51

The second the Gateway’s magick released him Xykra was slamming into him, her arms wrapping around his neck. Sidestepping out of the way as Azriel and Shadiranamen came through behind him, he clutched his sister to him and buried his face in her neck. Took in the scent of her skin and the soft fall of her hair as it brushed against his cheek. Felt Hythin’s approach before the Shadow’s hands touched his shoulders from behind, grip strong and grounding. They shared his grief in that simple touch. Understood the pain he felt and the revelation he’d experienced in Ryphqi City. Guilt threatened to wash out his happiness at feeling them near him again. But he pushed it aside for later. Right now wasn’t the time.

He lifted his head as Azriel was met by Relyt who carefully hovered his hands over Rhyshladlyn’s slack face, mindful of the coldfire that still dripped from holes in the Qishir’s cheeks that hadn’t mended entirely when he’d put his Dhaoinic face back on. Watched as the Soul Healer looked up at Azriel’s face, marked as it was by the tattoos the Anglëtinean had gotten when Rhyshladlyn had been collared by the Anointed One, cutting off the Grey Qishir from his Court, making them think that he was dead. Recognition flashed briefly in Relyt’s slate grey eyes before he blinked and looked back at Rhyshladlyn, resuming his diagnostic pass with hands that visibly trembled.

Held Xykra tighter when Alaïs ran from across the hall where she’d been pacing over to Shadiranamen. Watched the Lord Queen stop short, hands covering her mouth on a sound he didn’t have words to describe when she saw Nhulynolyn’s body clutched in the Other’s arms, limp in the way only the dead were. That limpness the only sign he wasn’t unconscious like his mirror, for unlike Rhyshladlyn there were no visible death wounds. Which was perhaps a mercy. Watched as the Sinner swayed on her feet and started to collapse, only to be caught by Thayne whose crimson eyes burned with an anger Xefras knew all too well.

Hythin squeezed his shoulders and stepped away, crossing the room to stand before Shadiranamen, Alaïs, and Thayne. The Shadow slowly went to one knee, right hand curled into a fist and pressed over his heart. Spoke in a voice that rumbled like cave-trapped thunder, loud in the eerily quiet hall, “Shadiranamen Otherborn, it would be my honor to assist in preparing Nhulynolyn Otherborn for the funeral pyre as he died in the defense of my .”

The gasps of the Grey and Honorable Courts were nearly as loud as those carefully chosen words, spoken without hesitation and with a sincerity that only one of Hythin’s kind could muster. It broke his heart all the further to see it, to hear it. Because Otherborn didn’t die every day, not before their and so for that normality to be broken was a Worlds-altering thing. It shook the very fabric of reality at its foundation and left everyone within it trembling and in shock, unable to do anything but watch. Watch and pray that when everything settled down that there was something, anything, left to salvage. Even as they knew there very likely wouldn’t be.

“On behalf of my Qishir,” Relyt replied, accent thick as he carefully pronounced each word in Common, eyes sparkling with tears he didn’t let fall and likely wouldn’t until he was in private, “we accept your offer, Hythin Otherborn.”

His Shadow Other nodded and rose to his feet in a single fluid motion that was like water falling over rocks and reached out to take Nhulynolyn from Shadiranamen’s shaking arms. Cradled the male like one would something precious, something breakable. Much like Lílrt had all those decades ago when he carried Rhyshladlyn out of the rooms the Qishir had been in, body limp with deep unconsciousness, plagued by a darkness that moved with a sentience Xefras had never seen before. And in death, Nhulynolyn looked every bit the identical mirror twin he was to the Qishir. With his eyes closed and face devoid of life’s flush, hair a knotted, windswept mess, it was hard to tell the difference between him and Rhyshladlyn. Was hard to believe that the mirror lived where the reality did not.

It was a sobering, horrible thought. He held Xykra all the tighter, felt her curl her tiny, delicate hands against his bare back, her nose cold where she buried it in the hollow of his collarbone. For they were twins, too, born much like Rhyshladlyn and Nhulynolyn had been. And the mere idea that the scene they were witnessing could be of them instead left a pocket of cold in their chests that no amount of warmth could chase away.

“Where is Bayls?” Eiod asked, voice strained as he helped guide Jaro to the nearest chair, murmuring thanks when Thae’a turned it so the Soulless and Anglëtinean-Sinner didn’t have to struggle further than necessary. “Has she been told?”

“Y’adtrik went to get her and Xhesh the second the Gateway flared,” Thayne replied as she gently cradled her Companion in her arms. “We deployed an honor guard after I sent Azriel and Shadi to Ryphqi.”

Xefras watched Alaïs stare at Nhulynolyn, clear blue eyes rapidly moving in all directions, as though she were memorizing every single line and dip and hollow and strand of hair on the Other before she shook herself and stepped away from Thayne. The Eighth Qishir didn’t fight her, just let her go, watched with understanding, grief-stricken crimson eyes as the Lord Queen turned to her living brother, hesitating only a moment when she saw the still gaping, bleeding wound in Rhyshladlyn’s chest that bared his torn, struggling heart for the Worlds to see. But then she blinked and that hesitation bled from her face and she was all business. Showed in the way she crossed the distance and began conversing in hurried low tones with Relyt how she had managed to convince the entire Sinner Demon race that the Ka’ahne dynasty should be allowed to continue. Showed in the way she faced her living brother’s obviously mortal wound with a straight face and sharp mind why she had been the only Lord Queen since her kind first drew breath and kept the title even now centuries later.

Alaïs Ka’ahne Firesbane was every inch the Honorable Companion she was qahllyn to be. Fate chose well in that pairing, at least.

“By the Blood Mother, what the fuck happened?” Adïmshyl asked as he moved papers and other things out of the way to clear a space for Azriel to lay Rhyshladlyn down, to give them room to work on closing the wound in his chest and the other, less dire ones all over his body.

“Flesh-less monstrosities,” Jerald answered, the mask that covered his Alphenian form rippling, making his face look like the surface of a calm lake that had been disturbed by whatever lurked beneath it. “One got the better of him somehow. Put its fucking hand through his chest. Had that Soul Healer,” he nodded at a male who was busy gripping the back of a chair, winter-grey eyes full of pain and something terrible that made Xefras’ mouth go dry, “not called his name at just the right time, it would have been an immediate death blow.”

“How did it even manage to get that close?” The Honorable Warrior, Ishmariel, asked as he circle the table to stand opposite Azriel and Relyt, hands beginning to glow with his power as he did what he could to help Heal the Qishir. “Rhyshladlyn was fresh off an arena Feeding. He would have been at his absolute be–“

“He learned I’m qahllyn to him,” Xefras cut in, bringing every single set of eyes swinging around to him. The surprise of them all was palpable. Well, all save the dejection that fell off Azriel in waves. Not that he blamed the Anglëtinean. After all, it was one thing to sense that one was no longer as closely bound to their Qishir, it was another entirely to confirm that the position one held in that Qishir’s Court was to be taken by another. Xefras would feel like a usurper if he didn’t know that one couldn’t choose who they were qahllyn to.

*Though the gods only know we wish we could right now,* Xykra murmured as she let him go but took one of his hands. He didn’t blame her but was still grateful that she allowed him room to breathe while he had this conversation.

“Wait… so that makes two new qahllyn in as many days? How the fuck is that possible?” Alaïs barked, her stare heavy but not hostile. “First his Healer and now… what position are you? Scribe or Clergy?”

*You should not have this conversation at this moment, my ,* Hythin cautioned as he walked across the room towards the doors, Shadiranamen walking in near perfect sync-step beside him, sapphire eyes shining and dark.

*I cannot and will not lie to them,* Xefras retorted with a flash of annoyance. *Rhys nearly died because he learned what I am to him; Nully did die because of it, died saving Rhys and saving me by proxy. I’m not going to sit on that information and pray that there will be a good time to disclose it. Because there will never be a good time.*

Hythin sighed and nodded. *You are right. Just… be careful.*

“Well?” Thayne pressed when he didn’t answer right away. “Which position are you?”

“Companion,” a female voice answered and that palpable attention shifted to the doorway where a short Sinner female stood looking like she had gone several rounds in a fighting ring and lost. Badly. It was hard to reconcile the Bayls of his memory, so proud and unshakable in Thae’a’s house all those years ago, with the female who stood before him now looking like she had not slept in the last decade. But given that her mate hung dead in Hythin’s arms, that wasn’t a surprise.

What?”

He had no idea who said it and he didn’t bother to look around to try and figure it out. Because those piercing hazel eyes with their incredible intelligence swept around and up to him. Caught his own gaze and held on, unblinking, while she read him. Took stock from head to feet and back again. Relearned him, recognition burning bright and sudden in those eyes before it cooled, half masked by surprise, like she hadn’t remembered him until that moment. He didn’t say anything, just waited. Gave her all the time she needed, let her answer the murmurs that sprang up like angry bees all around the hall. The right fell to her seeing as his existence had cost her her mate.

“He’s Rhys’ new Companion,” she elaborated, voice subdued, soft. But the weight of truth to her words made his bones thrum. Made him wish he could sleep for a thousand years if only to escape the exhaustion that smothered the air around her. “That’s the only position that would have made him stutter enough that anything could get the upper hand on him.”

But he knew it wouldn’t work. Profound loss left a stain, a tiredness, that nothing cured. He knew that from personal experience.

“Well… fuck,” Thae’a said with feeling.

“You can say that again,” Eiod snorted.

“Do you think it’d help?” the Dreamweaver asked.

“Probably not,” Eiod answered to a smattering of giggles around the hall, “but don’t let that stop you.”

“Enough,” Thayne cut it, silencing them. “Right now we need to get Nully prepared for the pyre and Rhys Healed,” crimson eyes landed on each one of them, reminding them that while she didn’t often play to it, she was still the Eighth Qishir for a reason. “Everything else can wait until those two things are handled.” Her tone dared them to question her. No one did. “Good. Now let’s get to work.”

Xefras squeezed Xykra’s hand before letting go and walking towards Bayls. Followed the pull of those eyes and the grief that darkened them. Stopped within arms’ reach and sighed softly, wishing he could hug her, wishing that if he could that it would do anything to help her. It was his fault, indirectly, that her mate was dead. And he wished dearly that there were words he could say that would do justice to the loss she was facing. But words failed him. All he could do was open and close his mouth several times before growling and rubbing a hand across his mouth in frustration.

“It’s okay,” Bayls reached out and caught his hand as it fell back to his side. “I mean… it isn’t,” she looked at Nhulynolyn’s body and flinched, “but… I don’t blame you for what happened. You don’t get to pick who you’re qahllyn to or even when that knowledge gets figured out.”

“I am… so very sorry, Bayls,” he whispered, squeezing her hand where it still held his own. “It is not worth much, but I am. And if there is anything I can do for you…” He trailed off into an uneasy, trembling silence, feeling the weight of forty years years time difference settle across his shoulders.

She nodded. “Thank you, Xeffy.” Her voice broke as fresh tears spilled down her face. Xheshmaryú wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tucked her against him. Xefras let go of her hand as the Nochresi Other pulled her away and followed Hythin and Shadiranamen out of the hall without a word.

He rubbed at his sternum and the ache that had bloomed there as he watched the doors close behind them. Wondered as he turned back towards everyone else why for all that the Grey Court seemed to remember him none of them had come searching for him in forty years. Before he could do more than gasp as pain bloomed the length of his torso, the World tilted and lurched sideways violently. He frowned as something hard impacted his shoulder but try as he might he couldn’t seem to get his body to cooperate. Couldn’t register anything else but that ache and the pain that surrounded it.

“Xefras!” Xykra cried. “What’s… where is all this blood coming from?”

“Shit! He tore open the wound Nully was Healing,” a male voice, Eiod maybe, said from above him. Above me? What? “Jerald, go get the Palace Healers. Relyt is too busy with Rhys to focus on this one.”

Pounding footsteps and Xykra’s soft whispers of his name was the last thing he heard before the yawning darkness of unconsciousness filled him.

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