39

He blinked and blinked again. And again. But no matter how many times he blinked it didn’t take away the vision before him. Didn’t clear the confusion that had settled as thick and as heavy as the collar around his throat at the sight of his arm extended, the sword he gripped in his left hand tight enough that his knuckles were white, the blade itself piercing the chest of a Hound that was staring at him with something like astonishment and confusion. That makes two of us, cousin.

It didn’t even try to stop him as he twisted the sword and felt it slice through the Hound’s heart before he pulled it out and was moving on muscle memory alone to face whatever came next. As he turned away from the dead Hound at his feet, sound rushed back in and he heard the screams of Dhaoine, of slaves, of Guards, fighting off other Hounds and if the flashes of iridescent light was what he thought it was, they were also unlucky enough to be facing Oiki at the exact same time.

Shifting his grip on the sword he took stock of the hallway and found a Guard being stalked by four Hounds that had all but surrounded em. With a growl that trickled out and shook the air despite his lack of power, he ran forward and leapt onto the back of the nearest Hound, gripping the tip of the blade with his right hand and the hilt with his left to chop its head from its neck as he landed, the body going limp immediately. He rode it down, tossing his head back to the ringing chime of bells as he hissed at the Hound to his right when it turned and wailed at him. It blinked and flinched back, clearly not expecting what appeared to be an Imènian wielding a sword and strong enough to kill one of its kind hiss at it. He stared it down until he felt the attention of its two fellows shift to him before he cocked back his now bleeding right hand and punched it right between the eyes, delighting in the way it teetered and fell backwards with a noise like snapping bone. He was twirling before it even hit the floor, tossing his sword upward as he did so. Planting his right foot as he completed the turn, he swung out with his left and kicked the Hound on his left in the face hard enough that its head snapped almost all the way around on its neck. It wasn’t dead, but that was fine. The time it would take for it to recover was more than enough time for him to catch his sword as it fell back in front of him, for him to slice the Hound rushing towards him, utterly ignoring the Guard it had been intent on killing not three minutes before, clear from the top of its head to its groin.

He loosed a shout of battle elation as the one he’d nearly broken the neck of got its shit together and rushed him at the same time as the one he’d punched out. He grinned, winked at the Guard who was staring at him with eyes so wide it looked like they were trying to consume the upper half of eir face, and jumped just as the Hounds were close enough he could feel their rotted breath on his skin. The impact of them colliding made his bones thrum. Twisting in mid-air, he flipped his sword in his hand and took off both their heads as he came down, landing solidly on his feet as the wet twump of those heads echoed around him as the blood mist fell like soft rain.

“Ho-how does an Imènian slave know how to fight like that?” the neodrach Guard spluttered and he tilted his head at em.

“If you think I’m an Imènian, let alone a slave, you should find a new profession,” he answered cryptically before he sidestepped around em and ran towards the next mini battle.

He waded into the fray with a sense not of urgency but of coming home. He fell into the motions that were as second nature to him as breathing. He didn’t feel the Oikis’ incessant press of wanting to die. He didn’t feel the Xhlëndïr’s cold that left everyone else around him shivering. He didn’t feel the fear the Hounds wrought. Part of him wondered if it was because he wasn’t Dhaoinic with the collar on but rather Imènian. Another part of him wondered if it was because he knew if he died here that he’d be free, that he’d have the chance to be reborn, to find his way home.

Whatever the reason, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t slow down. Just jumped right in, swinging his sword to and fro with the same deadly accuracy he’d wielded Mallacht and Beannacht. At the thought of his swords, he felt a pang of loss for the lack of them but he tamped it down. Letting out his breath in a whoosh he ducked the swipe of an Oiki’s talons, severing the arm at the elbow joint, ducking out of the way of its other front leg and suddenly the World tilted upside before pain thundered along every nerve of his back. He screamed before his brain had even registered the enormity of the issue as he collided with a wall on the other side of the hallway, barely getting his hands up in time to protect his face, but not quick enough to soften the impact.

He blinked and found himself on his back on the floor with a Hound staring down at him, its mouth dropped open, that tongue brushing across the bare skin of his abdomen, its corrosive saliva stinging where it landed. But he didn’t focus on it to see if it would eat through his skin to the muscles and bones beneath. If it did, he didn’t want to know because he didn’t have Nhulynolyn and Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú to keep his mind intact if that happened. So he stared up at the Hound and knew that this was it. Knew in the way time slowed down while not actually going any slower than it had been that he’d broken his back, that something was way more wrong than he was aware of because his body felt numb. His arms didn’t want to obey his orders to lift and fend off that mouth with its too many teeth. His legs didn’t feel like they existed anymore.

Nameless, when I get to the River, please don’t let me loiter in the After overlong. I want to rejoin my family as soon as possible. Please.

In a handful of seconds that seemed to take years, his adrenaline began to fade away and with its loss he was reminded that he was still injured. That when everything had gone tits up and sideways, Xitlali and Hujiel hadn’t gotten him more than a few hallways down from his new room before a Guard had run up to them, breathlessly saying that there were Hounds and Oiki and rumors of Xhlëndïr as well within the metropolis. That they were rapidly nearing the palace. But he hadn’t managed to get out more than that, Xitlali and Hujiel hadn’t been able to say anything either, when a Hound had suddenly appeared around the corner and he’d reacted before any of them could. Had taken the Guard’s sword from his hip with his left hand and roll-stepped around him, throwing it down the hallway before he’d even fully caught sight of the Hound again.

Everything after that moment was a blur of memories, of fighting, of sounds, of sights, of death and the dying and the wounded. Now he stared up at the Hound that would likely be the thing that finally killed him, that finally freed him and he was okay with that. Because at least now he’d get to see Azriel sooner rather than later.

But no blow came. No teeth. No burning saliva or deadly blood. Just that stillness, that waiting, that slowed down time. And then just like earlier sound came rushing back in and with it the World exploded into a riot of orange flame and heat.

He didn’t even have time to scream before darkness rose up like a great beast from the depths of the ocean and consumed him.

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