82

Thayne pinched the bridge of her nose, the only sign she was willing to show that her patience was wearing thin. Swallowed the undignified sigh that clogged her throat despite wanting to loose it on the hall because gods aplenty was she done. It was keenly obvious now, centuries after her death, why Lulphé had always drank after holding a meeting with the Numbered Qishir. Finally she understood why her mother had done everything she could to avoid having all of them in one place and it wasn’t just for safety reasons. It was because they were fucking annoying and whiny and High Ones prevailing, how the hell do you lot get anything done ever?

“So we’re to just take a knee for a Qishir powerful enough to rule the entire Seven Worlds but who is too chicken shit to challenge the Honorable Qishir for his rightful throne?” Thayne dropped her hand from her face and stared at the Fifth Qishir, Anjakkah of Ansyen Lontän World, who sat almost directly across from her at the round table. The Magae didn’t notice the weight of her gaze, which was just as well, Thayne had forgotten what decorum meant in that moment. Anjakkah rolled sea-green eyes, sun-kissed face scrunched like she’d just tasted something nasty and continued, “Honestly, every time we follow his directions we get screwed.”

There were murmurs of agreement around the table and Thayne looked around, trying to pinpoint who made a noise and who remained smartly silent. But it was pointless; these Qishir were better trained than Provincial ones, than those who weren’t strong enough to have a qahllyn Court, or were but had yet to form one. Decorum and courtly training had been bred into their family lines so while they muttered stupid shit their faces never betrayed the action.

You call Rhys a coward but yet hide behind your masks. Who’s the real coward?

“Mind your words, Anjakkah,” the First Qishir, Ôxha of Txiwteb World, a neodrach Lycanthrope with large midnight-black eyes set in a face nearly as dark, reprimanded gently, leaning forward in eir chair so ey could see around the Qishir who sat between them at the table. “We are here as guests of Qishir Thayne, who values Qishir Rhyshladlyn’s experience, power, and insights,” eir tone took on that of a scolding parent, “and whilst you may not believe the latter of the two is deserving of proper respects, you are still required to do so. Otherwise you dishonor not just your own name but the names of all who live within the World you rule and protect.”

“Aye, what ey said,” Dark Qishir Wyril snorted to a smattering of giggles from the wall of large two-way mirrors behind her.

Thayne raised her eyebrows and bit her tongue to keep from snickering at the way Anjakkah’s face reddened and at the Dark Qishir’s words. Because it wouldn’t do for the one Dhaoine amount them who was supposed to keep everyone in line to loose her control and laugh at the scolding of a lesser Qishir by another.

But for all that she was amused, she was always impressed. Ôxha had managed to not only silence the insolent Fifth Qishir, who had never really approved of Rhyshladlyn in general never mind Thayne’s handling of him, but also dispel the tension that had warned of imminent danger. Though imminent danger likely wasn’t the right term for the way she had been looking forward to feeding Anjakkah her own tongue but semantics. Ôxha’s actions were still impressive and she was grateful for them because em doing it instead of Thayne meant that there wasn’t a risk of a pissing contest that she really didn’t need.

“You are right, Ôxha. Thank you for correcting my course,” the Fifth Qishir bowed her head in acknowledgement of the reprimand and Thayne snorted softly, unable to help herself.

“It is not em who you need to ask pardon of by way of thanks, Anjakkah,” Thayne quipped, putting enough of her power into the words that it carried the breathless whisper of an attend. Shafts of crimson light danced from her eyes, illuminating the imperfections in the dark oak of the table that spread between them all. She waved her hand dismissively when Anjakkah opened her mouth, eyes wide, clearly having remembered that she was not among like-minded Dhaoine who shared her distaste for Thayne and Rhyshladlyn but rather in the presence of one of those very two Qishir. “But right now that is not my concern so we shall move on from it. Though only because a good section of your World was decimated and many lives lost. It is enough to make any Qishir mad in more ways than just anger.”

“Aye, Qishir Thayne. That is very true and I offer my apologies to the entire gathering for allowing my emotional upset to guide my words.”

“And mark my words, Qishir Anjakkah,” she pinned the female with a sharp stare that she had learned from Rhyshladlyn; expression going slack and still until only her eyes conveyed the emotion behind the next words she spoke, “this will be your only free pass. Disrespect myself or Rhyshladlyn like that again and I will see you on the Challenge Fields.”

“Understood, Qishir Thayne,” Anjakkah whispered, the barest hint of fear drifting across the table. “My word that I shall be better behaved from here on.”

Thayne hummed in reply and pushed back from the table to her feet, hands braced flat on the table for a heartbeat, feeling for Alaïs who replied that she was enroute with Rhyshladlyn, before she turned to the wall of two-way mirrors. The Qishir who stared back at her were the remainder of the thirteen in the Seven Worlds who were powerful enough and well-known enough to have earned their own nicknames just like she and Rhyshladlyn. The reason they were part of this meeting at a distance was because a lot of them had argued that having them ready and able to immediately act was better than having all twenty of the Worlds’ most powerful Qishir gathered in one location. That and the Numbered Qishir didn’t always agree with having any Qishir involved in Worlds’-effecting discussions unless it was their Provincial counterparts.

But Thayne had insisted because the only reason the truth had come to light was because of a Nicknamed Qishir, at great risk and even greater loss to himself. Just one more debt the Seven Worlds owe Rhys for. One we’ll never be able to repay.

“Qishir Thayne, if I may,” a petite White Soul Healer female began, voice as soft as the first snow fall in the northern Worlds, “why did you call all of us here to your table for the first time since your mother’s passing?”

“Nothing remotely good, Seventh Qishir Ryhhida,” Thayne answered, watching the expressions of the Nicknamed Qishir as they watched her watch them. Of all the Qishir in the Worlds it was her fellow Nicknamed brethren that she felt most accepted by, felt most comfortable with. But by her very nature, her birthright, she straddled the line between the two factions. Tasked with what sometimes seemed impossible and it made her so very tired. Made her wonder how Lulphé had managed to live as long as she had under the strain of the responsibilities.

But she didn’t, did she? She didn’t shoulder any of the Worlds’ problems, merely used her place to keep just enough control to allow herself to remain in power and the perfect heir her parents expected her to be. A living, vivid reminder that she was preferred to the brother they had disowned and demanded she mutilate.

“By all means, enlighten us then and allow us to share some of your burden,” the Light’s Bane Qishir, a sprightly neodrach Soulless known as Shuh’tessa, said gently, crystal gold-green eyes imploring. “Tell us what is so horrible that you called a Gathering when not even Rhys’ believed death brought us to your audience hall.”

Guess that answers whether you all remember what happened three hundred and forty years ago. Saves me some time trying to figure out where to start.

Thayne took a deep breath and looked away. Let it out as she debated whether she should warn them all first but decided not to. No one had warned her, no one had warned Rhyshladlyn. Anyone they told the truth to should also be without warning. This was one thing, one time, where the scars of blame would not mar only her skin. Would not only mar the skin of her friend, of her Qishir.

“For the last forty years the Worlds were under a mind spell enacted by Lílrt Greymend, brother of Grey Steward Relyt Greymend, also known to the Worlds as the Anointed One.” She watched the ripple of fury and unease and fear and determination shift the faces of the Nicknamed Qishir on the wall of mirrors behind her. Glanced over her shoulder to see variations of the same expressions on the faces of the numbered Qishir. Good, we’re all finally on the same page.

She clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace between the table and the wall, trying to find a way to put this delicately and finding there wasn’t one. Used the excuse of pacing to not have to meet any of their gazes, to at least play at still having enough handle on her emotions and her courtly training to remain decorous and perfectly mannered. Even though she couldn’t be any further from that if she was in the deepest reaches of the After.

“I’m assuming most of you remember that at one point the Worlds were plunged into Ordered Chaos when Rhyshladlyn disappeared and was presumed dead?” There was a chorus of affirmative noises. “Well, that happened three hundred and forty years ago, not three hundred like some of you probably remember.”

“Wait, wait,” she paused mid-stride and glanced sidelong at the mirror wall to see the Mayhem Qishir, Uvshara, waving a hand back and forth, the rich red-brown of her skin glistening in the sunlight that filtered in the windows behind her. “Are you seriously saying that the entire Seven Worlds just misplaced a whole ass forty years?”

“More like three hundred and forty but good swathes of the Worlds have remembered the three hundred years that the Grey Qishir was missing. Just not how he came back, why, or what happened in the forty years between then and now,” Ishmariel commented from where he stood by the windows opposite the main doors, arms crossed over his chest, eyes hooded like he was half asleep when he was anything but that.

“What happened?” the Third Qishir, Ahg’jë of Bondye World, asked voice full of hesitation, like she didn’t want the answer but couldn’t stop herself from asking the question regardless.

“Forty years ago, Relyt Greymend was killed by his older brother in Ryphqi City after Rhyshladlyn had escaped captivity of a nature that saw the Grey Qishir collared and used as a slave for three centuries,” Thayne answered with a deep sigh, one hand rubbing down her face before she ran it through her hair, wishing Alaïs would hurry up already. She desperately needed her Companion’s touch for this conversation. “But he escaped and in doing so, saw his third Awakening and vaporized the City he’d been held in at the time and all those who lived within it from Existence. The only three Dhaoine to make it out of that City alive were himself, his newly named Companion Xefras B’eja-nim, and Lílrt.”

“But how did he get capt–”

Thayne held up a hand and silenced the Twilight Qishir before ey could finish the question.

“That is not the important part, Kajirút,” she spread her arms and turned in a slow circle so she saw all of them. “The point is that for forty years the entirety of the Seven Worlds thought the war had ended at the start of this last four decade stretch. All of us had entirely forgotten the three hundred years of Imbalance in the wake of Rhyshladlyn being rendered Imènian by the Anointed One who used the collar around his neck to have absolute and total control over him. They forgot that even during those three centuries, we were still at war just the Grey Army was without its true leader.”

There was a pause, the breath before a fight sparked off, and Thayne reached out to Alaïs again, wondering why in the fuck it was taking her so long to get back. All she got was a chuckled flick to their link before her Companion closed their door with a gentle, Pay attention, Thay.

“That is not the whole of it,” Jeykiel of Anglë World, the Sixth Qishir, stated. Eir jade eyes were sharp, missing nothing. Hair the same hue as eir eyes half pulled back into a ponytail the rest twisted into braids adorned with silver and gold and jade beads. It was such an odd coloring for an Anglëtinean but Thayne wasn’t one to judge, not given who her mother had been or who her uncle was.

“No, it is not the whole of it,” she confirmed and gave up on playing the part of the aloof Eighth Qishir that Mother had been so damned good at. Let her disgust, her worry, her fear, her exhaustion show on her face. Let it color the taste of her power as it breathed through the room like a lover’s contented sigh. “The whole of is that what blew apart southwestern Ansyen Lontän, that what the spellwork that kept the Worlds in the dark, was Shiëtzirs,” gasps of horror danced around her, making the air vibrate as the scents of shock, fear, and disbelief made it thick with humidity. “They woke up when Rhyshladlyn Awoke in N’phier City as the Worlds’ first Greywalker Maestrelan in millennia.”

There was a moment of thick, horrible silence. The kind that reminded Thayne of the calm that fell just before a hurricane blew in off the Uthiel Sea to the east of Anglë World. Full of warning and unspoken things and the knowledge that horrors yet unknown lurked within the churning surge waters and swirling black clouds and the blinding rain. But at least with the hurricanes those who lived in Anglë knew how to prepare, knew what to expect, knew how to survive. But this… this wasn’t a natural disaster. This was worse.

“What aren’t you telling us?” Hallowed Qishir Z’hir asked, the only Qishir in the Worlds who was like Rhyshladlyn in that ey was a neodrach but preferred eir male form more than any of the others.

Thayne laughed, a short, derisive sound. “That bastard un-male murdered his own brother Relyt as a sacrifice to get the two Shiëtzirs to get them singing. Killed him for no other reason than to take his place and make the entire Worlds think he was the Grey Steward. And it worked because that was who Rhys half-way Oathed decades ago.”

“Fuck,” the Trickster Qishir, Irikuk, hissed. Thayne looked at her in time to watch the female Emosyon Demon push her fire-colored hair out of her orange-red eyes. “Is Relyt still in the After?”

“No,” Thayne replied. “Relyt has since been reborn but he is only barely forty namedays old. It is part of the reason the mind spell began to fail.”

“How did no one notice that this false Grey Steward did not bear the proper qahllyn’qir?” asked the Fourth Qishir, Yvishae of Majik World.

“Better question, how did Rhyshladlyn himself not notice?” Anjakkah snorted, sounding something other than contemptuous when referencing the Greywalker for the first time. Thayne squinted at her.

“And a follow up to those,” the Violet Qishir, Hayel, added, “what was the other part of why that spell failed?”

“In order: the mind spell was made with my own power and my own blood. So of all the Dhaoine effected Worlds-wide, I was the one who was the most entrenched. And the death of my First Other, Nhulynolyn was the other reason the spell failed because it was rooted in Relyt’s permanent death and Nully’s permanent life.”

The sound of Rhyshladlyn’s matter of fact tone had Thayne swinging around, wondering how the fuck he’d snuck in without anyone hearing him even if she knew better. She fought to keep her face blank at the sight of Nhulynolyn in the armor Shiran had originally given to the Grey Qishir, at the way her Companion’s eyes were so dark a blue they were nearly sapphire, the way Jerald’s Dhaoinic mask was twitching and drooping, like a wax that was slowly melting revealing pieces of the horror hidden beneath it. Swallowed hard at the way Rhyshladlyn’s energy felt eerily calm with sparks of an anticipation that made her body hot and cold in shifting waves; like it couldn’t decided whether to be sexually excited or absolutely terrified.

Rhyshladlyn crossed the hall in long, sure strides clad in a pair of black leather breeches tucked into calf-high boots and a matching, sleeveless leather tunic with a deep V-shaped neckline that showed the near fatal heart-wound that had healed into a twisted, livid scar on his chest as well as the slanted, looping runic script of his Nameless god-Mark. The scars that covered his arms and his neck and his face bunched and twisted and jumped with each step he took, showing the power of his muscles in a way that his prowess on a Field never had. He walked like liquid violence, all rolling, gentle gait, loose muscled and relaxed, but the way his orange-amber eyes flashed told her that there was a sharpness under that calm. He was the predator in the grass one didn’t see coming until one was stood at the River Crossing.

He was dressed for battle, wearing the same clothing she had seen him wear on countless Fields, both clean and gore drenched. The last time she’d watched him walk across her audience hall with his swords strapped to his back had been the day he’d bent knee to her, forsaking his right to the Eighth Throne, saying he was not fit to rule. That he would not challenge her for the right to it so long as she vowed to him that she would never repeat the mistakes of her predecessors. It hadn’t been a difficult vow to speak.

Rhyshladlyn drew even with the table and nodded at Thayne as Nhulynolyn and Jerald took up positions on either side of the hall doors while Alaïs came to stand beside her. The Grey Qishir nodded to the Nicknamed Qishir and then to the Numbered Qishir before continuing, tone still matter of fact, energy eerily calm but full of simmering anticipation.

“What Lílrt never anticipated was that Relyt’s qahllyn’qir‘s anger at the wrongs he’d done to me wouldn’t let him rest eternally and made certain he was reborn. And he sure as fuck never thought Nhulynolyn would die before me.”

“Yet that’s exactly what happened,” the Second Qishir, Anzíl of Fènwa World, said.

“Aye, it is,” Rhyshladlyn answered and slowly met the eyes of every Qishir, his eyes cold and distant, the press of his focus like a physical touch. Strong enough that Thayne shivered involuntarily, and she wasn’t the only one. He reached for the chair she’d vacated, spun it around and straddled it, arms crossed over the back, eyes staring down the Numbered Qishir before and beside him. Not one of them commented on how he took the seat only the Eighth Qishir had rights to. Probably because they knew as well as her that for all she held the title legally, in reality it was not her name the Worlds uttered when speaking of the one who ruled them. “And so when Nully died,” Rhyshladlyn gestured at his twin who smirked but it held not an ounce of mirth, his eyes just as cold as his mirror’s, “and Relyt was reborn, that spell weakened until the control Lílrt had on the Shiëtzirs frayed and finally snapped.”

“And when the control you mentioned snapped that’s when one destroyed southwestern Ansyen Lontän?” the Generous Qishir asked.

“Aye, Zoh’iah,” Rhyshladlyn replied. “And that was a small one because it wasn’t the one that was used as the foundation of the spellwork. Which is a small mercy, if one can even call it that.”

“A small mercy, gods See us all,” Anzíl whispered. Several voices echoed her sentiment, Ishmariel’s and Alaïs’ amount them.

“Does he live?” One of the nicknamed Qishir asked though Thayne didn’t catch who, she was too busy watching the way Jerald shifted his weight, eyes glued to his Qishir. “The un-male who cursed you, I mean.”

Rhyshladlyn shrugged. “If he does, Yvra, I cannot imagine he’s too happy about it.”

The Laughing Qishir made good on her namesake and laughed, the sound reverberating around the room, like a living thing. “Fair enough, Rhys.”

“So what do we do now then?” Ôxha asked, leaning her forearms on the table, black eyes meeting Rhyshladlyn’s orange-amber ones without hesitation. But then again the First Qishir had been one of the few to be able to look Azriel in the eyes and not flinch never mind stare down Mother when she was at her most furious. The Lycanthrope was unflappable.

“Well, that’s the problem,” Nhulynolyn pushed off the wall where he’d been standing, one hand gesturing widely in a habit Thayne hadn’t seen from him in way too long. “The only thing we can do is destroy the fuckin’ things. But, they’re kinda… not easily destroyed.”

“At least with only two Awakened Greywalkers in the Worlds,” Rhyshladlyn chuckled but it was full of broken glass sharp as steel and she stared at his profile, wishing she could read him like she used to. Wished that Alaïs could connect with Nhulynolyn who had a deeper read on the Grey Qishir than anyone else in the Worlds ever had or would have.

Jeykiel tapped two fingers on the table, bringing Rhyshladlyn’s attention to em. “Please explain.”

Before Rhyshladlyn could so much as open his mouth, Thayne felt the air change. Felt something in the ambient magick around them twist just as a single, concerned chime sounded before several others in rapid succession. She turned and watched Rhyshladlyn straighten up, face a riot of emotions that both moved too fast and were too foreign for her to name, the bells in his hair vibrating and releasing one distressed chime after another. Seconds later, the spicy twang of fear like seasoned meat cooked on fires at Midsummer filled the air. She blinked and blinked again, willing her mind to let her see what had brought that expression to Rhyshladlyn’s face. What had Jerald growling low in his throat, the sound like bottled thunder. Even if she instinctively knew her psyche was protecting her.

And she was right. Between one breath and another, as Alaïs stumbled against her and gripped one of her arms, Thayne saw what Rhyshladlyn was seeing.

Silver-grey sweeping lines of dots and filigree and swirling rune-like script glowed faintly on on Rhyshladlyn’s right arm. Slowly he lifted it from the back of the chair and held it out in front of him, long fingers splayed wide like he was fending off an attack, eyes wide and too bright tracing each one of those markings. His face went slack as his power drowned the hall. She had enough time to hiss our a curse in Anglë’lylel before the World tilted and trembled and she stumbled to her knees on patio stones, a cacophony of confused cries dancing around her like birdsong. Blinked at the sight of the front courtyard surrounding her along with what seemed like half the Palace. Frowned as her brain struggled to understand how the fuck she had gone from being in her audience hall to being outside. Looked around and found Alaïs clutching Nhulynolyn, the Sinner’s face paler than normal, like she was trying not to vomit.

“How the fuck did–“

An earth shaking pulse-pulse of power made her stomach drop out and her lungs seize. Brought her attention swinging away from Alaïs and Nhulynolyn, from trying to see if everyone from the audience hall was outside, too, and back up to the upper floors of the Palace. Cut off mid-word at the sight of a glow that was unearthly and full of writhing power so strong it touched the visible spectrum in a way that meant nothing good and everything bad. It soaked her in water that left her clothes dry but her skin freezing. Flashed her back to a desert camp and a set of training pits and the moment the Seven Worlds changed irreparably.

“Fuck!” She pushed to her feet and bolted for the front doors, heedless of the yells of her name. Careless of the risk to herself and the entire Worlds should she be inside when shit went sideways.

All she cared about was that her oldest friend was in danger and she didn’t see him outside with everyone else. Only knew that she had a duty to make sure that the one reason the Worlds still existed in any form was because of him and she’d be damned if she lost him again. She screamed when strong arms wrapped around her waist and swung her around and away from the Palace. Swung out and landed an elbow jab that broke bone and darted towards the doors again, single minded and determined in her focus.

She made it two steps before that light several storeys up brightened until it out shone the sunlight bathing them all. Jerked to a halt when it swung out in an arc from the seventh floor of the Palace, shattering windows and cracking stonework. The blast wave of power came on its heels, burning-hot and full of desperation. She weaved on her feet, knees weak and threatening to give out on her. She knew the taste of that kind of Working. Remembered the first and only time she’d ever encountered it outside of tomes and the Scrolls. Hated that she felt sympathy and respect, however slight, for the Speaker because of all the magickal acts to perform, that one was the most painful.

That light grew in intensity, bringing with it a sound that shattered the remaining windows in the Palace, the sound of the glass falling to the ground oddly beautiful. A wind full of fury and loss and desperation and something so ancient it made her shiver blew across the courtyard in the wake of that sound. Sent Dhaoine scrambling for cover wherever they could find it. It wasn’t necessary though, they had the cover they needed, granted to them when the Grey Qishir had sensed what was happening, confirmed it, and then force evacuated them all from the Palace walls. She just hoped that Rhyshladlyn had enough strength to survive, too.

A howl tore at the air and sent the Currents scattering in all directions. Another flash of that light, even brighter than before, and this time when the magick blasted outward the stonework gave way and the entire seventh floor disappeared. Brought the terrible sound of tearing metal and splintered stonework and ripped mortar with it as the upper six floors dropped down in one mass to fill the void with a cloud of displaced dust and debris. A sound that made a counter-melody to the voices screaming Rhyshladlyn’s name, cushioning four words that rumbled with divine finality, “You have my word.”

The tandem snarl of, “Shield!” made her jump, pulling her from the nightmare unfolding in real life in front of her.

She watched as Nhulynolyn ran passed her, Thae’a and Azriel hot on his heels. Watched as they moved their hands in tandem, fingers curling around ancient knotwork motions lost to all except the oldest Dhaoinic families, the dynasties that had ruled since or before the Greywalker Genocide. Watched the males sink their fingers to the second knuckles into the brick- and stonework before them, the magick they’d gathered shooting upwards like thousands of snakes, each set glowing with their creator’s power. Thae’a tore her Truth to the surface and saturated the air with it, shifted reality an inch to the right so that time slowed down to give them enough of it to make sure the entire Palace didn’t collapse.

Felt the sudden press of thousands of Dhaoine terrified and trying to find a way out of the chaos that had descended upon them. Knew the that Rhyshladlyn had cleared the seventh through thirteenth floors but not the lower six. That thought got her moving. Had her steady on her feet, her knees strong, body thrumming with the sense of battle calm that she’d missed dearly but hadn’t realized just how much until that moment. Snapped her fingers and Called to the magick woven into the very foundations of the Eighth Palace, magick she herself had woven with Alaïs’ help, after Zhalharaq’s loss. Brought it screaming to the surface, locking the shock waves of power emanating from where the seventh floor had been inside that void. Activated the Shields and Barriers to further strengthen the structural integrity of the lower floors and take the strain off Nhulynolyn and Azriel who were struggling to keep standing let alone hold up the entire Palace.

Thayne took a precious moment to look behind her. Felt relief wash through her chest when she saw the Numbered Qishir had created a Shield that protected those who had been evacuated to the courtyard. Nodded at Anjakkah when the Magae inclined her head, the go, we have this handled clear. She trusted her brethren to handle things out here. She was needed inside.

“Honorable Court, with me!” she snapped, her voice carrying with the sting of a General’s command and the power of a Qishir’s attend. She pivoted and ran for the front doors again and no one stopped her this time. There was only the pounding of the blood in her veins, the throbbing drum beat of her heart in her throat, and the pattering of feet thundering behind her. Felt the whispered acknowledgement of her Triad and two of her unOathed Court at her back and smiled.

But that smile dropped away as she flung open the doors with a flick of her fingers and ran between Uncle and Nhulynolyn. Saw the way blood gushed down Azriel’s face from a nose that was all but non-existent and knew it had been him who she’d elbowed when she realized what was really happening. Looked away before he could see the disappointment she felt at the confirmation that it hadn’t been him who had given himself for his Qishir. But judging by the flash of hurt on his expression before she was through the doors, she hadn’t looked away fast enough.

Fuck it. I’ll deal with his hurt feelings later.

“Separate,” she ordered as they crossed the front foyer and came to the main stair case, “one to a floor and evacuate everyone you can. Toss them out the windows if you have to. I’ll take the sixth floor.”

None of them argued with her. Didn’t do anything but silently follow her order, each one veering off from the group at each floor they reached until she was the only one. And when she rounded the corner at the landing of the eastern stairs to the sixth floor her heart dislodged from her throat to sit on her tongue, breath sucked out of her lungs. She stopped dead in her tracks, half around the corner, right hand gripping the wall to keep herself from falling and bringing any more attention to herself.

Because what stood at the end of the hallway with its back to her, head turned to the side, eyes looking out the windows to its left was something that had the humanoid shape of a Dhaoine but only vaguely. As though the lines that made it up were smudged, the sculptor’s hand having slipped when they were molding the clay. Then it twitched, shifted its weight slightly and she swung back around the corner, taking as deep a breath as she dared, as she could, and still stay silent. Prayed fervently that her fear wasn’t stronger than what permeated the air of the Palace already because she knew that if the attention of the thing in the hallway caught sight of her, she was dead.

As a hysterical sound filled the empty space her heart had left in her throat, Thayne clapped a hand to her mouth and tipped her head back. Wanted to close her eyes like a fledgling trying to hide from the monsters she thought lived in the closet, hidden in the deeper shadows where the light didn’t go. But she didn’t dare. Because suddenly a lesson her mother had taught her when she was still very young, right before Xitlali had been born, came back to her and her fear slipped into something she had no name for.

“If an Oathed Dhaoine ever starts to speak an Oathing Sacrifice in your presence, for, or to you, little Thay,” Lulphé’s eyes were kind but serious and sharp with it, “then you must kill them before they can finish.”

She frowned up at Mother. This didn’t seem like a topic that would help her with her studies. But Mother never told her something with that look on her face and in her eyes unless it was important. “Why?”

“Because, my darling daughter, no Qishir can handle that much power.”

“What should I do if the Sacrifice completes?”

“You will have to kill the Qishir. No, little one,” Mother held up a hand to prevent her from making further sounds of refusal and distress for to kill a Qishir outside of very specific circumstances was absolutely forbidden, “it is necessary, the Laws be damned. Because what the Qishir will become is something that the Worlds will not have had living and breathing among them in eons.”

She didn’t want to ask but couldn’t swallow it down. The not knowing would bother her more than knowing it would, or so she thought.

“And what’s that, Mama?”

“A god, little one,” Lulphé answered, eyes haunted, “a god.”

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