It had been three hours since his twin had dropped through the fucking ceiling like a god, all murderous intent and righteous anger and something else that Nhulynolyn still couldn’t put his finger on.
Three hours later and the only new information he had was that the Snake Shiftkin’s name was Ahdyfe. Rhyshladlyn and Azriel were having one fuck of a fight about only the gods knew what, a one that Ishmariel had unwillingly witnessed a piece of. Relyt was now knocked out from a severe migraine that had come on suddenly. And no one else was talking despite all the guilty, knowing looks that popped off between them all.
He had too many questions and not enough answers. And for all that he had tried to get answers, whoever had them either wasn’t forthcoming or seemed to have forgotten how to have a conversation. So he was left to pace the sitting room while Alaïs and Shadiranamen and Ahdyfe worked on Rhyshladlyn. Paced while his twin was catatonic and none of them could reach his mind. While everyone else in the Court had been removed from his and Bayls’ suite because if he saw any of their unhelpful fucking faces, if he had to hear their bickering disguised as brainstorming, he was going to get godsdamn violent.
So it was just him, Shadiranamen, Xheshmaryú, Alaïs, and that new Healer. Just them and Rhyshladlyn’s body. So he paced and paced and tried to wrestle some kind of control over himself. Because he had the sneaking suspicion that in the wake of the war ending, Rhyshladlyn had plastered a mask on his face that everything was fine and it wasn’t even close. And mere thought that he’d fallen for it made Nhulynolyn’s stomach churn.
*Any luck?* he asked for the twentieth time in ten minutes, hoping for a difference answer. For anything to distract him from the darkness of his thoughts.
Shadiranamen’s frustration was nearly as strong as his own, thick like syrup. *He’s not seizing at all anymore, which is an improvement. Though neither myself or Al can reach his mind. There’s a wall of some sort that’s preventing us.*
He stopped pacing with a frown, the suddenness of it bringing Xheshmaryú’s eyes up from the book in the Nochresi’s lap. *A wall?*
*It’s a wall but it’s not?* Alaïs growled in frustration and he felt the echo of her pushing out of the chair she’d been sitting in, moving in a small circuit as she paced, her eyes never leaving the prone, still form of their brother. *It’s as though the Rhyshladlyn we’re trying to access isn’t the one that’s in the body we see.*
A ripple of unease passed down his spine from Xheshmaryú. *That’s a pretty vivid description, there, Al.*
*It’s the best one either of us have, Xhesh,* the Sinner replied.
*What’s that Shiftkin say ’bout that?* Nhulynolyn asked.
Xheshmaryú snorted, book long forgotten on his lap. *Like any of us trust that female enough yet to disclose that kinda info? Honestly, Nul.*
He inclined his head at the Nochresi. *Fair point. I’m not thinkin’ straight, sorry. I’m just fuckin’ exhausted an’ have too many questions.*
Shadiranamen grunted and rose to her feet, the view he had through her eyes fading as she stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door softly but pointedly behind her. He watched as she crossed the room, hands raising to run through her hair and tuck it behind her ears as she moved to the couch and dropped heavily onto it. For a minute that seemed to stretch on into an hour, she sat there with her hands curled around the ends of her nearly waist-length hair, pulling on it just enough to give an echo of sting on their scalps, staring blindly at the hearth in front of her, eyes reflecting the dancing firelight. He wondered if she suggested lighting it when they’d first gotten back here because she craved the warmth herself or if the soft crackling of the flames eating the wood was just soothing background noise.
*I do not think that Shiftkin in there is our kè‘s true Healer,* she said just as the tension of her silence had reached nearly the breaking point, voice careful and soft.
He swayed on his feet, having to flail out a hand to grab the back of the chair nearest him to keep from falling. Xheshmaryú’s book thumped to the floor, violet eyes glinting as he turned to slowly look at Shadiranamen. Alaïs’ shock was a bit more muted than theirs as it whispered down their shared consciousness, meaning she had probably come to the same conclusion as Shadiranamen. Of all the things he’d been expecting when he’d heard Rhyshladlyn call Ahdyfe Healer, he hadn’t even considered that she might not be his real Healer. That the reason behind why his instincts told him not to trust the female was because somehow the qahllyn that tied her to his twin was a lie.
If they didn’t handle this carefully things could go really bad for all of them. Because by the gods that was a heavy accusation. Especially when Rhyshladlyn had already verbally Acknowledged the female in front of the entire Court. Never mind in front of Thayne’s. Not only that, if they presented it without facts? It was a death sentence, no matter who or what they were or who they were tied to.
*Now you see why I demanded only we,* Shadiranamen gestured vaguely to encompass them all, *stay here when you kicked everyone else out?*
Nhulynolyn nodded and blew out a breath, rubbing at his forehead as his mind struggled to catch up. Not that he was complaining. He was more than happy with it staying far the fuck away from this particular conversation. But Old Ones only knew he wasn’t going to get that lucky.
*That is a heavy accusation, Shad’…* He didn’t need to say that, they all knew that. But he felt compelled to speak the words. To make sure that all of them were on the same page because this kind of thing went beyond their expected duties as Others. *Do you have proof? Cuz we sure as fuck can’t just be blabbin’ that about with anythin’ less than stone-set proof.*
Shadiranamen rubbed a hand across her mouth, eyes haunted and distant, staring at him but she didn’t see him. No she saw horrors of a past none of them knew about and didn’t have the courage to ask about. Because anything that could put that haunted of a look on a Phuri’s face was better left in the grave it was buried in.
*I don’t have proof positive,* the yet was loud even if unspoken, *just my instincts telling me something is wrong. And as all of us know, our instincts are never wrong.*
*And that isn’t information one just sits on until it bites us in the ass,* Alaïs commented, her mirth nearly as dark as the look she tossed sideways at Ahdyfe who wasn’t paying a single bit of attention to the Lord Queen eyeing her up like a predator hunting its prey.
*You think she’s a spy?* Xheshmaryú asked, running a hand through his hair, the scars around his eye visible in stark relief for a few seconds. *Or something worse?*
*A bit of both?* Alaïs answered. *More that I think something is wrong, that it falls along the lines of the issues we were all discussing before Rhys dropped into the hall and scattered shit everywhere. There’s something foul going on and it’s affected the entire Seven Worlds. And I think this Snake Shiftkin had some kind of hand in it.*
She trailed off with a sigh and Nhulynolyn watched through her eyes as she looked over Rhyshladlyn from head to foot, taking in the way his skin was too pale, the way his bones seemed to stand out like he hadn’t eaten in weeks or longer. Noted how his god-Marks were glowing fainter than he ever remembered seeing them. His hair-bells were still silent, even though he still trembled every so often from aftershocks.
*And whatever is going on,* Shadiranamen’s voice was just as soft as before, just as careful, *it’s touched him harder and deeper than it has us. Ahdyfe said she saw a darkness that was buried in his mind at the Self-deep level. But neither I nor Al could find it…*
He walked around the chair and sat down before his legs gave out, eyes staring at his bedroom door. By all the Old Ones, how did we get here? An’ what the fuck happened to you, Rhys, that was so bad you couldn’t talk to us about it? If it had been glaringly obvious before it was worse now that there was something they had all missed. Something major. And the idea that whatever it was had permanently affected Rhyshladlyn was not sitting well. At all.
*So either she lied,* Xheshmaryú hissed, scattering that too full quiet, *or she only found it because she already knew where to find it.*
*Which would mean she knew how it got there,* Shadiranamen added, sapphire eyes the shade of blue where the ocean is so deep there’s no light. A depth where only monsters lived and no matter how strong a swimmer one was, one was never making it back to the surface alive. Gone was the haunted look and the softness, the care taken to chose her words wisely to speak only what she meant to.
Nhulynolyn rubbed at his eyes as his body reminded him he hadn’t slept in several days. But he fought it off. He’d sleep when he knew Rhyshladlyn was safe, or as safe as it was possible to be given the circumstances of their lives. And much as he didn’t want to label that Snake as a potential enemy without any solid proof, he also didn’t want to risk the fallout of not doing it. Not when Rhyshladlyn’s own Triad was either incapable of helping him because they were willfully being jackasses or because Rhyshladlyn himself was making it impossible for them to do so.
As much as he didn’t want to be the one to make this call, he had no other choice. When those who hierarchically stood above him were out of commission, it fell to him. And unlike those who had sworn to put Rhyshladlyn first, to always be there for him, only to fall short of the mark each and every time, Nhulynolyn wasn’t going to.
*Get her out of there,* he dropped his hands and met Shadiranamen’s raised eyebrows and hard eyes steadily. *Don’t kill her. Just bring her anywhere but this area of the Palace. Tell Thayne that until Rhys wakes up an’ I know what the full fuck is going on, I don’t want that female near him. Or us.*
*And what if we are wrong?* she asked. She didn’t ask because she cared for what it would do to Ahdyfe’s reputation or their own. It was a matter of making sure that she knew exactly what the story was when they were questioned about this. Because they would be.
*I’d rather ask forgiveness for being too quick to judge than ask forgiveness for not judging quick enough,* Xheshmaryú commented, expression dark.
*I second that,* Alaïs added.
*If we’re wrong? Then so be it.* Nhulynolyn shrugged and smiled crookedly. *But I’m not riskin’ bein’ wrong an’ Rhys gettin’ hurt. I’m keepin’ my twin safe by any means necessary. Anyone who doesn’t like that can duel me for the right to change my mind.*
Their shock at his words wasn’t a surprise. After all no Dhaoine in their right mind would dare to duel an Otherborn for any reason, let alone one as well known and as powerful as himself. But that was what he was counting on.
Shadiranamen nodded, her approval like the burn of a fine whiskey on the back of his tongue, and rose to her feet in one fluid move that reminded him just how dangerous she was. Sure she was an Otherborn now, but before that she had been born a Phuri, one of the most feared races to ever walk the Seven Worlds. The ancientness of that was still in her eyes, was in the way she thought and moved and felt. Made him often wonder if she was Rhyshladlyn’s protector, the one who would murder even their own fellow Otherborn to protect their kè. But every time the thought popped up again he pushed it aside. She was powerful and deadly, for sure, but to be willing and able to do that kind of thing took a lot more than deadly power. It took a ruthlessness that he’d seen only in Rhyshladlyn’s eyes; like a shadow flashing by at the end of a dimly lit hallway. So quick one couldn’t be certain if they’d seen it or not.
He watched as Shadiranamen pulled open the door, all banked aggression and seething dislike. Knew the look she gave the Snake when Ahdyfe cursed loudly. Knew, too, that Shadiranamen had shown nearly or all of her teeth when that curse was followed by the particular kind of scream one makes when they have to make noise to release the built up fear-tension but don’t want to call too much attention to themselves.
Not that it would have mattered if Ahdyfe had stayed silent and collected. Shadiranamen had a mission to complete and she would see it done. Even if it meant knocking the Snake unconscious and physically carrying her out. Once they’d established someone or something was a threat and what to do with said threat, it was done, no matter the cost.
“Come with me.”
“We’re… leaving?” Ahdyfe almost sounded indignant. Nhulynolyn rolled his eyes and Xheshmaryú snickered while Alaïs rolled her eyes hard enough they all felt it. “Why? And where are we going?”
“You are leaving, I am merely your escort to make sure you do not wander back to where you do not belong,” Shadiranamen replied, tone that of one bored with the conversation. “As for where you are going… anywhere but this suite of rooms. I do not care where, but you are going.”
That indignation came again, this time in the form of a huff. “I am his Healer!” Alaïs supplied the image of the Snake stepping up into Shadiranamen’s personal space, diamond white eyes narrowed, lips curling at one corner like she wanted to sneer or snarl or hiss, it was hard to tell. “And I am going nowhere until he wakes up.”
The air thickened as Shadiranamen released the first Shield around her power, the heat of it like sinking into a steaming hot bath. Only this was worse. Because this filled every nook and cranny of a space, slipped down one’s throat and filled one’s lungs until it felt like one was choking but breathing was just as easy as it had always been. But gods only knew the brain didn’t remember what it felt like.
As the Phuri leaned down into the Snake’s face, mouth opening around so many teeth it was a wonder Shadiranamen didn’t cut her tongue on them when she spoke, the sibilant hiss around the words loud in the thick silence, Nhulynolyn made yet another mental note to never piss her off.
“It was not a request, female,” Shadiranamen smiled, the sensation rippling across all of their faces, the doors between them blown open wide, “it is an order, a demand. I will not debate it with you. So… you may either come with me willingly or I will force you. Regardless of which one you choose, I will be happy.”
Ahdyfe turned to Alaïs whose eyes were cold, distant, in a face just as emotional as a statue. “Companion Alaïs, please. You are qahllyn, you understand why I cannot leave.”
“If you were hoping to appeal to someone who is Oathed, you picked the wrong Dhaoine,” Alaïs replied. “I will not step in here to help you. If Shadi says you are to go? Then you go. She and the rest of her fellows only act in defense of their kè. And not even Rhyshladlyn’s Oathed Triad dares go against them.”
That wasn’t entirely true given that Azriel and Relyt regularly argued about everything where it came to them protecting Rhyshladlyn. But that didn’t matter right now. What mattered was getting that female out of here and placed somewhere else while they worked on figuring out what was fact and what was lie.
“I’m not goin–hey!” Ahdyfe snarled as Shadiranamen hefted the Snake up and over her shoulder and made for the main door, Alaïs following behind them with a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. But they only made it a few steps when two Otherborn Nhulynolyn didn’t recognize appeared with a pop of displaced air, out of breath and wild-eyed and terrified, just inside the main door.
“Otherborn of Rhyshladlyn, we need aid,” the male, a that’s a fucking Shadow holy shit, said, eyes like pools of ink swallowing the firelight and leaving the room darker.
“Who the fuck are you and how did you know where to find us?” Nhulynolyn demanded as a sinking feeling twisted his gut into knots.
“We were once sent to the Grey Court’s aid at the behest of your Qishir,” The Shadow glanced at Xheshmaryú and the recognition the Other had of the Nochresi was undeniable. “We saved Nhulynolyn from certain death, saved all of the Grey Triad save Relyt Greymend at your old cabin. Without us and the brethren I Called to my side, you would have perished.”
“Oh and we’re just supposed to take that on faith,” Alaïs quipped, voice deadpan as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Shadiranamen dropped Ahdyfe to her feet, sensing that she may need her hands free if this came to a fight, Nhulynolyn trying to divide his time between his older sister’s growing anger and disbelief and the two unknown Others and that damned Snake Shiftkin. I need the Worlds to just chill for a few seconds. Gods.
“An’ all cuz you, what, said so?” Nhulynolyn added, diverting those heavy gazes to himself instead of the Sinner.
“Yes, for our word is our honor and we are not liars,” the female Otherborn replied, reminding him of Bayls with how she met his eyes evenly, despite the height difference, despite the fact that he had at least a foot and a half reach on her and out classed her in strength both of body and of magick. But that didn’t stop her from squaring off against him. You’ve got teeth, ain’t you, female?
The soft fwump of a body hitting something brought their collective attention whirling around to find Rhyshladlyn standing in the bedroom doorway looking like death warmed over, hands gripping the doorjamb with enough force that it whined in meek protest and his knuckles went white. For all that they had three potential enemies in the room, for all that they had been a handful of wrongly toned words from a fistfight, the second Rhyshladlyn’s power replaced the air, the tension disappeared, tempers eased, frayed nerves soothed. And for a long moment no one moved, no one spoke, just stood frozen in place as those ancient, depthless orange-amber eyes roved over each and every one of them. Then like a prayer a single word breathed through the room.
It was hard to tell who said his name first.