“Who the fuck is this?”
He flinched as Nhulynolyn’s voice sliced through the air like a whip crack. For one heart stopping moment Sheieh didn’t breathe, didn’t move, just sat half twisted towards the hole in the wall to his left and waited. Waited to find out if they were screwed, if he had failed. For one heart stopping moment he truly believed they were found out, that everything he and Lílrt had worked for was mere seconds from crumbling down around them.
“I think I was just hung up on?” Many Hear me. Please, please don’t let the call have connected enough for him to have seen the Anointed One.
“Did you see who it was?” Alaïs asked.
“Nah, connection cut out before they cleared up,” Nhulynolyn replied, his frown evident in his tone.
The wave of relief that broke over him at hearing those words made him dizzy but it was worth it. Because at least something was going their way.
“See if you can call back? Most two-ways are linked so a return call should reconnect you to the other end of the link even if you don’t know who it is,” Azriel said and Sheieh raised both eyebrows.
“Most Dhaoine don’t know that about two-way mirrors,” Thae’a commented and he could hear that the Dreamweaver was just as impressed as he was.
He could almost see the way Azriel shrugged as he replied, “I was a spy for Lulphé for hundreds of years, Tee. My only way of communication was via two-ways if I couldn’t risk getting physically back to the Palace. And when you’re hunting Dhaoine who use the same method to communicate but won’t speak the names of their co-conspirators? You learn ways to get answers without resorting to violence.”
“Ain’t workin’,” Nhulynolyn sounded far more disappointed about that than Sheieh was comfortable with. “Must’a busted their mirror to keep from riskin’ me reachin’ them.”
He knew that tone, Relyt had had it often over the last three centuries; it meant that the Other wasn’t going to let the random two-way mirror and its unknown hang up caller go. Not that Sheieh really blamed him, had their positions been reversed he’d have felt the same way, but the Other’s tenacity for chasing down answers was nearly as legendary as Rhyshladlyn’s. And Sheieh really didn’t want to deal with that on top of everything else.
“Is there a residual signature attached to this one?” Alaïs asked and he flinched again because gods aplenty and surrounding, he wanted to just peek through the hole and send a bolt of energy at the damn thing and turn it into so much rubble. But he couldn’t. Not if he wished to hold onto what little chances he and Relyt still had to get out of this unscathed.
“If there was, it would have been wiped the second Nully used it,” came an unknown male voice that had to belong Xheshmaryú. Sheieh stared at the hole with wide eyes because of them all, the Nochresi Other stood the closest to where he and Relyt lay on the other side of the wall. He’d never even heard or sensed the Other’s approach. “Shoulda checked for signatures before you used it, Nul,” Xheshmaryú added, laughter coloring his words so that it made the scolding hold less sting.
“Yeah, fair. I wasn’t thinkin’ on account of the rude ass hangin’ up on me,” Nhulynolyn grunted and the distinct sound of tinkling glass pierced the air. “Who the fuck even does that anyway?”
The wind shifted and brought with it the distinct smell of rot, and not old rot like he’d expect of the literal Field of bodies that lay surrounding the crater where Shiran City had once stood. No, this was fresh enough that it still smelled sickly sweet, like spice-dipped candy that turned sour on the back of the tongue, and made bile slam into the back of his throat hard enough that he couldn’t cover the sound he made as he gagged on it. But he wasn’t the only one to catch the scent and have their body respond unfavorably so he was saved from giving himself and Relyt away. If only barely.
“Nameless’ balls,” Nhulynolyn coughed hard enough that Sheieh’s own throat ached in sympathy, “what is that?”
At the sound of someone vomiting, he tore a strip of fabric from the hem of his tunic and wrapped it around his face to cover his nose and mouth. Sure it smelled of days old body odor and sweat and blood and fire smoke, but it was better than the putrefaction that rode thickly on the hot wind. Anything was better than that.
“I don’t know,” Azriel’s voice was strained at the edges and half muffled. “But whatever it is, it smells horrible. High Ones have mercy, I thought I’d smelled some pretty bad things in my time, but–” he cut off and coughed hard enough that he gagged.
“–but this makes all of those things smell good,” Alaïs finished for him.
The wind shifted again and the smell grew so intense Sheieh had to close his eyes because it made them burn, made his body produce tears to try and ease the discomfort. If he had held out any hope that whatever was causing this wasn’t a danger to them, it was snuffed out in that moment. Because anything that could produce a smell that was strong enough to irritate unprotected body parts spelled nothing but disaster.
“Why do I get the feeling whatever is causing it is surrounding the cabin?” Thae’a asked and he could tell by the way her voice was thready that she’d been the one to vomit.
A coughing scream rent the air making him jump hard enough he thumped against the wall at his back. But in that moment he didn’t care if the action made Azriel and the rest know he was there. Didn’t care if they found him and Relyt because he knew what that sound was. Granted he’d only heard it the once and from a distance while being assured that the things that made it were held under lock and key and unable to hurt anyone. Another coughing scream sounded, followed by another and another and from the sounds of it, Thae’a was right, they were being surrounded.
Many have mercy on us all.
He’d barely finished the prayer when he finally saw them in the far distance, moving in a rippling, loping gait as they crested over the dunes and turned the pale yellow and white sand black. He sat there and watched, frozen in horror and shock, as they spread like an infection that left rotted bodies in its wake. Watched them draw closer and closer, the stench of them growing worse with each league of distance they crossed. Another coughing scream sounded, way louder than any that had come before it, and Relyt came awake at his feet with a jerk. Swallowing a curse in his native tongue, Sheieh clapped a hand over his charge’s mouth and shook his head. Knew the second the Soul Healer had registered where they were and the danger not just approaching the cabin but the danger on the other side of the wall when those slate grey eyes darkened until they were nearly black.
Relyt pushed himself into a sitting position with one hand, the other coming up to wrap around Sheieh’s wrist, forearm muscle flexing as he gripped tight and pulled just enough that he could speak.
“We cannot leave them alone, Sheieh, not with those things coming for them,” the words were barely above a whisper and muffled besides because Relyt had only lifted his hand a hairsbreadth away from his mouth. “Sheieh.” Just his name, filled with reproach and the start of goading stubbornness. Clearly the look that had passed over his face wasn’t what Relyt had wanted to see.
It felt like he had all the time in the Worlds to decide what to do. He could either escape with Relyt now and leave Azriel and the rest to fend for themselves. Or he could pull his charge back through the wall, make up some story as to why they were even there, and use the collective group of them all to keep Relyt safe while he helped the Grey Court fight these things off. But for all that it felt like he had all the time to decide, he knew he didn’t because that smear of rot was spreading faster and faster, the edge of it getting closer and closer. And the Many forgive him, but for all the battles he had seen, all the horrors and atrocities, everything he had survived, he felt powerless in the face of so many creatures. Felt hopelessness rise up and encircle his throat like a hand. Felt the weight of Relyt’s demanding stare and the whispered words he’d spoken hanging in the air between them like an accusation made against his honor.
But by all the gods of the Worlds, his primary duty was to adhere to his Oath to keep Relyt safe no matter the cost. Even if that cost was the stability of the mind he had come to respect so much.
“Sheieh,” Relyt hissed, eyes narrowed, face twisting with the first hints of anger around the goading stubbornness that made his accent thick enough that for the first time in millennia, Sheieh heard his name pronounced the proper way.
It wasn’t enough to sway his decision, though. Not with the ground rumbling with the approaching army of nightmares, creatures created solely to spread fear in a way that none of the three deadliest magickal creatures in the Worlds could. Maybe if Lílrt hadn’t sent Iköl’s favorite pets en masse, Relyt’s order, his unspoken plea, would have swayed Sheieh to both help the Court that had abandoned him and the charge he had sworn a binding Oath to protect. But that wasn’t the reality he was faced with.
He closed his eyes and sent one last desperate prayer for help, for strength, for safety. Prayed that Relyt would one day, eventually, be able to forgive him for the choice he had to make. Opening his eyes, he took a breath, and held it. Waited until the sound of yelling from behind the wall echoed around them, mixing with the distinct of destroyed stone and tearing mortar before he grabbed Relyt, reached for a Line, and ran.