She stood at the farthest reaches of the courtyard, near where Eyrdo’s main road spilled into it and watched as the Numbered Qishir struggled to Shield everyone from falling debris. The wind played with her charm-laden hair while Azriel, Thae’a, and Nhulynolyn worked to keep the Palace’s integrity intact, shouting at each other over the roaring power made wind that encircled the Palace and a sound that no mortal throat could produce, their words lost to the noise at this distance. Fought to keep breathing deep and steady when Thayne and her Court rushed inside and began tossing Dhaoine out broken windows to the safe arms of Jerald, Bayls, Xheshmaryú, Eiod, and the rest of the Grey Court. Stood sentinel to everything, a part of it and yet removed. Played the part her kind had played eons ago for the Greywalker race when they received a sacrifice and became something that had driven the rest of the Worlds to wipe them out. Prayed that this time her kè‘s people, meager though they were now, survived.
Because the Worlds knew that kind of sacrifice now as an Oathing Sacrifice, something only spoken by Qishir in defense of their Blood Oathed Court. But the practice was far older than the Giving Qishir who first Spoke it for a different reason than the Greywalker Maestrelan had. Millions of years ago it had been the most literal form of sacrifice: a willing gift of one’s life so that a Maestrelan could Create something pure and untouched and sentient that almost rivaled the gods in both power and divinity. But back then a few of those called to the Maestrelan level of the Greywalker warrior caste were elevated to the position of Patron, worshiped much like the gods they were Marked by, even if they never stopped being mortal.
A breath shuddered out, sounding far too close to a sob, bordering on hysterical and she clapped a hand to her mouth to keep it contained. Because for all that her duty as an Otherborn demanded loudly that she act right the fuck now she knew she couldn’t. Not until she knew for absolute certainty that history was finally repeating, not until she knew whether she had to act as an Otherborn or as a Phuri.
Shouting, desperate and terrified, rang out and scattered her thoughts to the winds. The buzzing murmuring of those who filled the courtyard silenced immediately, as though they’d all taken a simultaneous breath and held it, waiting, instinctively knowing that they needed to hear the words attached to that shouting. From her vantage point on one of the small hills that sat in a corner where the main road broadened into the Palace courtyard, Shadiranamen saw Thayne come running out of the front doors, waving an arm, her Court spilling out behind her, splitting off from their Qishir to make a line between the Palace’s main wall and the Dhaoine who huddled in its courtyard. The Eighth Qishir’s words barely carried, only half clear, but what reached her was enough.
“–a god! He’s–ne–od!”
She was leaping off the hill before her mind had untangled them from the garbled syllables soaked with Thayne’s absolute terror. Was sprinting towards the Palace the second her feet touched the ground. Pulled her Dhaoinic skin away by the fistful as she ate up the distance with great loping strides that reminded her of the last time Rhyshladlyn had run across Shiraniqi Desert and into Shiran City. Dhaoine scrambled out of her way with shouts of alarm lost to the din that shook the air. Dropped strips of her Dhaoinic shell like a bread trail behind her, all bloody strips and gore and flecks of moon-white bone. Spared not a glance for the Dhaoine who screamed as they saw her and the truth that she Called from the depths that spawned beneath her Self. Just kept running because she had an answer of which part of her was needed to respond and knew still that that part only had a narrow window in which to respond or the thousands of Dhaoine around her would not survive.
She was halfway across the courtyard when it was suddenly filled with twice as many Dhaoine, slowing her to a near crawl unless she was willing to body check her way through the throng. Cursing in her native tongue, she shed the remainder of her Dhaoinic skin with a violent tearing of flesh and bending of magick that splattered those within feet feet of her and snarled, “Move.” The demand cleared a path like a scythe taken to the wheat fields and she filled it with a roiling motion that should have been gangly, should have sent her sprawling, but instead she merely moved faster, all liquid grace and heat. Leapt the remaining hundred feet as the Palace walls bowed out with an indescribable sound, one that was what she imagined a mountain range wailing its death song would sound like if such a thing wouldn’t shatter the eardrums of mortals to hear it, throwing Nhulynolyn and Azriel and Thae’a into the crowd in a shower of stone and brick dust, the eerie tinkling of shattered glass from the Palace’s remaining windows a countermelody to their screams that made her teeth ache.
She landed in the stretch of empty courtyard before those bowing walls, a crater blooming around her, the blast of her power settling around her clearing the dust cloud. Dropped to one knee and slapped her hands onto the stones, sending all her power and concentration and will into the earth between her and the Palace. With a cry the earth split with a gash that roiled with the white-orange fires of her race’s namesake, her body suddenly made of the same flame, the only thing solid being her eyes and teeth, and the charms that had once been tied to her hair. With a thought she sent that gash encircling the entire Palace, then beneath it, eating tens of feet of earth in a wash of fire so hot it singed the base of the Palace black and grey. Then with a heart stopping sound, the entire thing dropped forty feet down as that section of earth disappeared in a molten lake of fire.
The last time she had done this was the last time a Sanctuary City had been made. She had been just old enough to help her mother’s tribe to ensure that the magick that went into making the Balanced Places didn’t wing out and either touch what it wasn’t supposed to or hurt those too ignorant to know the danger of being too close. She recognized that her kè had become a newly formed god, knew the taste of the power not because Thayne’s shouted warning had confirmed it but because Shadiranamen had been there millions of years ago when the Worlds had last got to witness first hand how a Sanctuary City was birthed. Had known the moment Thayne had retreated from the Palace with that terrible warning on her lips that Shadiranamen Otherborn had not been the one Rhyshladlyn needed but rather Shadiranamen, the last of the Phuri race. And she knew her kè, knew that he wouldn’t accept that he was a god, wouldn’t shuck the mantle Fate had given him as being the first Greywalker born in millennia for that of a god, no matter the risk to himself in doing so. He would not take one of the choices offered him and would instead make his own choice, crafted within the seconds it took him to weigh his options and react.
And one of those choices lay in tapping into the ancient art of making Sanctuary Cities that lived only in his memories, an art lost to the shifting sands of time.
But there was something more that Lílrt hadn’t known, that none save the Greywalker race and the Phuri race had known. Greywalker Maestrelan were essentially demi-gods even without a sacrifice to give them unimaginable power. They touched the Divine in ways not even the most devout of clergy could or did. They were the head of the warrior clergy caste for a reason, a caste that had gotten its name for a reason. And that reason was that they carried in their blood a spark of the divine power of the Patrons they were Marked by, that they made manners to. And for those who were called to the Qishir caste as well as the warrior clergy caste, being the recipient of a Major Working like an Oathing Sacrifice from anyone, but especially one of their Blood Oath Court, meant that they went from demi-god to fully fledged. And all that power, all that magick, had to go somewhere if the Greywalker Touched by it didn’t keep it.
And one of the ways that Greywalker’s had made their Cities was by accepting the sacrifice of life freely Spoken to them, rejecting their new divine mantle, and funneling that power into the earth beneath them. They would redirect the destructiveness of the power from themselves to the already built City around them, destroy it, and resurrect it as something more, something better, something so purely Balanced even the gods would weep at its feet. Or would birth it from nothing using only the Song of Creation and Balance; the only race capable of Singing those Songs solo and have them be a thousand times more powerful than when a million Phuri voices Sang with them.
She didn’t have to be Rhyshladlyn’s Other to know which option he’d chosen, what choices he had been presented with by Fate Themselves, and how he’d responded. He was a fucking Maestrelan, he was Rhyshladlyn Ka’ahne, a living legend and then some and by virtue of those things along, Fate never should have wasted Their time doing anything besides sitting back and watching shit play out.
“Shadi! Get back before–”
Relyt’s voice cut out as the walls of the Palace buckled and the entire thing collapsed. Shouts of alarm and Rhyshladlyn’s name rang out over the sound of crumbling stonework and bricks and metal and tearing mortar. But she could feel what they couldn’t. Knew what they didn’t. She could feel Rhyshladlyn gathering himself at the Palace’s center, hidden away beneath the rubble. Could feel the way the earth beneath her trembled with giddy anticipation. Because Txiwteb World knew what this meant, it had the most Balanced Places in it still, one of which being the Keep at the heart of the Forest of Dreams and Darkness; and several of those Cities were among the youngest, oldest, and purest in the Worlds. Her kè yet lived and was using his knowledge and his new found power to do something the Worlds had not witnessed in millions of years and she sent the first fervent prayer of thanks to the Deep Fires that she was here with him when it happened.
A hush fell over the Dhaoine behind her, rolled over the courtyard and the shifting grasses and hills that surrounded the Palace and the city that sprawled around it. In that hush a soft melody rose, a single note of Song that made her laugh-sob and close her eyes because she had thought she’d never hear that again: the elated Song of Creation. Behind her another voice took it up, a rich baritone that she knew instantly was Nhulynolyn before he stepped up beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder, lending the strength of his physical presence to her in lieu of being able to do so through the link they no longer shared. Tears fell down her face, spluttering the fires that had replaced her skin as she laugh-sobbed again and lifted her own voice, Singing her kind’s version of the Song, her native tongue haunting and beautiful in a way that she had forgotten she missed until she heard it fall passed her lips. Waved her hands in sync with the Song and lifted the white-orange flames from the gash they’d made until they were high enough to act as a Shield strong enough to keep Rhyshladlyn’s Working contained.
A loud crack sounded then the earth shook as the rubble of the Palace shuddered and scattered as an obelisk shot up from its heart, the stone of it glowing a rich crimson that reminded her of bloodstained rubies. As shouts of surprise and confusion and something else she couldn’t readily name rose behind them, six more obelisks rose one right after another, scattered throughout the city that spread around the Palace, each one the same color as the first. Between one heartbeat and the next, a single eye blink, the Eighth Palace sprouted from the rubble, reformed around the Heart Watchtower as though it had always been there, as though it had never fallen. It stretched towards the skies glowing the same crimson hue as the obelisks, and with its rebirth that glow pulsed and throbbed like a heartbeat. In the far distance a rumbling like a landslide bounced off the roaring winds and Shadiranamen looked to the left to see a retaining wall hundreds of feet high rise from the ground, throwing grass and dirt clods in all directions. Watched as that section stretched until the entirety of Eyrdo was surrounded. The sound of that retaining wall connecting rang with a finality that made her bones hum.
She smiled despite the nausea that made her stomach flip. Because for all that Rhyshladlyn doing this was because of something horrible, was a harbinger of a danger he may not survive, it was still something to celebrate because it meant the Greywalker race wasn’t dead, wasn’t dying out. It meant that it had survived and would eventually thrive. The Deep Fires willing it thrives.
As that crimson glow dripped down Eyrdo City’s wall and spread from building to building, a bridge dropped down across the moat of fire Shadiranamen had created, the thud of its landing loud in the Song-ridden silence. She rose to her feet slowly, carefully, and banked the fires with a wave of her hands and waited for Rhyshladlyn to cross that bridge. Took in the way the Palace walls, the unpainted brick and stones of the City itself, the retaining wall, and the Watchtowers pulsed in time with each other now, their faces flushed in the sunlight, brighter in sections and darker in others, as though it was a color that took on different shades and brightness depending on the lighting. Part of her wondered absently what Qishir would be tethered to the Eighth Palace but given its coloring she didn’t have to wonder because every tethered City glowed the color of its Qishir’s eyes.
*Usually, but not until they’re tethered, if even then,* Xheshmaryú murmured quietly, carefully, as though not wanting to speak to loud across their link and draw the ethereal attention of their kè.
*Fair enough. After all, the last Cities to be built glowed gold because of the Maestrelan who birthed them. It stands to reason that Rhyshladlyn’s Cities would be a different base color.*
“Eighth Qishir Thayne,” a voice thundered, full of a command that went beyond that of an attend, whipping out from the shadows that filled the open front doors of the Palace so completely no light penetrated them, “present yourself.”
Shadiranamen stepped aside and away from Nhulynolyn, still whispering that Song under her breath to make way for Thayne who walked forward on shaky legs. But for all that it was obvious to anyone who knew what to look for that the female was afraid, she held her head high and faced the cause of that fear head on without flinching, without looking away. Thayne stopped with one foot on the bridge, frozen in place as Rhyshladlyn stepped out of the shadows and into the sunlight, all wrongness and smeared edges and blurred lines and coldfire that dripped from holes in his face and body, limbs at once too long and too short, mouth way too wide for his face, fangs as long as a finger flashing white-hot in the sunlight. At the sight of him every Dhaoine made some kind of noise, be it of distress, shock, awe, terror, or surprise, all of them looking to Thayne to see what they should do next.
Shadiranamen didn’t look to the Eighth Qishir, though. She didn’t have to, she knew better. There was only one thing to do when presented with the god-powered Maestrelan who had just birthed a Balanced Place: she dropped to both knees, hands palm down on her thighs and bowed her head just enough to be respectful but not enough to be supplicant. Nhulynolyn did the same beside her, the sound of his knees hitting the stones loud in the silence. Thayne glanced back at them with raised eyebrows before she gracefully sank to her knees, but instead of putting her hands palm down on her knees like Shadiranamen and Nhulynolyn she held her hands up towards Rhyshladlyn, a showing of not only respect but trust. And judging by the way Rhyshladlyn’s face softened, insofar as it was able, it was exactly what her kè had needed: to be reminded that for all that he was now a god, his family still trusted him, still loved him.
“All hail the Grey Qishir, Patron of Balance!” a voice cried, one that sounded like Thae’a, which wasn’t surprising given she was the only non-Otherborn Court member old enough to know exactly what had happened. A shout of jubilation accompanied the distinct noise of hundreds of thousands of knees hitting the ground and Shadiranamen knew that everyone else, even the Numbered Qishir, had done the same thing she, Nhulynolyn, and Thayne had. Thousands of voices echoed the first call as Rhyshladlyn stepped onto the bridge and crossed it in slow, steady strides, body moving like it didn’t understand how to handle so much else packed into such a small box. The steel and iron-wrapped wood of the bridge creaked with Rhyshladlyn’s weigh as that jubilant shout became a chant, the power that built with their words heady enough that Shadiranamen swayed on her knees, drunk off it. But the Grey Qishir seemed unfazed by it.
Rhyshladlyn lifted hands that were all long fingers with too many joints and nails that where more talons than fingernails and slowly, carefully, reached out and laid his palms against Thayne’s. His expression when he met Thayne’s eyes was off, though she couldn’t put her finger on how only knew that it was and it made her narrow her eyes at him. They were close enough that when he spoke, Shadiranamen was able to hear the words despite the cacophony around them.
“I need… I need to ask something of you and it will be a lot and I’m sorry for that,” Rhyshladlyn sounded sad, worried, lost almost. It reminded her of when he had been a fledgling still, when all she’d been able to do was watch as he suffered at the hands of his sire, unable to reach out, unable to tell him he wasn’t alone until it had almost been too late to save him. “I have no real right to ask it of you, but…” he trailed off on a sigh that was like a waterfall hitting the rocks hundreds of feet below its apex.
The Honorable Qishir, to her immense credit, didn’t hesitate, “I will do anything for you, give you anything, Rhys. You know that. Merely name it.”
Rhyshladlyn shook his head though whether because Thayne didn’t understand or because of something else, Shadiranamen couldn’t tell and it made her fingers itch. Made her tilt her head and stare harder at her kè because it was as though Rhyshladlyn wasn’t talking with or even at Thayne, more like his words were for someone else. But who?
“I still have too much power from the Oathing Sacrifice and it has to go somewhere,” Rhyshladlyn whispered, orange-amber eyes far more striking that usual surrounded by a backdrop of swirling darkness. “I need to… to make m-mo–” he faltered then and fell silent, swallowing whatever he had been about to say and shook his head again. Thayne shifted her hands just enough to wrap them around his and squeezed as she gave them a gentle shake.
“I had heard legends that Maestrelan were capable of making Sanctuary Cities out of existing ones,” Thayne began slowly, carefully, as though she didn’t want to spook him. Her smile was full of gentle understanding and unquestioning acceptance and Shadiranamen didn’t have to be peeking around the door to their link to know it made Rhyshladlyn extremely uncomfortable, though for all the gods, she couldn’t read why. “Those same legends said Maestrelan were the only ones, besides the gods Themselves, capable of turning a Dhaoine not born to the race into a Greywalker.”
Rhyshladlyn didn’t say anything but he didn’t need to, his expression was more than enough. The itching in her fingers spread to her hands and began to crawl up her arms, a prickle of memory teasing her nerves as it went. What aren’t you saying, Rhys? Thayne had it only half right, in times lost to history and memory, it had been Fate’s choice what Dhaoine became Greywalkers. Did They work through the Maestrelan? Yes. But it was not just the Maestrelan who had done it.
*But no Maestrelan was god-Marked and then Touched with an Oathing Sacrifice of their Oathed Court as a Qishir,* Xheshmaryú sounded pained, like he was right and upset about it. She didn’t blame him. It was a frightening thought.
“Qishir Rhyshladlyn, Maestrelan of the Ka’ahne Family, Patron of Balance,” Thayne pulled their joined hands to her face and kissed the knuckles on both of Rhyshladlyn’s hands, eyes never leaving his, “with free will I give you my consent and with it I give you my solemn vow, on everything I am and ever shall be, on my magick and my name, that I will do whatever it takes to ensure that the wrongs dealt to the Greywalker race in the past by those who sat upon the Eighth Throne are not only righted but kept from happening again.”
Rhyshladlyn smiled and it wasn’t as terrifying as Shadiranamen expected, despite the impossible number of teeth that filled his mouth, despite the way it moved his face in ways no Dhaoinic face could mimic. Instead it was sad in the way one who had misled someone about an unpleasant outcome to spare them pain was sad; born of the knowledge that no matter what they did, it would still hurt. He leaned down and touched his forehead to Thayne’s, tall, powerful body bending with a grace she doubted anyone else would be able to have in that moment. Shadiranamen glanced at Nhulynolyn who was rising slowly to his feet, face pinched with the kind of distrust because like her, he knew how Rhyshladlyn was and even godly, he was acting way out of character and it was suspicious. She looked back at Rhyshladlyn with a frown because her kè actions weren’t that of someone giving thanks but rather someone apologizing without words.
*I think he’s speaking to someone through Thayne.* At Xheshmaryú’s words, that itchy reached her chest and spread. She was on her feet with no recollection of making the decision to stand, backing slowly away as the last notes of the Song of Creation faded away on the now whispering wind. Came to a stop and realized what that prickling memory had been as Rhyshladlyn raised his head and looked his twin, two tears dropping down to splutter the coldfire on his right cheek. Reached out her hand as though she could stop him as he moved without actually shifting his body at all and Spoke in a clear voice that rang with purpose and the Acceptance only a Qishir could give to a Dhaoine and an order that only a god could give to the mortals who worshiped it:
“Awaken, Alaïs Ka’ahne nóh Firesbane.”
Only those who shared a bloodline with a Greywalker Maestrelan and were an Otherborn could be made into a Greywalker.