*Master, behind you!* Malkuth yelled as a ripple of wrong smacked against him.

He whipped around in time to see something come crashing through the retaining wall, scattering stone and mortar and sand in all directions. He snapped his fingers and had Mallacht and Beannacht in each hand just as a thing of literal nightmares came launching out of the sand and dust cloud. He had just enough time to see a body that was longer than he was tall, limbs just as long as the body topped with claws that glinted like blades, and teeth that would have pierced its lips if it had any, which it didn’t. And then it was on him, taking him to the ground before he could blink.

With a yell that he told himself wasn’t out of fear but rather defiance, he let it take him down, using its own momentum to kick it away from him. It’s clawed front hands ripped his vest from his body, causing him to keep rolling with it until it lost its hold. But he couldn’t complain since he was on his feet again. He brought the swords in front of his chest, blades parallel to each other as the thing rolled through the sand, struggling to get its feet are those feet? back under itself. And when it did, he watched it raise up and up and up until it stood looking down at him while all of its limbs it has six limbs oh my fucking gods were touching the sand.

“The fuck is that thing?”

He didn’t know who asked and didn’t have the chance to look around and find out because that thing made the same coughing scream they’d heard before and with it, Azriel saw its jaw unhinge. Was able to see that teeth nearly as long as one of his hands went way farther back than just the base of its tongue like most creatures in the Worlds. Do they go all they way into its throat? Then the stench hit him and his stomach heaved but he refused to get sick, refused to let himself get distracted. Not when the thing slowly crouched down, mouth still open, its rot-green tongue lolling out and hanging down its chin, swaying back and forth in the wind. It twitched almost like it was scenting the air, then eyes the color of spring skies blinked and changed from cornflower blue to a shade of blue one only found when the ocean was deep enough that if the ship sank, no one would ever find it again. He shifted his stance and narrowed his eyes when it chittered then gave that coughing scream again, only this time far louder than any of the others he’d heard, and then it was on him again.

It moved faster than anything he had ever seen, even Rhyshladlyn. It was all he could do just to dodge and parry its impossibly long limbs and avoid the snapping of its jaws. For every move he made it seemed to be two steps ahead of him, as though it was reading his mind to know what countermoves he had before he’d even consciously thought them. But for all that he was able to avoid most of its attacks, he wasn’t able to avoid them all. He had at least two gouges in his right shoulder, a set of glancing teeth marks on his left thigh, and his entire right leg was numb after one of its elbows — knees? — had hit him hard enough to stumble him sideways and nearly take him to the ground. But he gritted his teeth and kept his feet, kept struggling to dodge and parry, kept going with the sole goal in mind that it couldn’t get close enough to even chance a death blow.

What felt like hours later but was likely only minutes, it leapt over him, hit the sand on the other side, spinning on its two front limbs, the back four kicking up sand and debris as it skidded in a wide arc before it launched at him again. But this time he was ready for the move, this time he was used to its speed enough to have fallen back on the very first lesson the Qishir had taught him when it came to fighting.

“Don’t think when you’re in battle. Just do. Be lose, be aware, and see everything around you, even if your eyes only touch on it for a half second before moving on. Your instincts will guide you. Trust in them for they are never wrong, even when it seems they should be.”

He side stepped at the last second, swinging Mallacht down and to the left as he moved, feeling the blade slice into skin that had the consistency of old leather, felt it hit bone, snag for a heartbeat and then with a crunch it went through. With a soft fwump the severed head hit the sand as its body stayed suspended for a few seconds more then slowly it, too, fell. He stared at it, chest heaving with his labored breathing, surprised he’d succeeded in killing it but it felt too easy. Felt like he was missing something.

“Also, not to be a downer or anythin’, but uh…” Nhulynolyn started, voice distant as though he was several yards away versus the feet he’d been when the thing had come through the wall, “why ain’t it bleedin’?”

Motherfucker. Nhulynolyn was right, it should be bleeding, especially from a wound like that, but who knew for certain. Sure it looked like someone had bred a Dhaoine with a Hound and then let the offspring of that unholy union bake in the sun for few thousand years before kicking it repeatedly so it got angry and went after the first thing is saw. But while it looked like things he’d fought before that didn’t mean it was like things he’d fought before. He was flying blind and because of that it made him cautious, more so than he normally was in battle. So for all that he wanted to look at Nhulynolyn, to look at everyone else and see what they were thinking, he didn’t look away from the thing at his feet. Didn’t want to chance that separating its head from its body wasn’t enough to kill it. Not when something that should be bleeding wasn’t. That never boded well.

*Shall we manifest, Master Azriel?* Lycarn asked.

*No… not yet. I don’t want to chance that there is more than this thing out there, that even Otherborn are weak against it. So for now, just stick with me.*

Just when he was about to relax, its body shook and a sharply cut off scream to his right told him that it had startled one of the females but he didn’t pull his focus away from it enough to figure out which one of them it was. Not when it heaved and shook again before its front-most limbs twitched, stretched out, and curled long-fingered, blade-sharp clawed hands around its head and dragged it slowly, carefully across the sand back to the body. He watched it with eyes he could feel getting steadily wider with each passing moment but he couldn’t stop himself. Not when he watched the thing pull its head all the way back to its neck and hold it there. Not when he watched as the bone reformed, then the ligaments and muscles and tendons and lastly that leathery skin.

“My gods,” he whispered as those ocean-black eyes turned to him with a shine like snakat eyes as it bared its teeth. In a blur it moved and was suddenly right in his face, all those teeth glistening and wet and so terribly white and far too close to his throat as its limbs wrapped around his body in a crushing grip, slowly pulling him closer and closer to that mouth.

Fuck you!” he roared as he brought his arms up and sliced through the first and second set of arms. Roared as he spread his wings, using the force of their manifestation to dislodge the third set from where they’d been gripping his legs. How the fuck was it standing upright if all its appendages were wrapped around me? It roared right back at him as its severed arms flew through the air to rejoin its body.

And then yet again he was faced with trying to keep it at bay, bringing up the blades in his hands to block first one limb and then another over and over as it forced him to walk backwards across the yard. But he didn’t have any choice. He’d gotten two major blows in, two, out of thousands of attempts on both its part and his own. And none of them had landed except the two that should have seen it dead or at least incapable of fighting him anymore. And yet it was. It was alive and so incredibly fast, so much so that he didn’t doubt even Rhyshladlyn would struggle to stand against it and win.

And as soon as he thought that he knew. This thing was made to kill Rhys.

He vanished out his Qishir’s swords, planted his feet, and punched the thing square in the nose, feeling the bones of its face shatter with it as it skidded backward several feet. He watched as it just hissed at him out of the ruin he’d made of its face; its nose concaved in, the skin split open along its cheekbones from where shards of the bone had been forced through when he’d shattered them. But for all the damage he’d done to it, it seemed unfazed. Just stared him down as it weaved back and forth on its back arms, limbs, whatever the fuck they were called, ocean-black eyes watching him with a hyper-focus he had only ever seen Rhyshladlyn have during battle.

He fought not to look away, to try and put eyes on everyone else, because he knew that for all that he was fast, that he was strong, that he had held out against Rhyshladlyn in battle longer than anyone else, he wasn’t going to last against this thing. It was faster than anything he had ever seen or heard of. 

It narrowed its eyes as he tensed to take a step towards it. But before he could actually move, it screamed, high and pitiful, the sound that a young makes to alert the herd that it was in danger and needed help. His blood ran cold when he felt the attention of hundreds suddenly swing to him and knew that there was way more than just this one. Knew that they were on the other side of the wall, waiting. He could feel them now like a gathering storm on the other side of the wall, wondered how he hadn’t noticed them before. Berated himself for missing that it had picked him as the strongest of them and tested the absolute limits of his strength, tested to see how far he was willing and capable of going to fight it off, to defend himself and the Court at his back. 

But how or why he’d missed something so crucial didn’t matter. He had, and if they lived through this, he’d try and figure out an answer to that question. But not right now. Not when he watched the thing before him crouch low, watched its muscles and skin ripple and tense, watched those narrowed eyes darken even further until they were more black than blue. As it leapt for him, as he felt more than heard or saw its fellows do the same towards the wall, he tried to warn everyone else even though a part of him knew that if they didn’t know already, knowing now wouldn’t make much of a difference.

But he still had to try.

“We’re surrou–“

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