It was like being back in the war, only worse. The ambient magick in the square was rife with danger and lack of Balance, making his instincts yell at him to run before Dhaoine die again. Screams echoed from all directions, fire smoke and stone dust making a mock fog that distorted one’s vision and made it hard to tell if the flickering shadows one saw in its depths was enemy movement or just a trick of the eye. The desperation that filled the empty spaces left behind by the dead made it hard to breathe.
He’d tried to steel himself for everything. Especially after feeling that brief moment when Rhyshladlyn’s heart had stopped, when the After had been this close to taking him. But in truth there was no way to prepare for this. For the absolute destruction that filled the square three bodies deep. Blood that glittered like the stars had been brought to the earth pooled so thick it was hard to see the glow of Ryphqi City beneath it. For the way Rhyshladlyn lay surrounded by all that glittering blood, surrounded by bodies in whole and in pieces, chest a torn mess, eyes wide, mouth open on a sound that never hit the vocal register.
Azriel’s qahllyn’qir cried out, pressing at his skin like they wanted, like they could, break free. He rubbed at his arms in an attempt to relieve that pressure, the itch it caused, but otherwise he didn’t move. Could only stare at the body of his Qishir. At the mortal wound carved into that broad chest, so perfectly placed beneath the white-hot glow of the Nameless’ god-Mark. Could only watch as Eiod ran across the square, slipping in the gore that soaked the cobblestones as he made for Rhyshladlyn, catching his footing before he fell. As Shadiranamen went for Nhulynolyn’s body where it lay crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the Companion Tower next to an unconscious Soul Healer. As the warriors who’d traveled with them waded into the battle still raging all around the square, being handled by something that looked far more terrifying than the flesh-less things that had overrun the City.
Watched as a circle of grey formed underneath it all, stealing the City’s glow as it spread in a slow, constant movement. As unstoppable as the rising tide at the shoreline.
Jerald stepped into his line of sight and snarled, startling him enough that he swung on instinct. But his fist never connected with that too-Dhaoinic face. Which made him pause, got him to blink out of the fog that had settled around his mind. Because the Alphenian was back in his Dhaoinic skin and Thayne had warned them that he wouldn’t be. With an effort, Azriel forced himself to relax, to unclench his fist where it hovered an inch away from Jerald’s jaw, stopped by the Alphenian’s hand around his wrist, muscles in his forearm bunching and twitching.
“Get out of here, Az!” the Alphenian sounded terrified and furious in equal measure. “Move! Now! We have to get out of the square before that,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at that spreading circle of grey, “reaches us.”
“Why?” It was such a stupid question. He knew what that loss of glow meant, knew the danger it heralded. But it didn’t stop him from asking anyway. Even as he recalled all the instances when Rhyshladlyn had stolen the very life from the earth below him. Each one worse than the last.
“Because if we’re still here when Ryphqi activates the Working for him, we’re going to get drained along with every living thing too stupid to get out of the way,” Jerald growled and pushed at his chest, trying to get him to move.
Eiod reached Rhyshladlyn while Azriel fought to get his legs to obey him. Grabbed the Qishir under his arms and pulled, fighting the greyed out stones that had begun to swallow Rhyshladlyn’s legs as Ryphqi did the only thing it could to keep its Heart from danger. But Eiod wasn’t having any of that and pulled harder with a curse followed by a scolding tone. Another curse and those stones let go, the sound like wet clothes ripping. Getting a better grip Eiod smiled triumphantly and began dragging Rhyshladlyn across the square towards the Companion Tower and the Gateway that stood nearby waiting for them to pass through it to safety.
But there wasn’t anywhere that was safe. Not when Rhyshladlyn had a wound like that. Little to nothing saved a Dhaoine from a heart wound. Even if that Dhaoine was the Grey Qishir and the heart wasn’t where it was supposed to be. And if Rhyshladlyn died in truth? None of them would survive it. It may take weeks to months, years if one was really lucky, but eventually every last Dhaoine tied to him would die.
Shaking his head, Azriel focused back on Jerald. His fellow qahllyn was right. The last thing Rhyshladlyn needed was to lose one of his Oathed Triad as well as his twin in day. Even if they were likely dead regardless, still wouldn’t do to make it a guarantee.
He shuffled back to the square’s edge just as Shadiranamen lifted Nhulynolyn’s body up and onto her shoulder and jogged over, a Dragaen hot on her heels carrying the unconscious Soul Healer. He only spared them a glance before looking away, watching as Eiod dragged Rhyshladlyn as fast as he could. As those ten warriors fought to keep the waves of flesh-less creatures pouring out of the fire smoke and stone dust clouds at bay.
The pressing itch of his qahllyn’qir intensified as he stood there and watched as yet another male helped his Qishir. They chittered angrily at him because that should be him. That should be his hands holding tight to Rhyshladlyn’s ripped tunic, palms cupping his armpits, feet slipping in all that blood, stumbling over body parts that were unrecognizable as anything but bloody, fleshy debris. But it wasn’t. No, instead he was standing on the sidelines looking on, like he had been for the last forty years. Even if he told himself that it was safer for them all if he stayed here, that if he ran out there and stepped foot in that grey circle of lifelessness, Ryphqi’s precarious Balance would tip completely. And the High One’s only knew what would happen after that. Nothing good, that much was certain.
Azriel shook off Jerald’s hold and made for Companion Watchtower before he could talk himself out of it. He had failed Rhyshladlyn so much already. Had broken promises he had been trusted to keep. Had made new wounds that the Qishir wouldn’t ever really recover from no matter how much time passed, no matter how Healed he became. And it was time he fixed that shit. Was time he stopped making excuses, got his shit together, and did something worthwhile.
“Words mean fuck all, Azriel Veratone,” the Qishir’s voice was like poison. And somehow that hurt worse than the frost his power flux had created, than the way Rhyshladlyn only looked at him with such blankness, like there was nothing inside him that recognized Azriel and the Bond they shared anymore.
A pulse shivered through the City the second his fingertips touched the uncanny frigid heat of the Watchtower. Shook the air and made his bones thrum as a hand pressed against his own, fingers slotting between his so that his palm slapped solidly against that orange-amber surface, making him jump. He looked to the right to see the Dragaen staring at him with cave-deep eyes, the gold in them flashing in the Tower’s glow. The weight behind those eyes was familiar and old, like he’d seen it before and under circumstances not much different from the present one. He just couldn’t bring the memory into focus.
“What are you doing?” His voice trembled with fear because only qahllyn Dhaoine could touch a tethered City’s Watchtower and not have the power they gave backfire. But deeper than that primary emotion, Azriel knew that this Dragaen was so much more than it appeared to be and not because the Dhaoinic face it wore was a lie.
“You aren’t the only one tied to him,” the Dragaen explained, the foreignness of it’s magickal signature making it difficult to accept the male form it wore let alone to assign any of the Dhaoinic gender pronouns to it. It’s like being surrounded by Rhys’ signature only not as drowning deep. “And you need all the help you can get right now.”
Before Azriel could reply Ryphqi touched them both and pulled. Stole his breath and made him close his eyes as that ancient sentience bounced around in his mind, picked up and examined all the clutter that surrounded his Self and cast shade across his heart. Frowned at him and tossed those things aside until it could curl up around his Self and coo happily as it pawed gently at his heart. He laughed, genuinely and easily, for the first time in what felt like ages.
But his mirth died the second he opened his eyes and caught sight of his and the Dragaen’s hands. Felt his stomach drop out as he watched his qahllyn’qir hit the visible spectrum as Rhyshladlyn’s latent magick touched him, glowing not the silvery-white he expected but the orange-amber of magicked ink. Instead, that silvery-white glow showed up on the Dragaen’s hand, swirling and dancing on across all that pale skin. Sucked in a wheezing sob of a breath as that pattern took on a stronger glow, as it spread down the Dragaen’s hand and over his wrist to his forearm and kept going. Watched with a muted kind of dread as the Dragaen’s markings became brighter, more pronounced and better defined the longer Ryphqi pulled strength from them. Watched with a heavy heart as his own qahllyn’qir became more solid, until he could almost feel their weight on his skin but not the pull of them beneath it.
High Ones prevailing, he should have felt betrayed, lost, sad, but he didn’t. If anything he felt relieved. Which made him feel guilty because it was like he was abandoning Rhyshladlyn, their Bond, their relationship, everything that made them who they were as individuals and as a unit. But the second he had stepped out on Rhyshladlyn everything they were to each other had died. They’d just been too stubborn to accept it.
“Actions, choices, have consequences and I am sick of paying for yours.”
Or maybe it had just been him.
Azriel jerked his hand back from the Tower at the warning in those words, taking the Dragaen’s with him as the subvocal sound Rhyshladlyn had been making hit the vocal spectrum as a scream that tore at his ears and punched at his heart as the air got sucked out of his lungs and left him gasping. Turned around as light filled the square. Cursed loud and long as he threw up a hand to shield his eyes and stumbled back several steps as magick buffeted the air. Shadiranamen’s sibilant curse was the only warning he had before her hands were on him, lifting him off his feet, swinging him around, and then pressing him against a wall. He didn’t fight her. Just leaned back against it and watched as she and Jerald dragged Nhulynolyn’s body and the unknown Soul Healer respectively into what had once been the front room of a house. Watched as Thayne’s warriors filled the left over space seconds before Eiod came skidding through the doorway, chest heaving, eyes fever-bright and shining with tears.
“Fuck. There’s more of those things out there,” the Anglëtinean-Sinner huffed, bent over with his hands braced above his knees. “Fuck.”
“What?” Jerald barked, the Dhaoinic skin his Alphenian form hid behind rippling ominously. “Did you get a count?”
Gold eyes were empty of everything but a particular type of fear that came only when every option of survival had been exhausted. When death was inevitable and the only thing left was the whether it arrived by one’s own hand or that of the enemy.
“Way too fucking many to fight with the numbers we have right now,” Eiod answered. “We’re surrounded. Only saving grace is that they seem fixated on Rhys,” the Anglëtinean-Sinner rubbed a hand roughly through his hair. “But who knows how long that will last, especially given the condition he’s in.”
“And we can’t get through the maelstrom of power he’s called to the square,” one of the warriors commented, sea foam eyes reminding Azriel of Ahdyfe’s. “Not if we want to definitely die.”
“That’s the problem, warrior,” Shadiranamen’s said. “We are dead either way.”
The silence that followed that statement was cacophonous.
“Shadi…” Azriel’s voice failed him before he could even think of what else to say.
“Do you not feel it, Azriel?” Ocean-dark sapphire eyes turned to look at him. “My kè is dying. Nully’s sacrifice only kept it from being an immediate thing. And when Rhys falls…” she trailed off and shook her head.
“…we will all fall with him,” Eiod finished in a whisper.
Jerald growled and punched a wall as the screams outside rose in pitch and Ryphqi heaved before the breath it held stuttered out and it sucked in another. The creaking of old rocking chairs on even older wood porches seemed to come from every direction, making the air tremble.
“Is there anything we can do?” Jerald asked, fist still pressed into the dent he’d made in the wall, head bowed. The muscles in his back tense enough that Azriel could clearly see them through the Alphenian’s blood soaked tunic. “Because I refuse to stand here, hiding, while my Qishir fights those things alone.”
“There’s only two things that will save him,” Shadiranamen answered. “He either drains Ryphqi dry of its very sentience or we get Relyt here because that wound in his chest is one only a Gret’yinl is powerful enough to Heal.”
“Or a god,” a warrior muttered.
“But Rhys won’t do that,” Eiod groaned. “Never mind that even if we could get Relyt here in time, Rhys wouldn’t let that bastard touch him.”
Shadiranamen didn’t say anything else just nodded and closed her eyes, leaning back against a wall. As Eiod walked over to Jerald and spoke lowly with his friend, Azriel glanced at the Dragaen beside him, at those brown-golden eyes that were already watching him. Debated voicing the questions tripping over each other in his head. Wondered if he wanted to know badly enough to risk being given an answer that could cripple him mentally.
The Dragaen’s expression softened as he read the hesitation on Azriel’s face and took pity on him. “Nothing has come of it.” The unspoken yet made Azriel clench his teeth.
“How long have you known?” The words startled him because he hadn’t meant to speak them but it the proverbial floodgates had opened. And he couldn’t take them back now.
To his credit the Dragaen just smiled but it was sad, filled with remembered pain, and seeing it Azriel felt a little more guilty for the brief spark of hatred that had flared when he’d seen those telltale markings on the Dragaen’s arm.
“Forty years,” the male replied. “Just everything went to shit before I could do anything about it.”
“Does he know?” Azriel asked and understood how Rhyshladlyn must have felt months ago when the Qishir had caught him with that barmaid. Though this was entirely different and not because what he had done was cheating. This brought a level of complication that the Court didn’t need right now.
The Dragaen sighed and looked away.
“It’s why we’re here right now,” the answer brought the attention of them all swinging around to the Dragaen. Shadiranamen’s gaze was the heaviest, Jerald’s power a too warm smack against the face, the scrutiny of the warriors and Eiod an almost palpable thing. But the Dragaen didn’t acknowledge any of it. Just kept staring at the floor, arms crossed over his chest.
“What is your name?” Eiod asked before the Dragaen could elaborate. Azriel didn’t know whether to growl at him or thank him.
Those brown-gold eyes lifted to the Anglëtinean-Sinner, eyebrows raised. “My name is Xefras B’eja-nim. But you should know that already.”
Before Eiod could reply Silence fell over the entire City, wiggled into every crack and empty space until it left nothing untouched. Then a voice Azriel would know anywhere spoke a single word in a language that made his blood boil, skin itch, and teeth ache, “Leader.”