2

As he climbed the stairs, the sounds of fighting were loud. Rhyshladlyn’s roars and the crowd’s answering calls cacophonous despite the several feet of stone and steel that separated him from them.

It was still hard to imagine that Thayne had proposed such a thing as the arena fights. Though given that Death’s Gateway, once it had been rebuilt, had been verifiably overrun with prisoners after the war’s ending, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Rhyshladlyn’s willingness to be the executioner, and how quickly he’d accepted, had surprised them all more than the suggestion of offering the prisoners a chance to die with honor, let alone far quicker than they would in the prison itself, or survive and possibly be granted freedom.

The rules the Eighth Qishir had laid down were simple: magickal acts were allowed but only if it was a skill every Dhaoine regardless of power level could learn; victory meant every opponent was unable to get to their feet without aid or dead. Hearing those rules had turned a lot of prisoners off to the idea of fighting for their potential freedom or death rights, but for several it had given them a hope, however unfounded, and made them jump on the opportunity. Especially once they heard who they had to fight against.

But for all that those limitations had been put in place to make the fights closer to fair, Rhyshladlyn still outmatched everyone put against him. Sure a few over the years had held out for hours, a couple holding out for days, but eventually they’d all succumbed to the Grey Qishir. Those who didn’t die but were felled nonetheless all begged a boon of Thayne who watched every single fight since they’d begun two decades ago. Of those who held out, only one had been forgiven of eir crimes only to spit in the face of that forgiveness immediately after by trying to go after the Grey Qishir when ey thought his guard was finally down.

That day the prisoner, and the Worlds who had watched, had learned that the rules for the fights had been put in place to give the prisoners a decent chance, as close to a fair chance as possible. Because without it? They had none.

Relyt opened the door to the royal dais box and stared out at the crowds before his eyes flicked to one of the three two-way mirrors that showed the fight for those who didn’t want to get close to the railing and like always was momentarily stunned at the sight of Rhyshladlyn. And for a moment, as he stood and watched the Grey Qishir move around the arena, Mallacht in his left hand and Beannacht in his right, taking on no less than ten prisoners at once and smiling about it, Relyt was hard pressed to be anything but awed. Then again, Rhyshladlyn had only ever managed to take his breath away and hold it hostage, as though the Qishir worried that one day he would need a bargaining chip.

Relyt shook the disturbing thought away, closed the door behind him softly, and crossed to the chair on Thayne’s right, the one reserved for the second strongest Qishir in the Worlds, not that Rhyshladlyn ever sat up here among the crowd. As Relyt sank slowly into it, Thayne’s eyes flicked to him, the weight of her crimson stare making the side of his face prickle. As she looked back down at the arena, he followed her gaze and watched as Rhyshladlyn to severed a prisoner’s head from her shoulders and kicked it across the arena with enough force that when it connected with the face of another prisoner, the second one dropped dead to the sands where he stood. The accompanying gleeful bark of laughter from Rhyshladlyn made Relyt rub at his arms, feeling the distortion in his skin from the scars that covered them.

He knew his Qishir was sociopathic with a streak of sadism two Worlds-wide but knowing it and seeing it were two exceptionally different things. And his body never knew whether to respond with fear or arousal. Or both simultaneously.

So like always he elected to ignore it entirely.

“He is resplendent isn’t he?” It was borderline a traditional question of his by now. Every time he came here, he’d sit beside Thayne in the spot reserved for Rhyshladlyn, taking it in his stead as the Grey Steward, and then ask that question. It was as predictable as the sun rising and setting each day and night; so expected that were it not to happen their lives would likely be plunged into chaos.

“Aye, though Al is still unhappy with the both of us that he does this,” Thayne answered.

“What?” He pulled his eyes from Rhyshladlyn and stared at the Eighth Qishir. This was the first time he was hearing there was any discord from the Lord Queen about Rhyshladlyn headlining the right to freedom and life fights for Death’s Gateway prisoners. “Why? Rhys is doing something that he clearly and obviously enjoys and that benefits us all. What is there to be displeased about with that?”

“Anislanzir used to force him to fight and murder alleged traitors before the entire garrison. It was one of the last things their sire did before the night you saved him. And this,” she waved a hand towards the arena, “while not forced, is similar enough that Al is irate with us,” Thayne shrugged, the act nonchalant but Relyt could tell by the way the skin at the corner of her eyes and mouth tightened that she was more bothered than she was trying to let on. “But we all know he accepted doing this because he needs to Feed…” she trailed off and sighed, rubbing a hand across her mouth as the crowd roared it’s approval at whatever was happening in the arena.

Relyt didn’t look though. He knew what Rhyshladlyn was capable of. Had seen the show enough times to be able to recite his Qishir’s moves in order of battle plan from start to finish. That and he wasn’t here to watch the fights.

“…and it’s either he Feeds here where those who wet his appetite are doomed to die regardless than him Feed elsewhere and drop innocents,” he finished for her.

Thayne nodded and sighed again before she shook herself and turned the full weight of her gaze on him. Time for friendly chatter to end.

“Do you have news for me?”

He nodded and retrieved an envelope from the satchel at his hip. As Thayne broke it open and read through the report inside he added the information he hadn’t written down just in case that missive got stolen or intercepted somehow. Some information was dangerous in the wrong hands. This? This could be catastrophic.

“It would seem that your little sister has well and truly disappeared from the face of the Worlds. The last known trace we have of her was, is, in Imèn World. After that?” He spread his arms a little and shrugged. “The compound rumored to have belonged to her was a literal mess when we unearthed it–”

“Wait… unearthed as in it was buried?”

“–partially, yes,” he replied, utterly unperturbed by the interruption. “It was as though the City had had enough of the corruption that spot was creating and endeavored to rectify the situation personally. It just only got so far before stopping. Or being stopped.”

“Any trace of magickal influence?” Thayne asked, eyes skimming rapidly over the report. “Or reason why it didn’t finish the job?”

Relyt looked away, eyes dancing across the entire stadium, half of which was on its feet, excitedly shouting down into the arena below. He carefully kept from looking at Rhyshladlyn.

“Relyt.” A single, sharp note, full of warning.

“Yes, there were traces that something magickal and Dhaoinic started the reclaiming process but I couldn’t get anything more than that.” He hated admitting to defeat, to failure. Even if that really wasn’t what this was, it still felt like it.

“What do you mean?”

He met Thayne’s confused, suspicious eyes and swallowed, wishing his throat wasn’t drier than Shiraniqi Desert.

“We couldn’t get closer than a block away. Anything that tried? Severe anxiety, then nausea and vertigo, then couldn’t walk, then violent vomiting, then total insanity.” Thayne flinched but he pressed on, needing to get the words out. Needing to tell someone, anyone, even if it meant they suffered the same nightmares he did just from imagining it. “The only Dhaoine we had who got close enough they were only half a block from the front doors turned to face us all, ripped out eir own throat, and slowly choked to death on eir own blood.”

Thayne didn’t say anything, just stared at him. They both knew that for magick to affect a Dhaoine that strongly, to force them to commit self-murder to escape the influence of it, the pain it caused, the caster was exceptionally powerful. Not Rhyshladlyn’s level but close enough that they had to belong to either the Grey, Honorable, Crimson, or Mad Courts. Only the Mad Qishir’s Court had disappeared with such finality it was like they had never existed in the first place. And while there were echoes of the Dhaoine who’d been Oathed to the Crimson Qishir, no one could find any of them; only whispered rumors, barely heard, throughout the Worlds. And neither Relyt nor anyone else in his search party had wanted to speak the glaringly obvious fact that they’d discovered a City no one seemed to remember existed and that the only Dhaoine in the entire Seven Worlds capable of even speaking to a City let alone command it to do anything was the Grey Qishir himself.

Because some things, no matter how obvious, shouldn’t get spoke aloud. Not without irrefutable proof.

“The only reason we even found the City was because one of the pack horses cantered head first into the retaining wall. And if it hadn’t?” he added at length, knowing that he had to say it to Thayne, even if he didn’t want to “The City would have remained hidden away. Cloaked as though it didn’t want to be found, as though it was never supposed to be found.”

“High Ones See us all,” Thayne breathed, hand sketching a complicated gesture in the air.

He murmured the same prayer to the Many he had when they’d first found the City. Prayed harder that the fear that made his skin cold and sent him flying awake with tears streaking his face and his heart trying to become one with the air outside his body wasn’t anything more than his overactive imagination. Because the last thing he wanted to do was think about whether that City had suffered the same fate that Shiran had only to be risen from the earth that had swallowed it whole. Prayed that it never did because he knew that once he let that thought take full weight in his mind, he’d wonder if it had risen, had Shiran as well?

“Send out word. We convene both Courts in two days at the Eighth Palace,” Thayne’s voice was hard, full of darkness and fear and sharp edges. She paused and paled a little.

“Worry not, Qishir Thayne,” Relyt said soothingly, trying to hide his smile, “I will be certain to word it more tactfully for Qishir Rhyshladlyn.”

Thayne nodded her head and rose to her feet just as the crowd went silent with a suddenness that stunned Relyt every time it happened, the signal that the fighting was over.

Time to go. He never stayed for this part anymore, didn’t need to, and more over, didn’t want to.

“Honorable Qishir Thayne, she who sits the Eighth Throne, only two survive,” Rhyshladlyn’s voice floated gingerly on that silence and Relyt lengthened his stride towards the dais box door.

“What say you to them, Grey Qishir Rhyshladlyn, he who stands as Guardian of Balance?” Thayne replied just as Relyt pulled open the door and stepped through. But for the first time since the very first fight, Relyt wasn’t fast enough to get the door closed on the words that followed.

“I find them unworthy of the boon they request of you.”

Whatever Thayne’s response was, he didn’t heat it as the door clicked shut. And even if the door hadn’t shut him into the blessed silence of the landing at the top of the long stairs that lead down to ground level, Relyt couldn’t hear anything over the rushing of the blood in his hearts or the thunderous pounding of his heart that pumped it through his veins.

Rubbing at his arms again, he made for the stairs, telling himself as he took them two at a time that he wasn’t running from those words that made the old scars that danced over where his qahllyn’qir were burn, that he wasn’t running from the way it felt like he’d heard them before. It was a lie, but no one had to know that but him.