It shouldn’t have surprised him to find the room in such disarray yet it did. Mostly because the air was soaked in the scent of his precious Snake’s worry, her love, her shampoo, the natural smell of her magick, and over it all, tainting that perfection in scent form, was her terror, something she had never felt here with him. And woven around all of that, tinging the natural smell of her magick was a change that clued anyone who knew what it meant into the fact that she was not only qahllyn but to whom she was qahllyn. And the realization of that was like a knife to the gut.
The entire apartment reeked of her presence, so fresh he could almost feel the body heat she didn’t give off. As though she’d spent hours or days here and then left abruptly. Which seeing as the Shiëtzir was singing again, something it had never done whenever she had been here with him studying the oldest forms of magickal practice he could find records of in the Worlds, he didn’t doubt she’d packed up and run.
He really didn’t blame her for being afraid. Anyone who didn’t know the true beauty and breadth of power in those objects would be afraid of them.
If he was a more reasonable, sane male he’d be terrified, too. But he’d made this Shiëtzir and the brethren that sang in tandem to it with his own blood, with his own tears, his own hopes and failures. Sealed it in the sacrifice of Relyt’s honor and the qahllyn that writhed beneath the male’s skin. Powered it with Rhyshladlyn’s own magick, magick he had leached through the collar that had remained locked around the Qishir’s neck for three centuries. Engaged it with the blood Rhyshladlyn had shed from the Qishir’s own veins and in the streets of the City after he’d destroyed that collar. And so, he knew too much about these Shiëtzir to be able to properly fear them like any other Dhaoine in the Worlds would.
He took a deep breath in, pulled that scent and all the nuances of it deep into his lungs, rolled each piece around on his tongue until he could pick it apart. Focused on the spicy twang of Rhyshladlyn’s scent that wove around Ahdyfe’s magickal signature, before he let that breath out slowly and took in another one, this time searching for that barely detectable scent he didn’t think he would ever get to smell in person again. As it blossomed across his tongue, he felt a spike of jealousy make his skin flush. Born solely because yet another Dhaoine had the connection he had craved for over half a millennia.
He held that breath just long enough that his body demanded he breathe out again. Let that breathe ground him before he took in another and leaned against the doorjamb. It wasn’t a surprise that she was the Grey Healer. No, it was more a surprise that it had taken Rhyshladlyn this long to bring her to his table, to Call her home. His Snake had always been an exceptionally powerful Healer, born to a caste that was unusual to see in her race. She had never seen the line between ally and foe, only the one between injured and whole and no matter how much he’d tried to make her see differently, she’d never listened. He breathed out again when his lungs began to burn and worked at pushing down that jealousy and the rage it coaxed to follow at its heels. Because he wasn’t resentful of Ahdyfe being the one who was qahllyn to Rhyshladlyn, more that yet another Dhaoine in his life had been stolen from him by the damned Grey Qishir. That someone else had been gifted naturally what he yearned for above everything else. Sure, he’d gotten that connection, eventually. Albeit not naturally and not permanently, but gotten it he had. And now he’d lost it again before he’d ever gotten the chance to know what it was like to have the Oath he spoke reciprocated.
He forcibly shoved that thought out of his head because now was not the time to even try and handle that shit. Pushed away from the doorjamb and stepped inside the room, closing the door softly behind him with a gusty, too loud sigh. Pushed his damp hair out of his eyes as he leaned back against the door and debated what to do first. He knew what he should do: make sure that Ahdyfe wasn’t able to get the fuck back in here, that she couldn’t even so much as find the World the apartment was in again now that she’d run from him and the home that had been just theirs for centuries. He should also check to see what state the Shiëtzirs were all in and determine whether it was time he woke them all or just left the one here and its brethren awake.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do anything else except stare at the room and recall the memories that haunted it nearly as strongly as the ghost of his Snake’s scent. To lean against the door like he’d fall without it and remember the first time he’d laid eyes on Rhyshladlyn face to face in this very room the day he’d tried to give the male gretkewqi before Relyt had begun the process of inking gretluos beneath his skin long before he’d ever shared a campfire with him. Though the Qishir hadn’t known who he was then, hadn’t learned until months before he’d nearly killed Relyt in the Steward Corps camp at the edge of the Forest of Dreams and Darkness. Remembered the dreams, the hopes, the failures, the successes, the tears shed in silence and solitude, the loneliness. Remembered all of it and felt his throat grow tight, rubbed at his chest as though that would make his heart hurt less.
He ached for them both, his Snake and his Greywalker. Both for their own sakes, for the same reasons and for different ones. Which was ironic, really. He’d always made fun of Relyt for the male’s infatuation with the Grey Qishir. Had also scolded Rhyshladlyn for his inability to keep Dhaoine at a safe distance and yet he’d never once taken his own advice, followed his own rules. Between Rhyshladlyn and Ahdyfe, his heart had never stood a chance. He’d always envied his little brother the connection of a true qahllyn to the Grey Qishir, even if wasn’t reciprocated. Had also envied Ahdyfe her freedom and the ability to forget that life’s hardships were ultimately fleeting and not just because every Dhaoine died eventually. For all that he had cautioned everyone in his life, all his followers, his brother, his Snake, his Greywalker, to keep every Dhaoine at a distance, to never let anyone get too close, he hadn’t been able to follow his own advice.
But it was the lure of the bond Rhyshladlyn had with those qahllyn to him and Ahdyfe’s freedom that had ultimately driven him to seek the two out, to bring them as close as he could, to hold them there by any means necessary. Even if doing so risked death, even if doing so meant he stood to lose them both. It was better than never having had them at all.
And for a time he’d had a taste of the freedom Ahdyfe had always had, found it in the way she’d always managed to make him laugh genuinely, something not even Relyt had been able to achieve. Had even had a taste of the bond his little brother had, however brief it had been, following N’phier City’s fall. Had given up his own memories to live as Relyt, had committed fratricide to achieve that goal. He’d given up Ahdyfe and the life they’d had together for the chance to make this scheme work. And now…
Now he’d lost them both. He could feel the Oath he’d spoken freely to Rhyshladlyn, albeit under false pretenses and a false identity, withering away the longer the Qishir went untouched by the influence of the Worlds-wide mind spell Lílrt had built across nearly four hundred years before he’d finally gathered enough power to activate it. He could feel Ahdyfe’s now permanent loss in his life like a gaping wound, the whispers of her laughter stagnant in the apartment. He’d given up everything he had to have even a taste of the two Dhaoine he wanted most in the Worlds and now he had neither of them.
To say he was bitter and angry was an understatement. He had done everything right yet somehow reason he’d failed. For all that he had thought he’d been ten steps ahead of Rhyshladlyn, the damned male still managed to out maneuver him at every turn. And now the Qishir had his Snake, too. Gods, is there nothing you won’t take from me?
“Fuck,” he hissed under his breath and rubbed his face with both hands before pushing his hair back and into a swiftly done braid. It was damp enough from the rain that fell in great sheets outside that he didn’t need to tie it for it to stay in place, which was welcomed since he needed his vision clear to figure out what was missing. Never mind that he still needed to contact Eshere’s Clan and get them compensation for the life he’d taken without any better reason than he needed the head start Eshere’s death would give him. Because if the neodrach had spoken his real name aloud in the halls of the Eighth Palace? Lílrt would have never made it out alive. But most importantly he needed to figure out what had gone wrong with the mind spell and then fix it. Because the longer that problem went unsolved, the greater the chance he wouldn’t recover became.
Between one breath and the next the air turned thick and sluggish, dripped with humidity, and his ears rang in that way that was particular to the pressure of being in deep water. He froze as that pressure moved from his ears to his whole body, until it felt like his chest was too tight. Like he was slowly being crushed to death but there was nothing actually touching him.
“This one finds it a wonder that you are still even bothering to try to get one up on Rhyshladlyn.” He whipped around to face the doorway and felt all the color drain from his face. Stared at pure darkness given humanoid form as it stepped out of the deep shadows that had gathered outside the reach of the meager sunlight that shown through the pouring rain from the windows on the opposite wall. Felt his knees go weak as that figure took another step forward, arms spreading out in what would be a see, I’m harmless gesture were it literally any other sentient thing in Existence. “For despite knowing it to be a futile endeavor, still here you are, trying over and over. It would be impressive were it not so very pathetic.”
He swallowed and took a step back even though he knew realistically that there was nowhere in the Worlds, the After, Oblivion, or the In Between that he could go where the thing in front him couldn’t follow him. Yelped like a startled fledgling when his ass hit the edge of the desk. Hesitated only a moment before he scrambled to get to the other side of it, as though a mere oak desk would keep something like that at bay. The thing before him was something not even the gods fucked with. Shit, Lílrt doubted even Rhyshladlyn would fuck with a literal being.
A hundred things to say flashed across his mind, filled his mouth until it swished with too much spit and what was probably vomit. But he didn’t dare open his mouth. Was too afraid of what would tumble out if he did. So he just stood on the other side of the desk and watched the being come to a halt just outside of the ray of sunlight, that undulating, golden-red light dimming to twilight as it softly brushed across feet that were larger than any Lílrt had ever seen. Realized that this creature stood at least a full foot taller than Rhyshladlyn on the closer to eight feet tall end of things, tall enough that its head with hair that fell around mountain-wide shoulders with the same consistency of a rushing river on a moonless night nearly touched the ceiling. Lílrt swallowed on a throat that was far drier than his mouth and vehemently wished he hadn’t come here.
“Oh, quiet are you now?” it taunted and he clenched his jaw against the urge to bare his teeth in a snarl, the action making those unspoken things swish all the more violently across his tongue and clack against the backs of his teeth. “Usually you are overcome with incessant words that no one wishes to hear.”
He shook his head and shrugged, the actions far more nonchalant than they both knew he was. But there was nothing much else he could do besides try and catch a Line to get the fuck out of here. But given that a being literally didn’t have to follow the Laws that governed the living, the Otherborn, or anything else? Given this being had managed to get through his fully powered, locked wards without so much as a blip to alert him otherwise? Something told him that trying to catch a Line would see him learning that even the gift of wings from his mother’s people wouldn’t keep him from dying when this thing tossed him from that Line in pieces.
“If he had a Protector, we’d have known the moment that collar went around his neck,” he blurted suddenly, and slapped a hand over his mouth. Would have closed his eyes in self condemnation if it wouldn’t mean taking his eyes off the thing that had likely come to kill him. Every Dhaoine in the Worlds was taught two things: that the Greywalker Genocide was necessary for the protection of the races and that if one ever encountered a being that one should not talk to it and should definitely not loose sight of it until it chose to leave. And here he was, not following either of those lessons.
“Oh but you did know, little Dhaoine,” the being replied, voice sounding like darkness if it had a sound; like summer nights full of croaking frogs and chittering nocturnal animals and birds, the humming buzz of grasshoppers cataloging the temperature. As its power whispered out around the room Lílrt could swear he smelled desert wildflowers, the kind that only bloomed in the darkest times of night when not even the moon shone light to the sands that spread below the sky. “You knew because you saw the darkness that floated alongside him wherever he went. You knew because somehow magick still coated him even with a collar designed to make him Imènian.”
“That merely meant that he was stronger than we anticipated,” he countered, even as a small voice in the back of his head that sounded suspiciously like Relyt’s told him to shut the fuck up and stop arguing with a being. “Which given that he shattered the damned thing, wasn’t an inaccurate assessment.”
“Yes, he broke free of your enchantment and enslavement because he is stronger than anyone ever gives him credit for,” it chuckled and by the Many the sound alone made Lílrt want to peel the skin off his face, which said nothing of how its expression shifting in accordance with that sound made him feel, “but that is not the only reason. The other reason, among many, is me. For he is the same as the desert wildflowers that are so rare in his homeland: thrives in darkness, calls to it, nurtures it, loves it, bonds with it. And in turn that same darkness gives him life, loves him in return, and does everything it can to protect him.”
“I’d feared I would never get to see this flower again,” Rhyshladlyn murmured distractedly as he twirled the desert wildflower gently between his thumb and forefinger, the drooping, delicate yet resilient petals looking as dark as heart blood in the flickering firelight. Even though he knew that they were actually closer to the orange-amber of the Qishir’s eyes.
“Why?” he asked, even though the more often he spoke the greater the chance the Qishir would recognize his accent and come to the conclusion that he’d heard it before in someone he knew well. But the sight of that flower, so far from the heart of Fènwa World where they were native was a powerful omen, one that made him feel like he was standing on the deck of a pitching ship caught in one fuck of a storm. And because of that, he threw some of his rigid caution to the winds. Well that and his desire, his need, to know more about the enigma that was the Grey Qishir.
“Because I’m not able to go home anymore and even if I was,” Rhyshladlyn sighed and tossed that flower onto the fire that crackled merrily between them, face illuminated brightly when it flared nearly white as the magick in the flower was consumed, “there is no fertile land left for them to grow. The blood that soaks that sand is too thick now.”
“While you may have managed to take his First, Second, and Third Others from him, you failed to take me.” It laughed again and he flinched. “I am forever the… oh how do you Dhaoine say it… ah! The ace up his sleeve.”
He shook his head. “If you were there the whole time why didn’t you free him? The Laws of Dhaoine don’t apply to your kind.” The air sucked out of his lungs when that being appeared on the other side of the table, palms pressed to the wood as it leaned forward across it, lips curling back to show a mouth that was nothing more than the ominous yawning of a deep ocean cave and likely ten times more dangerous.
“Remember this, Lílrt Greymend,” it said instead of answering him, the intensity of its voice like thunder trapped in a cave too tiny for even a gnat to fit comfortably, “you will give penance and when you do, it will not be my kè you have to contend with, it will be me. And unlike Rhyshladlyn…” it smiled wider and may the Many See him always, that smile was far more terrifying than anything he’d ever seen in his very long life, “I am cruelty given flesh and care nothing for the mercy Dhaoine are so obsessed with.”
Lílrt opened his mouth to retort though he had no idea with what since his tongue felt swollen and too heavy for his mouth and his baser instincts had finally gotten his mind to stop supplying him with stupid shit to say to engage it in conversation. But before he could do more than drop his jaw enough to wet his dry lips, the being was gone just as silently and quickly as it had appeared. He sank heavily and gracelessly to the floor, only vaguely aware as he did that the front of his pants were wet from where his bladder had emptied, whispering a breathless prayer of thankful relief to the Many.
His relief was short lived. A loud, discordant chime made him jump and loose a scream that was sharp and high with terror. Made him turn and look at the Shiëtzir with a frown. And numbly realized that it was possible to feel greater terror than what Rhyshladlyn’s Protector Other had soaked him with as he watched the bluish gold sand in the Shiëtzir behind him turn black with flecks of white.
This time when his instincts told him to catch a Line and leave he didn’t hesitate.