords he’d called in when he’d released his wings. It was still weird feeling them, still weird to have them, like he was doing something he shouldn’t by wielding them but it was all he had left besides his tattooed qahllyn’qir to tie him to Rhyshladlyn. A flash of iridescent color had him glancing to the left and right at the side roads that branched off from the open square the Companion Watchtower stood in, feeling his stomach drop out. Fuck, not Oiki, too. Not so soon.

He tried not to let the knowledge that he was surrounded and facing Hounds and Oiki simultaneously and alone get to him. Tried not to let the Oikis’ natural ability to make a Dhaoine crave death consume him. Because he was not strong enough to resist it for long. Not after feeling the remnants of his Qishir’s power touch his Self through his tether to Ryphqi. Not when he drew Mallacht and Beannacht with a pair of ringing twangs that sounded almost like Rhyshladlyn’s hair-bells always had. Not when he would give anything, would do anything, to have his Qishir, his mate, his Rhyshladlyn back at his side. Even if that meant dying himself.

But he wouldn’t die, no matter how much he wanted to, no matter how much easier that would make things. Because his Others had been right. He wasn’t alone, he had them, he had the entire Grey Court and the Honorable Court. And when he wasn’t strong enough, his Others would be for him. So would his family.

And for now, that would have suffice.

With another roar he launched at the Hounds in front of him, hands gripping the hilts of Rhyshladlyn’s old swords tighten enough that he felt the worn leather that wrapped around the hilts bite into his palms and the underside of his fingers. He let out a yip of a sound that turned into something like laughter as he twirled and sliced Mallacht through a Hound, as he flicked his wrist and tossed Beannacht at an Oiki as it reared up at him, piercing its scaleless underbelly easily. It was so easy to fall into the ebb and flow of battle, as second nature as breathing. As second nature to him as searching out Rhyshladlyn in a room, on a Field, in a crowded market. He sank into the fighting, into slicing and dodging and parrying and ducking and running and kicking. He let it settle nerves he hadn’t realized were so frayed. Let it soothe the sharp edges of his grief, let it dull them enough that he could think clearer with each Hound killed, with each Oiki sent sailing through the air to smack into a group of Hounds or a building or the Watchtower he was careful to keep in sight.

For the first time since he’d found the Qishir’s swords in the Forest of Dreams and Darkness after he’d disappeared, Azriel didn’t feel guilty for holding onto them, for using them. Because he needed to feel like Rhyshladlyn fought beside him now, like he stood beside him now. He needed to feel like even though they were separated, that Rhyshladlyn was still right beside him. Even when it didn’t feel like it. Especially when it didn’t feel like it.

“Even when I’m not there, Az, I will always fight beside you, I will always stand beside you, I will always defend you. No matter what happens or why, I will always be there. Even if you can’t see me.”

“You promise?” he felt guilty for questioning him, but he had to hear it, needed to hear it.

Rhyshladlyn just smiled at him, that fond, careless, beautiful smile that turned his eyes into captured suns and made his entire face light up as he nodded. “I promise on all that I am and ever shall be.”

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