Hands white-knuckled on what had once been a lamp post, he coughed until it felt like his lungs were lodged in his throat. Coughed until blood welled in his mouth and his sides felt like they were flayed wide open. Gathered what little strength and courage he had left and let go of the lamp post as he spat blood onto the street as soon as the fit subsided.
He should have stayed put. Should have just waited for Sheieh to return with help. But when the City had trembled, when it had lost its glow for several seconds, he’d pulled himself from the hiding spot Sheieh had tucked him into and clawed his way to his feet. Because only one Dhaoine in the Worlds could produce that kind of reaction out of a Sanctuary City. So against his better judgment, and no small number of his instincts, he ignored his wounds and how weak they made him. Stood up and shuffled through gore and City-debris. Made his shaky way towards the Companion Watchtower, following a Call that was centuries old, one he hadn’t felt since long before Shiran’s fall. And prayed each step of the way that he wasn’t making the wrong decision.
Even if he was bleeding out, even if his death was inevitable without a strong enough Healer, he still followed that call. Cared nothing for the flesh-less things that moved passed him along the street, blind to everything around them but that siren Call. All that mattered was getting to the Companion Watchtower and the Qishir whose life they all depended on. Sure he couldn’t say why, but he had to get there, had to bear witness, had to offer what help he could. Even if it wasn’t much, even if it was nothing at all, he still had to try. He owed Rhyshladlyn that much at least.
Almost there. Just ten more feet. He slumped against a building with a groan, body wracked with the worst coughing fit he’d had yet. Blood poured from his mouth faster than he could spit it out. Soaked his tunic even further until it stuck to his skin. Fuck, this was such a horrible idea. Taking as deep of a breath as he could, as he dared, he pushed off the wall and kept going. One foot in front of the other. Counted the feet until he stood at the edge of the Companion Watchtower’s square. Until with a flick of his wrist the fire smoke and stone dust cloud dispersed as his magick danced around the square.
This time when he collapsed against a building he didn’t berate himself the weakness. Because rising to its feet in the center of the square, a hole in its chest that showed the shredded remains of a frantically beating heart, was a creature of legend. An Old Story given flesh and blood and life, one he recognized immediately despite having only seen it once before. A terrifyingly beautiful creature that came to his full height surrounded by coldfire that made a circle of those long, long legs before it rippled outward like it was water and the Qishir the stone that had disturbed its smooth surface. Eyes that pools of molten orange-amber set against a grey backdrop scanned the square with a keen attention that was all predator without a single hint of prey. Even with that gaping hole in his chest, a mortal wound on any Dhaoine, even the fabled Grey Qishir, Rhyshladlyn stood tall and undaunted, unafraid. Was horrifying in the truth of himself as it hit the surface with all the force of a hurricane hitting shore and tearing apart everything it encountered.
And may the gods help him, but Jaro didn’t know whether to be happy or afraid because this Rhyshladlyn was not the one of Lílrt’s fabricated reality. No, this was the Rhyshladlyn who had taken form in Thae’a’s house forty years ago and taught them all why Greywalkers were truly feared all before he’d even spoken a word. This Rhyshladlyn looked at him with a recognition no one but Sheieh had shown him in decades. And it was in that moment that Jaro knew that something awful must have happened because the kind of spell that Lílrt had performed wasn’t a small one. Could it really have been as easy as Rhys dying, however briefly, to break the spell’s hold? Even as he thought it, Jaro knew it wasn’t. Not because things were never that easy for them but because Lílrt had risked his life on this spell taking hold. If its failure rested on Rhyshladlyn dying, even for a brief moment in time, it would never have worked.
No. One of the pillars it was rooted in must have failed somehow.
A single word smacked out at the air in a language that made him feel like he was being skinned from the inside out, stealing what little breath his lungs still had, “Leader.”
He whispered a swift prayer in his native tongue for the first time in five hundred years as that word banged around in his skull, translated by the Qishir who spoke it. Heard cries as others in the square were affected similarly to himself, not that he could see any of them. Not that he bothered to look, too afraid to miss what his Qishir did next. Even if he knew he wasn’t in danger, the instinct to keep his eyes fully on the deadly predator in his vicinity was too great to ignore.
Rhyshladlyn rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and shook himself from head to foot and back again before falling still. But in that stillness was a type of movement that had nothing to do with his physical body and everything to do with what it housed. And as a ripple of unease, of warning, passed among the flesh-less creatures who surrounded the square, who filled every spare inch of still glowing stone, Jaro watched that Dhaoinic mask shift, shimmer, and fall. Piece after piece fell away until all that was left was something for which no words existed. A true form rather than a true face, a monstrous thing that lurked beneath a mask crafted over centuries to hide something that was Else in a way even the Otherborn couldn’t claim.
“One last time,” Rhyshladlyn said in that agonizing language, plopping the translation right into his mind without Jaro even feeling him penetrate his mental Shields. “Leader.” The attend that wrapped around the word was far stronger this time, touching Jaro in places that compelled him to answer it even if he wasn’t the one it called for. A compulsion that had his feet shuffling to carry him forward before he was even aware of it, before his knee knocked into what remained of a low garden wall and jarred him out of the trance of that attend.
Another tremor flowed through the gathered creatures before one by one they sank to their knees until only one remained standing. Rhyshladlyn’s laughter was a touchable thing as it breathed around the square, playing with the shaky tension that was hovering at a breaking point, the unBalanced ambient magick whining softly in warning. A stark reminder of the dangers that had lived in Rhyshladlyn’s three hundred year absence. But where that lack of Balance had been wild, absolutely uncontrollable, this wasn’t. The Qishir had complete control, each spike of Chaos and Order precise and deliberate. Done all without Rhyshladlyn ever losing focus on the enemies that surrounded him, that had very nearly killed him.
“Welcome, Leader. Good of you to finally show honor and greet me,” Rhyshladlyn sounded far too conversational and judging by the way that flesh-less thing shifted from foot to foot, Jaro wasn’t the only one wary of that easy going tone.
“This one’s apologies,” it answered at length, hesitation clear in its words. “The Unchained did not know your kind yet lived within the boundaries of the Old Places.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know who I am.” If danger could have a sound, it would be the tone Rhyshladlyn’s voice took on in that moment. Still partially conversational and light but with a hint of something darker in the register floating underneath it.
In the roaring quiet that followed, nothing moved. Nothing except Rhyshladlyn who smiled, slow and sickly sweet, as he spread his arms wide, palms facing skyward.
“Allow me to remind you.”