“Allow me to remind you.”
It was like he was drowning, caught breathless beneath the churning waves of the Uthiel Sea. Frantically trying to swim for the surface but it wasn’t in the direction his air bubbles traveled, wasn’t in the direction the white caps of storm-tossed angry waves made him think it was. Nothing was as it seemed surrounded by that too dark, too clear water and the dangers it hid from sailors’ sight. He flung out his arms, desperately searching for anything to grab a hold of, to use to bring him to the surface, to bring him to air. But no matter how hard he tried, where he turned, what he did, all there was was water and the hatred it had for anything living within it that didn’t belong there. All there was was the insistent pull of the Drowning Deep, of the ship as it sank into the pitch far below him. And no matter how hard he struggled, how much power he flung out, he could not escape it, could not breech that churning surface, could not rid himself of Uthiel’s furious embrace.
All movement ceased. A pause as even the churning waves that seemed to surround him on all sides fell calm. And in that stillness moved a presence that felt as old as the sea itself. An ancientness that pressed against his skin with a greater pressure than the depths he had sunk to. A grief for things that had been, things that could have been. A whisper of Else, of Loss, of something so profound and so terrible there weren’t any words or sounds capable of expressing it in a way that would make it understandable. It was only felt, only Known, in the way one Knew the truth of their own Self. But even in that Knowing it remained Unknown.
He turned in a slow circle, weightless in that too heavy, too dark, too clear water. Unnerved by the stillness and the peril it preceded. But the second he caught movement out of his periphery, so close to him he could feel the displacement of the water, he was suddenly breathing air again. Before he could do more than cough and splutter, power shivered down his arm, hit his chest and bloomed with fire warmth.
Even as the Drowning Deep fell away into nothing but memory, Azriel felt like he hadn’t escaped it. Even as that fire warmth chased away the angry sea’s chill, even as the Dragaen it belonged to called his name and half slapped one cheek, Azriel felt like the Danger he’d sensed had followed him back to reality. Or it had been he who followed its Call because it had always been here, hiding amongst them.
“I’m here, Xefras. I’m here,” he gasped, coughing so hard it felt like part of his lungs had fallen out of his mouth. His own hands came up to curl around Xefras’ wrists, squeezing as hard as he dared, just to feel something solid and real. “I’m okay… I’m here.”
Two warm hands cupped his face, moving it down until a forehead pressed against his own. As much as he wanted to relax into that touch, he didn’t. There just wasn’t time to focus on how he felt wet, how his mouth tasted like saltwater. How his lungs ached and twitched like he’d swallowed some of it. Rhyshladlyn was speaking and that foul language made the power that filled every available inch of space in the World ripple ominously. He’d lost enough time drowning in a memory that had felt far too real.
With a hoarsely whispered thank you Azriel pulled away from Xefras and turned his attention back to Rhyshladlyn. He could feel the Dragaen’s disapproving look but didn’t acknowledge it. He would have time later to process how he had been drowning while Worlds away from the sea. Right now he needed to focus on what was happening around him in reality.
“Do you know me now, Leader?” Rhyshladlyn tilted his head to the side, mouth spreading with a smile that made Azriel want to vomit. Every instinct screamed for him to run and run now before the owner of that smile, of the power that had not just made him recall one of his worst nightmares but literally relive it, turned fully on him. Even if logically Azriel knew he had nothing to fear, that he was safe from Rhyshladlyn, it didn’t stop his instincts from making as much noise as possible. As though there was something crucial he was missing.
“We know you,” that thing replied, sounding just as shaken and terrified as Azriel felt. Not that he blamed it.
After all, knowing Rhyshladlyn was powerful was one thing. Feeling the way the Qishir’s power had replaced the air itself? That was something all together different. It made pretending, ignoring, hoping, that Rhyshladlyn was less than what the stories told of him impossible. Made one face head on the fact that Rhyshladlyn was a predator that had no equal.
“Are you certain of that?”
“That’s a trick fuckin’ question if I’ve ever heard one,” Eiod muttered.
“I almost feel bad for the thing,” one of the warriors snorted.
“Don’t,” Jerald commented. “It brought it on itself.”
“I said almost.”
The chuckling that echoed around him made him feel like this was almost any other instance where Rhyshladlyn fought some horrible beast against all the odds. But it wasn’t enough and so he didn’t laugh with his family and Thayne’s warriors. Not when he could still see the way Rhyshladlyn’s heart struggled to beat, to heal itself. Not when he felt the way the Qishir was keeping every Otherborn except for Shadiranamen out of the City because one had fallen here and Otherborn didn’t die often.
“You are known by many names to the Unchained, the Deep Cold, the Laughing Fear, and the Swift Death, Rhyshladlyn Ka’ahne,” the one called Leader said, hands held up in front of it, as though warding off an attack. “Which ones would you like this one to list for you?”
Azriel didn’t have to see his face to know the expression that went along with the tone of voice Rhyshladlyn used when he snapped, “All of them.” The way that flesh-less thing flinched bodily told him clearly enough. The way everyone in the building with him flinched, their mirth dying in seconds, was enough. They all knew that tone and the warning it held, the clipped way Rhyshladlyn enunciated every syllable of those three words. As though the words themselves were knives and by the time he finished wielding them, the receiver wouldn’t have any blood left in their body. But then again, Rhyshladlyn had always known exactly how to use words to do a damage far more devastating than what he could do with his swords or fists or fangs.
“As you will.”
Azriel gripped the windowsill hard as all around the square those things spoke one by one, each uttering a single name, a term, before the next one spoke. Each more terrifying than the last. Each one telling Azriel, telling them all, that their Qishir was something far more than what they’d ever thought he was. Reminded them that there was more to Rhyshladlyn than just him being a Qishir. That even being a Greywalker entailed more than they had realized or known.
As the last name was spoken Azriel realized his ears were bleeding and he was crying. Realized, too, that he wasn’t the only one. But he didn’t ask if everyone was okay. None of them were, not when faced with the absolute truth of what their Qishir actually was. Not when faced with the real knowledge that they had come here thinking to get Nhulynolyn’s body, to rescue a Soul Healer and a Dragaen, to get Rhyshladlyn out so they could Heal him before he died, and ended up facing down a veritable army of flesh-less monsters. Never mind that their very nearly dead Qishir was standing on his own, power a living thing that beat against their skin like fists of a fledgling throwing a tantrum only ten times as a strong. That for all that his chest still had a hole in it, that his heart was still unHealed and struggling to sustain him, Rhyshladlyn moved and talked like he was uninjured. Ever the unmatched predator even when barely alive.
There was no being okay in the face of any of that. Not now and likely never again.
“So, now that we’ve established you lot remember exactly who I am,” High Ones See him but that conversational, easy tone always made the tiny hairs on his body stand on end, “I’d like you to explain something to me, Leader. Could you do that?”
“Of course, Rhyshladlyn Ka’ahne,” it answered without hesitation and Azriel envied it that. For if Rhyshladlyn had turned to him and asked anything of him in that moment, he’d be hard pressed to do more than gurgle stupidly let alone be willing to do fuck all that the Qishir wanted.
“Good,” that lithe, glowing body took one step forward, the stones beneath his feet groaning and bowing inward with his weight, like if he were a single ounce heavier they would give way entirely. Another step, more groaning, that circle of grey spreading faster now, taking more and more of the bodies that littered the square’s expanse as it went until there was nothing left but Rhyshladlyn and the creatures that circled him. Another step and another, the coldfire that had licked at his legs and the cobblestones around him spluttered out, called home to the male who’d birthed it. “Tell me what made you think you had the right to chase that which belongs to me.”
Azriel felt his stomach drop out and swayed. Xefras cursed and tucked his body against his side but it only did so much considering the foot and a half of height difference between them. Thankfully Eiod slipped an arm around his waist from his other side and redistributed his suddenly boneless weight. But it did nothing to steady his insides, to steady his heart. Because he knew what that phrasing meant, had heard it lifetimes go in Shiran City, though worded a bit differently, when Rhyshladlyn had demanded answers of Azhuri right before he’d killed her. Back then the Qishir had been talking about him but Azriel didn’t think he was the subject of that statement this time.
“Tell me why in the fuck you thought coming to my City and harming my Companion and trying to kill me was allowable.”
High Ones he hated being right sometimes.
If the silence before had been terrible it was nothing compared now. Not even Rhyshladlyn’s cobblestone-bowing footsteps made a sound in that absolute silence. Nothing except for the sob Azriel couldn’t swallow down as the inked qahllyn’qir he’d seen when he’d touched the Watchtower became visible and stayed that way. And when the silence broke, it was around something that reminded him of that day his ship had gone down in the Uthiel Sea, the day he’d nearly drowned beneath the angry, churning waves. Reminded him of that whisper of something, of Else, of Loss, so profound one couldn’t express it with words or sounds.
“You took the one thing from me,” Rhyshladlyn was no longer speaking in that blood boiling language but each word left searing pain in its wake as it landed against one’s eardrums, “that I can never get back.” The cobblestones groaned louder with each new step the Qishir took, bowing underneath a weight that seemed far greater than body Rhyshladlyn moved across the square. “You killed my twin. And for that?”
He looked back out at the square in time to watch Rhyshladlyn blink inches from the flesh-less thing’s face, that too wide, horrifying smile splitting his strikingly beautiful face from ear to ear.
“I shall see that your kind dies in totality this day.”
The last thing Azriel saw before light burned his eyes was Rhyshladlyn’s skin bursting like a jacket ripped apart at the seams as something Else rose from the discarded skin and muscle and clothes. An Else that opened an impossibly wide mouth and consumed the flesh-less thing Rhyshladlyn had called Leader in one gulp. Then there was nothing but light and the feeling of the City’s wards finally activating.