She rushed to get the buzzing two-way mirror where it thudded around at the other end of the table, scattering reports and smaller maps as she moved. Curled her hand around it just as the sharp fizzling crack of displaced air brought startled cries from her Court. But she ignored them, ignored the rustling of scattered papers and maps, ignored the soothing rumble of Xheshmaryú’s voice because right that moment what mattered most was answering the call. Because something told her that the call was more important than anything Rhyshladlyn’s Nochresi Other had to say.
Flicking it open, she swiped her thumb across the smooth reflective surface and nearly dropped it when the almost silent Hall filled with sound.
“Qishir Thayne! Are you there?” Her heart stuttered before thumping against her breastbone at the sound of Thyde’s voice, recognized him even though the connection hadn’t settled out yet and was mostly just static that warbled his voice. “Thayn–y–there? It’s a fuck–ty!” She could barely hear her informant over the sounds of screaming and pleading cries for help and mercy that wove in and around the static and what she hoped was fighting. Because the alternative was just too terrifying. “My Qish–e lives! —free and he’s–inging the entire City–do–ound us!”
Turning to the big mirror on the wall adjacent to where the Court table sat with a hastily murmured prayer that she never heard that kind of restrained terror in another Dhaoine’s voice ever again, she flung the connection there and grabbed blindly for a chair, the table, anything to support her weight as the call finally stabilized. Thyde’s face was drenched in blood, his hair curled into twisted locks around gore and things she couldn’t, wouldn’t, name. But that wasn’t what scared her, what made her knees weak and refuse to hold her.
No it was the City that spread behind him as he ran. It was the way bodies went flying, tossed by something stronger and taller than any Dhaoine she had ever seen or heard of. Something that moved with a lumbering gait that was smooth and earthshakingly choppy all at once. Something that cloaked itself in fog so thick she only caught glimpses of a face ripped right out of an Old Story and given life, of eyes that held a burning hatred that she could feel across the literal leagues of Worlds that separated them. And mixed with all of that was Thyde’s fear, his desperation, and something else, something that had shaken him so badly that he had called her while running for his life. Had called her as though there was a chance that she could help him even though if he’d been able to think clearly he’d know that she couldn’t.
She didn’t respond to what he’d said, just stood there with a hand clamped over her mouth to keep the screams that clogged her throat from escaping because the crowned Eighth Qishir did not scream, not like she wanted to at that moment. But all the gods in the Worlds See her, she wished she could.
“Thayne! Please, not everyone is going to make it out alive!” Thyde’s terror made it almost impossible to hold those screams inside. The begging that echoed around him was bad enough, but hearing it from him was so much worse.
That unknown horror that she’d seen moving behind him shifted, turned down a road to the left and disappeared from sight, momentarily distracting her from the Druid who had willingly taken up an assignment to spy on Xitlali in the one World where every Dhaoine was most vulnerable; doubly so since Rhyshladlyn’s loss, since the Balance of the Worlds had died. For long minutes she stared over Thyde’s shoulder into that unnaturally thick fog and waited for that thing to show back up, waited for it to kill her friend while she watched. But it never did. And gods help her, she didn’t know whether that was a blessing, that that meant it wasn’t chasing him anymore or if it was a curse because now neither of them would be able to see it coming.
“Where are you?” Ishmariel asked, stepping up beside her, one arm wrapping around her waist to tuck her against his side so he could support her weight. Until he did she hadn’t realized she was shaking, that she was slowly falling towards the floor.
An explosion rattled the air, sent a building scattering into a million pieces only half a block behind Thyde. Her informant snarled a curse, took air, landed, and ran faster. If he wasn’t a veteran of the Worlds War, she doubted highly that he would have been able to focus on escaping despite the nightmarescape that surrounded him.
“The city, City, in the middle of the Lonely Hills in Imèn. Shit,” the connection shook, whined, and wobbled as Thyde went tumbling to the ground, providing a rapid three sixty view of the City coming alive and apart all around him. Something stepped out of the rubble, rose up taller and taller, until a head of auburn hair that glinted silver in places stood above the fog bank. Gods aplenty, that can’t be…
“I’m almost there, but Thayne…” he huffed, stumbled, cursed, caught his feet and kept going as a laugh that made her skin crawl coated the air with despair. “If I don’t make it out, you need to know that…” He trailed off and if she hadn’t been so afraid of screaming she’d have dropped her hand and demand he finish that sentence.
Eyes that were a mixture of cornflower blue and lilac stared straight on into the mirror, all the more startling in that moment for the resignation and the terror that darkened them, that paled his nearly black skin. She leaned more heavily against Ishmariel, felt the uncanny silence that filled the Hall around her as they all waited for what he’d say next. But he didn’t speak again. Not until the gates appeared behind him as he ran through them, not questioning why they were open already. Not until the glow of the Working lines lit up his face, flashed across his eyes, and then shone behind him. Not until he was almost to freedom, to relative safety.
And when he did speak she almost, almost, wished he hadn’t.
“Desolation is on the Hunt and he will not stop until Balance has returned to all things. No matter the cost, no matter the damage. Wrongs dealt will be righted.”
The words came from Thyde’s mouth, came from his throat and were wrapped in his voice, but they didn’t belong to him. She shuddered, hand falling away from her face as she opened her mouth to say something when everything stopped. When Thyde froze mid-step, staring straight ahead unblinking. The mirror tumbled from his hand and hit the ground, providing a full body view of him frozen with one hand extended halfway past the outermost line of the Working, of the City that glowed a painfully bright gold in the not quite so distant background.
“…Thyde?” She whispered his name, spoke barely above a soundless breath, reaching out towards the mirror as though she could touch him. As though if she were able to, she could save him.
Was this how Mother had felt watching Rhys perform an Oathing Sacrifice, knowing it was her actions, or lack thereof, that had put him in that position?
But he didn’t answer, didn’t blink, didn’t move. Just stood there, caught mid-running stride, right arm extended, face frozen in a mixture of hope, terror, and resignation. Didn’t so much as twitch when the earth shook hard enough that he toppled over, still in the same position on his side as he’d been standing up.
The ground shook again and then a shriek like metal grinding on stone rent the air and she watched as a black obelisk rose above the City’s skyline. Watched as one by one six more rose to join it. Watched as a figure appeared at the top of that first Tower, eight wings spread wide. Watched as that figure tipped back its head and released a war cry that set the air ablaze, that scattered the currents, and brought tears running down her cheeks from eyes that were too dry to produce them.
She jumped when the connection warbled suddenly, crackling with static again. She swallowed a scream when it resettled and she saw a pair of grey-flecked, fury filled orange-amber eyes staring out of a face she prayed she’d never see look like that ever again. Prayed that whatever caused those gruesome, horrifying features to twist with betrayal that it wasn’t tied to her or her Court. Prayed that when Rhyshladlyn was done getting revenge for that betrayal that there was something left of the Worlds to rebuild. Realized that her Qishir, one of her closest and oldest friends, was crouched down on his hunches staring in the two-way where Thyde had dropped it a mere half foot away from the Druid. Realized that in that moment the Grey Qishir cared for nothing else but hunting down the cause of that look in his eyes.
“Did you know?”
She blinked, caught off guard at the question, at how that voice sounded really no different from what she remembered even though she felt like it should. Because any Dhaoine who looked like that should not sound so… so… normal.
Ishmariel discreetly poked her side where his hand curled around her hip, reminding her that she had been asked a question. That she needed to answer it before they became the target of all that fury.
“I don’t know what you’re referencing, Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” she was more than a little proud of how she managed to sound just as steady, just as normal, as he had. Especially seeing as how all she wanted to do was scream but knew that once she started she probably wouldn’t be able to stop.
At least not for a few hours.
Those eyes narrowed, pink tongue darting out to wet his lips like a snake scenting the air. Gods that is an unsettling thought. Much like she had with Xefras when she’d first met the Dragaen, she realized that for all that Rhyshladlyn usually looked Dhaoinic like the rest of them, he wasn’t. Not really. There was something else about it, something that was different in a way that, while not necessarily bad, wasn’t really all that safe for everyone either. He was still the Rhyshladlyn she knew, was still the Qishir she looked up to and aspired to be.
“Did you know what he did to me. Why I’ve been gone for three centuries.” Neither were spoken like questions, more like statements of fact. Things that had happened and couldn’t be undone, couldn’t be forgiven. And for some reason that just made them worse. Made it worse that he knew who had done this to him, had likely known the entire time, and waited for them to come rescue him. Waited for a help that never came.
“No,” she answered. Even though she didn’t know what her Qishir was asking of her, she still knew that she wasn’t guilty of it. Knew that, at least with this, she was innocent. “No, my Qishir, I didn’t know. Not until Nhulynolyn found his journals hidden away in the cabin when they went to collect the journal you had shown Bayls.”
Rhyshladlyn nodded and stood up before stepping over the mirror and out of sight entirely. Once again she could see Thyde laying on the ground, still frozen in that same position. Could see the City that no one had known was a City spread brightly glowing behind him. Could see how it wasn’t just her informant who was frozen as though time had simply stopped. Distantly she heard what sounded like the snap of fingers and then everything just fragmented, was pulled apart into pieces so fine it was like dust. Everything from the City itself to the grass, to Thyde who hadn’t moved.
The only thing that remained untouched was the seven glowing Watchtowers that rose from ground that was had gone a grey so dark it was nearly black. Another finger-snap and the connection severed violently enough that the two-way mirror she’d dropped to the floor blew apart.
“Sound the alarms across the Worlds,” her voiced sound shaky, distant, wrong but gods she didn’t care. “Make sure that we warn as many people between here and Ryphqi City that Qishir Rhyshladlyn has returned and that he is on the Hunt. That they need to stay the fuck out of his way.”
“How do you know he’s going to Ryphqi?” Ishmariel asked as Y’adtrik ran from the Hall followed closely by General Anrèhn and two of the General’s top lieutenants.
She swallowed and groped blindly for a chair as her knees went entirely numb. Her Warrior hooked a foot around the nearest one and pulled it out before obligingly helping her sit down. Leaning forward she covered her face with her hands and tried to steady her breathing, tried to work passed the ever-increasing need to scream until she couldn’t anymore, until nothing hurt and her throat was too raw to function. But she couldn’t do that. She was the Eighth Qishir, certain things were expected of her. Dhaoine Worlds-wide were counting on her. So she’d have to shelve the hysterics for later.
If there even is a later.
“Because he was asking me if I knew what Relyt had done to him, what part the Grey Steward played in why Rhys was lost to us for all these years,” she answered, voice muffled behind her hands but she didn’t dare move them. “And that bastard is in Ryphqi City.”
Curses and hastily spoken prayers danced around the Hall just as the first peeling cry of the alarms tore through the air.