She watched him pace along the edge of the large table, eyes riveted on the map spread across it, memorizing the changes to the Worlds that he had missed while stuck in the in between. He moved with all the banked violence that his twin had and something else, something darker. Sure he looked and felt like her mate but his time away, the manner in which he’d come back, the state of things over all, had changed him. Not a lot, but enough that she took notice, that she saw it in the thousands of tiny mannerisms that were just different enough that when stacked together they made a warning flag nearly as large as she was tall.
He moved like the war veteran he was, like the warrior he had been, like the shadow that followed death when it walked the Worlds. For that was what he was. That was what his name meant: death’s endless shadow, a perfect match to Rhyshladlyn who was death’s cold embrace and several other definitions that held the same basic meaning. But of all the times she’d seen him in battle, of all the times she’d seen him step up and act like the general he’d never been officially called, she had never once seen the look that contorted his face as he stared at the Worlds map. Had never seen him chew absently at the end of a thumbnail as the rest of his fingers curled under his chin. Had never seen him with a look that was a cross between fury, confusion, and abject horror.
And by the Great Mother’s quivering bits, it unnerved her.
“So you going to leave us in suspense on what was so damn important you dragged us all out of bed in the middle of the night?” Eiod asked from where he was leaning against a wall behind the chair Jerald sat in, arms crossed over his chest, legs crossed at the ankles, amber eyes hooded. For all he looked relaxed she knew better. He was sleepless and cranky with it, they all were. But where she knew that Nhulynolyn wouldn’t have roused them all from their beds in the dead of night hours from dawn without good cause, Eiod didn’t. At least, not in the realistic sense.
Nhulynolyn dropped his hand from his mouth and looked at the Sinner-Anglëtinean, a shadow slipping behind his eyes and making them as dark as Shadiranamen’s for half a heartbeat before it was gone.
“Three hundred years ago somethin’ happened that rendered my twin cut off from me an’ my fellow Otherborn. I was the last to go, the last one whose connection to him was severed an’ what I felt that day was the same thing I felt when he brought me back from the in between.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slow and shaky and by the Great Mother and Father she wanted to go to him but he wasn’t her mate just then, he was the only person who as far as the Court was concerned was of equal, or higher, standing than Azriel. He stood before them not as Nhulynolyn Ka’ahne but as Rhyshladlyn’s first Other, his voice when the Qishir himself could not speak. So as much as she wanted to, she stayed where she was in her own chair, arms crossed under her breasts while she watched him and waited for the answers to the questions they all had, answers only he could provide.
“I didn’t realize until a few nights ago that the band of what felt like white fire around our neck was a collar made out of the purest silver an’ filled with power that, at the time it was placed around our neck, was at least two times stronger than Rhys.” Those eyes drifted around the room, looking at each of them in turn before they looked back at the map in front of him as he leaned forward and pressed his hands against the tabletop. “The only thing capable of overpowering a Greywalker like that is millions of Dhaoine workin’ in tandem with each other with a single purpose in mind: to focus their magick in either chaos or order so that the Greywalker they’re aimin’ it at can’t Balance it out fast enough.”
“But he wasn’t attacked, there were no signs in the entirety of the Forest that spoke to a battle.” Thayne interjected, nodding at Azriel as she continued, “Uncle checked, he walked every single league of that place searching for even an echo of Rhys’ signature. He found the path he took, found where he walked into the Sanctuary of the Blessedly Cursed and then the trail went cold. If Rhys had fought before this collar you speak of had been put on him? There would have been a blast zone, there would have been something to prove he had fought.”
Nhulynolyn looked at Thayne and Bayls saw the answer in his eyes, in his face, in the way his jaw clenched.
“That’s because he didn’t fight,” she answered instead of her mate. When those electric blue eyes swung to her she leaned forward in her chair and prayed as she spoke the next part that she was wrong but knowing even as she did so that she wasn’t. “He was either ambushed, tricked, or betrayed. That’s the only reason our Qishir wouldn’t have fought back,
The Other pointed at her and clicked his tongue. “Bingo.”
“By the Webs,” Thae’a whispered, voice hushed and filled with an emotion too raw to focus on as she huddled deeper into the circle of Adïmshyl’s arms where they wrapped around her waist from behind.
“As much as that is… concerning,” Jerald said, “that doesn’t explain why we are all gathered here, right now, in the middle of the night, to hear information that could have been discussed after dawn broke.”
“Think about it, Jerry,” Jaro piped up, eyes the darkest blue she’d ever seen them but with streaks of green that glowed like snakat eyes in flame light. “If there wasn’t a battle, then how did they subdue the one Dhaoine in the Worlds who would not go quietly? Because a simple magicked collar wouldn’t do that. For fuck’s sake, Rhyshladlyn couldn’t even be contained for long inside a containment Shield powered by hundreds of the Worlds’ strongest warriors. A mere piece of silver certainly wouldn’t cut it.”
The silence that followed that question was loud in a way that Bayls had never heard silence be before. It beat at her eardrums and made her teeth thrum and her bones ache. Reminded her of the way she’d felt watching Rhyshladlyn lift his hand what felt like lifetimes ago in a containment Shield and rip out his own throat as he spoke an Oathing Sacrifice to try and save his Companion.
For several minutes no one said anything until Ishmariel startled and came half out of his chair, face twisted with an emotion she had never seen before on anyone. Everyone turned and looked at him but he had eyes only for Nhulynolyn.
“The jarred Selves!” the Honorable Warrior blurted. “By all the gods in the Worlds, that maeshir used those Selves to power the collar!”
Nhulynolyn nodded as everyone made sounds of horror, shock, and every shade of emotion in between.
“An’ what is the only thing that Xitlali could have done to keep Rhys hidden from any of you searchin’ him out, kept me an’ my fellows from gettin’ to him, all of that, for this long?”
“They rendered him Imènian,” Alaïs and Y’adtrik said in unison.
Motherfucking son of a bitch.
“So, gettin’ back full circle to Eiod’s question,” Nhulynolyn smirked but it held not a single trace of mirth, “I woke all of you cuz now we know the how an’ the when. Now we need to figure out why an’ how to fuckin’ undo it.”
“We need to figure out where all those Selves came from,” Azriel spoke up, voice filled with an undulating darkness, a promise of pain, eyes cold and hard when he looked up from where he’d been staring down at his feet. She shuddered when that gaze passed over her and worked its way around the room. “And once we know where they came from, we figure out how to take them back and put them where they belong.”
“Would that undo the spellwork though?” Adïmshyl asked.
Azriel shrugged but that expression didn’t soften, his eyes didn’t thaw out, if anything it all intensified. “There is no certainty that it would. But if the only thing keeping that collar powered is those Selves and the energy each of them brought to it? Then basic magickal theory dictates that once we remove the power source, the spell will either unravel or weaken enough that it can be broken by other means.”
“Rhys’ power is leaking out around the collar. It’s weakening enough that he was not only able to physically reach into the in between an’ pull me out, but he tossed me across the Worlds like it was nothin’,” Nhulynolyn murmured from where he stood staring down at the map again, eyes moving like he was looking for something. As though if he just searched long enough, looked hard enough, the location of his twin’s whereabouts would leap out at him.
Gods if only we were so lucky.
“So the spellwork is already weakened or weakening,” Alaïs commented.
“It’s the only explanation I can think of for how he managed it,” Nhulynolyn answered.
“Sweet, now we just have to find him and pull the rest of the Selves from it,” Y’adtrik muttered and there were murmurs around the room of agreement.
“Don’t forget making sure that no more get added,” Ishmariel quipped.
“Oh, well that sounds easy enough,” Jerald said with a snort and there was a smattering of snickers and fuckin’ right‘s in response.
As everyone broke off into smaller conversations, she looked back at Nhulynolyn who was once again staring down at the table and the map it held as though all the answers he needed were there. And the sight of that look on his face finally pushed her from her chair, pulled her towards him like the moth to the flame. She couldn’t resist his pull even if she wanted to.
He jumped slightly when she touched the back of his hand and she meant his gaze with a tilt of her head and narrowed eyes as she searched his face, searched the eyes that were the most noticeable difference between him and the twin whose likeness he shared.
“We’ll find him, Nully,” she whispered the words but it may as well have been a shout given the way the room fell quiet in stages as everyone focused on them.
“I know, B,” he said just as quietly, free hand coming to press hers against his other one. His eyes slid away to look back at the map. “But what if we don’t?”
The obvious answer was then the Worlds will eventually tip into Chaos or Order, or gods forbid both, and life will eventually fail right along with the Balance necessary to sustain it. But none of them said that.
Because some things, no matter how true, weren’t meant to be spoke out loud.