The ringing crash of steel on steel brought her spinning around in time to see Adïmshyl bristling with rage, one battleaxe held against crossed swords. It took her a moment to realize that she knew that obsidian blade and its silver steel twin. But that moment came and went while Rhyshladlyn sidestepped and circled behind Adïmshyl’s guard, the Lupherinre snarling his defiance as he dodged the one-two slash attack. She cursed and moved for the Dhaoine the two fought over, intending to get the female clear of the fighting. Realized too late who it was and what doing so meant. Her qahllyn’qir flashed sun-bright beneath her skin, dropping her like a wet rag to the ground just as Rhyshladlyn’s voice reverberated across the courtyard, “Awaken, Alaïs Ka’ahne nóh Firesbane.” She cried out as sparks flew when Rhyshladlyn twirled, back stepped, and lunged forward again, his blades meeting both of Adïmshyl’s axes, the Lupherinre having drawn his second one in the heartbeat’s time between Rhyshladlyn disengaging and returning.

The two traded the advantage back and forth though it wasn’t a fair fight, not when Rhyshladlyn was involved. But it seemed less like he was trying to win and get passed Adïmshyl and more like he was trying to hold him off. But that made no sense. Rhyshladlyn was clearly the one trying to get the Alaïs, not the Lupherinre so why the fuck were the two of them even fighting? Does this stupid ass Court ever make sense? Honestly.

Thayne swung out of the crowd, lips curled back from her teeth, eyes flashing, her great sword sending dancing lines of captured lightning as she dragged its tip across the stones and brought it up from beneath Rhyshladlyn’s swords. The sight of the Eighth Qishir facing off against Rhyshladlyn confirmed that something was very wrong. Between one swing of that nearly four foot long sword and the next, Rhyshladlyn easily deflecting it, it clicked: this fight was a diversion. There was no reason for Rhyshladlyn to attack Alaïs directly if he was wanting her to Awaken as a Greywalker. That wasn’t how it fucking worked.

She struggled to sit up fully, to watch the fight as her Qishir took on Adïmshyl and Thayne simultaneously. Watched as those two danced away and traded places with Thae’a and Ishmariel who peeled away from the crowd as though they’d just materialized from thin air. Watched the four of them hold Rhyshladlyn at bay, circling Alaïs who watched the fight with wide clear blue eyes that held a mixture of fear and fury, lip twitching like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to sneer or snarl.

Ahdyfe dragged her eyes back to her Qishir and frowned. The longer she spent watching Rhyshladlyn fight the more certain she was that something was very wrong and not just the obvious. It was a distraction to keep attention off the real target. It had to be but why. Why would Rhyshladlyn going after Alaïs like this be wrong, why would it be a distraction and not an actual act? She knew a living Otherborn had to die in order to be reborn as a Greywalker, knew that the legends said that the Maestrelan couldn’t kill the Otherborn themselves, that it had to be a willing sacrifice made by that Otherborn; after all that was the primary way that Fate chose which ones to make into Their second chosen race.

She punched the ground with a growl of frustration, urging her mind to put the pieces together, to think coherently, to shake off the pain of her qahllyn’qir reacting to her attempt to step at her Qishir in a way that would have gone against her qahllyn as Healer. Punched the ground again and again until the sharp sting of the skin on her knuckles splitting open cleared her head in a wash of eyes-widening terror. No… he wouldn’t…

Her eyes flew up to the fight in time for Rhyshladlyn to bend backwards, spine perfectly parallel to the ground, the sun hitting his perfectly smooth face and glinting off his glowing eyes, face full of battle elation, smile wide and his unheard but felt despite that laughter rumbling around him like a storm cloud’s thunderous warning. Thayne’s sword passed harmlessly over him and he dead dropped to the ground, braced with his shoulders, and swung his long legs around in a whirlwind motion that cracked Adïmshyl’s jaw and sent the Lupherinre flying several feet to land with a sickening thud in the dirt. Undulated his body to regain his feet and met Ishmariel who was running at him with a war howl, Mallacht smacking aside the Anglëtinean’s sword, the hand that held Beannacht punching the male in the face and shattering his nose in a wash of blood. Pivoted and brought both swords up parallel to each other and the ground in front of his face in time to catch Thae’a’s haphazardly thrown trident before he spun on his right foot, arms extended straight out from his body, and sent a wave of condensed wind barreling at Thae’a, knocking her into her mate. In the battle lull that followed, those orange-amber eyes swung to her and Ahdyfe knew.

“Fuck!” She pushed to her feet, crying out at the way her qahllyn’qir blurred her vision with agony so keen it was sharper than the obsidian forged blade Rhyshladlyn wielded, and pivoted away from the from the golem of her Qishir. “Nully!” Her voice was lost in the sudden cacophony that filled the empty spaces left by the fading echoes of battle, broken apart by the wind that roared around her as Rhyshladlyn dropped his Shields and the full brunt of his divinity saturated the earth around them. She screamed the youngest Ka’ahne sibling’s name again and watched him turn towards the sound in slow motion. Flung out her hand towards him as Dhaoine dove out of her way. Threw her power out, curled her fingers and the power that extended out from them around Nhulynolyn’s tunic, and pulled. Smacked into a body made of solid, unforgiving muscle, and spun them just in time to hear the keening whistle of steel through the air behind her.

She screamed at the burn of the sword point slicing through her tunic and ripping into her skin and the muscle beneath. Spared a breathless prayer of thanks that when she’d collided with Nhulynolyn that it had moved them just enough out of the way that that blow wasn’t the mortal one it should have been. Growling, pissed as fuck now at not just the situation and the gods but her Qishir, too, she pushed Nhulynolyn away from her, lifted a leg as that blade was yanked out of her back, and kicked the Otherborn-Greywalker out of harm’s way. Spared a withering look at Azriel who materialized out of the stunned into stillness crowd and caught him before Nhulynolyn hit the ground before she manifested her staff and whirled around in time to bring it up in a two-handed parry to catch her Qishir’s downward swings. Her arms vibrated with the force of the blow, her torn back muscles shrieking at being forced to work when they weren’t whole, her qahllyn’qir louder than before, trying to make her yield. But she ignored it all. Instead she shifted her left foot slightly back, planted her heel, loosened her knees and pushed upwards. The second she had clearance, she twirled her staff, the charms tied to its tip making a cooing noise like Temple bells as she engaged the spells woven into the runes carved and burned into the staff’s length. Screamed Rhyshladlyn’s name with the same true pronunciation and power it deserved that she had used what felt like decades ago now when she’d taken a chance and blown her cover wide open to save him. Felt the magick of it sear the air between them, trickling into her lungs like liquid fire. But she didn’t give a shit. She was too angry.

Rhyshladlyn stumbled backwards two steps, sword arms swinging wide to the sides before he caught his balance and moved towards her in a movement that was all godly power and too fast to track blurs of color and motion. But she heard him coming by the sound of his mortal-made blades and his blessed hair-bells that sang and cried, discordant voices full of malcontent and fury and distress. At the last second she ducked to the left, spun her staff around her back from the right side, caught it with her left hand and landed a spell-backed blow to the back of the Qishir’s head. He went tumbling into a roll across the courtyard stones. His first set of wings burst into the visible spectrum in a spray of blood and strips of flesh, catching him short, left leg swinging out and around in a low roundhouse kick that had him facing her again.

The Many See and Keep her, but the thing that looked at her wasn’t the Qishir she was qahllyn across centuries, a non-consensual slave collar, a war, and a Shiëtzirs-backed Worlds-wide effecting mind spell to serve beside. No, the creature that lifted glowing orange-amber eyes full of rage and surrounded by sun-kissed auburn hair and skin riddled with scars burst open to bleed coldfire instead of blood and a swirling darkness too pure to be anything but primordial was something else. Something that went beyond even divinity. The creature that wore her Qishir’s likeness, that was him, rolled slowly to its feet using muscles no singular creature or Dhaoine in the Worlds had, all glass-sharp grace and crystalline, blinding beauty that at once made her heart race and her knees threaten to give out entirely.

She stood no real chance of beating him in combat when he was normal, stood even less of one when he was a fucking god. So she did the only thing she could think of: she talked and prayed to stay alive long enough for someone else in the Court, among the throng of Dhaoine around her, hell in the Worlds, to come up with a better plan. And hopefully a full proof one.

“Stop this!” she implored as he launched at her, scattering dust and stone debris and strips of his own flesh as he did.

She parried another blow aimed at her right shoulder, ducked one aimed at the left side of her head, rolled away from a swipe that would have opened her belly and spilled her intestines everywhere. He had always been incredibly fast but now it took everything she had and then some just to keep him at bay long enough to keep breathing. Took relying on her ears to know where he was rather than her eyes if she hoped to stay relatively in once piece. But even then, his swords and his talons still took pieces of her with him whenever she’d dodge a major blow. As though he was merely toying with her, like the snakat played with its food before it killed and ate it.

“You cannot kill your fuckin’ twin, Rhys! This is not the way to–” her breath whooshed out of her as one of his wings smacked into her back in a blur of grey and red and golden dust that smelled like desert wildflowers and frigid nights around a campfire. She fell flat on her face, flipping feet over head a few times, staff abandoned behind her as her hands went numb from the pain that sang along her nerves from the tear in her back. She spat out blood and a few teeth when the World stopped tumbling around her, taking only a moment reprieve before rolling to the right at that telltale sound of whistling blades. Kept talking as she gained her feet and ran for her staff, as though Rhyshladlyn hadn’t come this close to killing her; as though she didn’t know he didn’t intend to kill her otherwise she would have been dead the moment the fight even started.

“It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice born of an Other protecting their ! It only needs to b–” she kicked her staff into her hands and spun to meet two swift sword swings with wide eyes and the very real sense that she was rapidly running out of time to convince the stubborn fuck if she had any hope of survival, if any of them did. Because the longer he went without getting rid of the remaining divine energy that came from Lílrt’s Oathing Sacrifice the greater the chance that he would never be a regular mortal ever again. She pushed just hard enough to disengage and get a few feet between them, “It only needs to be a willing sacrifice.”

“Rhys, listen to her!” Shadiranamen’s voice cut the air like a knife through butter, threatening to pull Ahdyfe’s attention from the danger looking at her like it had decided she may be a delicious meal after all. After all, of all the Dhaoine she expected to agree with her and come to her defense, the Phuri was not among them. Guess today’s a day of all kinds of firsts. Awesome. “Yes, the Working can only be done successfully by a Maestrelan if the individual chosen is an Otherborn and one who shares a bloodline with the Maestrelan, but it doesn’t have to be. You’re a god, my , use that to your advantage!”

“Please, Rhys,” that was Xheshmaryú’s voice. “Think of what this would do to Thayne, to Al, shit, to Nully. You know that the first Awakening requires a sacrifice that destroys the Dhaoine. That takes something from them that they will never get back, that rips a piece of them out with it when it goes. Don’t do that to three Dhaoine when you could choose anyone else.”

“Make your own rules,” Ahdyfe added, “it’s what you’re known for, why change that now just because you’re a genuine, newly minted god? That makes zero sense.”

Rhyshladlyn paused then, all movement ceasing as though he had been frozen, the nightmarish visage of him one she knew would haunt her dreams and nightmares for the rest of her life. He glanced at something over her shoulder before looking back at her, the only sign that he wasn’t actually the statue he appeared to be. She flinched at what filled those eyes, at what rippled across that foreign face like the disturbed surface of a pitch black lake. Shuddered when he shifted, those ungraceful looking limbs moving with a liquidity that spoke otherwise, all banked violence and nearly a thousand years of fighting experience both on and off all kinds of Fields. Was reminded of the way his Self had looked and sounded and tasted and felt around her. Remembered suddenly the darkness, the blotch of what she had thought was a sickness, that had threaded through that Self and knew in that inopportune moment that it had been something more, something worse only because it was as foreign as the body he now filled. It hadn’t been put there by Lílrt when he’d enacted his mind spell like they’d all thought, no it had always been there. It was as much a part of the Qishir as his power, his heritage, his magickal signature, and the castes he belonged to. And standing there, surrounded by the entire population of the Eighth Palace, the Honorable and Grey Courts ready and actively facing off against him to keep him contained, she wondered if this exact event, this exact moment, had been Known by Fate. If Rhyshladlyn becoming the Worlds’ first new god in eons had been foretold in the webs.

Something told her it hadn’t been.

If ever there was an event that made a Dhaoine question their faith it would be the one she was currently living.

“If they are to be one of the lower caste levels or a non-caste called Greywalker, then that would be the case, Shadi,” he said at length. His voice shook the air, rumbled along her bones and boiled the marrow at their centers as he took one slow, careful, purposeful step towards her, muscles roiling with the movement, mouth splitting wide in a smile that was as terrifying as it was beautiful in its genuinity. “But I do nit aim to make a Greywalker like Nully, like the Dhaoine whose blood is washed out and diluted across the generations. Barely strong enough to make generic Greywalkers let along any belonging to the warrior caste,” he continued. She lifted her staff in a loose guard position, squinting at him because he was up to something, that much was obvious. She just didn’t know what. “No, what I aim to make is a Maestrelan.”

“An’ you can’t pick anyone else but Al?” Nhulynolyn snarled from behind her, the sound of hurried whispers for him to shut the fuck up accompanying the rustling of fabric like someone was grabbing his clothing to keep him in place. “You can’t fuck up any other lives ‘sides ours?”

Rhyshladlyn looked away briefly before his eyes slid back to her, brought back by the way she had unconsciously moved to further block Nhulynolyn from Rhyshladlyn’s view.

“It is complicated, brother mine,” Rhyshladlyn sighed, sounding almost regretful. The tension bled out of his shoulders and arms, tension she hadn’t realized was there until it was gone. She stared at the Qishir with naked suspicion now because why the fuck are you relaxing right now?

“That isn’t a fuckin’ answer,” Nhulynolyn growled. Rhyshladlyn just shrugged, expression one of I’m aware but I’m not changing it. His twin sneered and spat. “You’re a real piece of work, twin of mine.”

“Trust me, I know,” the Qishir quipped. A shiver of unease passed over everyone because that phrase was never met with anything short of absolute hostility from Rhyshladlyn, ever. Even Ahdyfe knew that and she’d only discovered it when she’d heard Lílrt use it once against him and witnessed the resulting explosion that not even the collar has been able to tamper.

“And how is it you just know that no other Dhaoine would fit here?” Azriel asked, voice dark in a way that told Ahdyfe that if he hadn’t been all but made anathema, he’d have left the Court for this. “Surely there has to be a Dhaoine who is both powerful enough and shares some trickle of bloodline with you, after all your sire did not know how to keep his dick to himself, who would be willing to stand up in Al’s place.”

The laughter that danced around them then was unnerving, full of derision and mirth in equal measure. Touched places that were raw in ways one didn’t know about until that laughter made them sting like salt poured over a wound.

“You speak of honor and duty as though they are things you grasp the concept and application of,” Rhyshladlyn replied, eyes locking hard on his former Companion, voice rumbling with the echoes of that derisively mirthful laughter. “So allow me to remind you and inform all those gathered around us that you most assuredly do not grasp the concept, let alone the application, of honor and duty, Azriel of House Veratone.”

“Oh, shit,” she swallowed a snort at Bayls’ ooooh he told you tone because now was not the time to laugh like some deranged fucker about to witness a bar fight.

“Why you motherfu–” Azriel cut off mid-word, half drowned out by a smattering of voices and the particular sound of scuffling feet like someone was trying to move but was being held back and prevented from doing so. Not that she was going to even try and confirm that because that would mean looking away from Rhyshladlyn and she still didn’t trust that he wasn’t going to attack her again.

“Azriel, don’t!”

“Oi, Feather Duster, chill. What are you, five? You know full well you ain’t stand no snowball’s chance in a volcano’s asshole of goin’ head to dick with Rhys. Honestly.” The eye roll that accompanied those words made her own wince in sympathy and was thankfully enough to help her keep a moderately straight face as she bit her tongue to keep from guffawing.

Fuck, Nully is nearly as dangerous as his fuckin’ twin. Gods.

“You’re smarter than that, Uncle. You know you cannot take him.” The scuffling noises from before increased in volume at Thayne’s scolding voice. When the fuck did you circle through the crowd and get over here?Cease it, you stubborn shit! It isn’t as though he speaks lies!”

Rhyshladlyn laughed again at that, the mirth of it lighting up his face and making his eyes shimmer. If it were any other time, Ahdyfe would revel in his beauty. But as it was, he was still divinity packed into a barely held together Dhaoinic form and leaking power that made her skin crawl with the urge, no the need, to get the fuck away from him as quickly as possible. Her hands tightened around her staff as those orange-amber eyes looked her over before looking at whatever insanity was going on behind her.

The crowd of Dhaoine and the Numbered Qishir who stood on their fringes faded away, there but not important, as Ishmariel stepped out of that crowd and circled around to her left, moving towards his Qishir, Jerald tracking him from two Dhaoine deep in the crowd like the Alphenian didn’t trust the Anglëtinean wasn’t going to attack Rhyshladlyn. She shook herself slightly and focused back on Rhyshladlyn but the Grey Qishir wasn’t even paying attention to her anymore or anyone really. His eyes were unfocused, staring off into the long distance, as though he were seeing things they couldn’t, face losing the expressiveness that had lit it up and made the terror of it achingly beautiful until all that remained was that terror and the else of it that made one’s mind shy away from looking at him directly for too long. As though the psyche feared doing so would break one’s mind.

The sounds of bickering continued for several heartbeats while Nhulynolyn and the rest tried to keep Azriel from fighting Rhyshladlyn and lobbed counterarguments in support of finding anyone else to fill the role Rhyshladlyn had chosen Alaïs for. But it didn’t matter. The Qishir had made up his mind and nothing short of divine intervention would get the outcome to change.

“Enough.” That snapped word, barely holding the whisper of a god-Touched attend wrapped around the sound Mallacht and Beannacht made as Rhyshladlyn twirled them around in his hands twice in rapid succession before cocking his head to the side and chuckling once, low and dark and full of promises Ahdyfe prayed he never made good on. “You are all arguing for nothing. Did tell I Alaïs to Awaken? Yes. But telling her to do so doesn’t make it happen. Even if I am a god.”

She never saw him move. One moment he had two swords and the next, he had only one. And in the stunned, too still quiet, the only noise was the blood rushing in her ears and the whistling of steel flying through the air. Then a heartbeat later there was the telltale meaty thunk and wet schlick of a blade sliding home in a body followed by a short scream.

“And even if telling her to do that did make it happen? I wouldn’t have chosen her anyway. The sacrifice she would have made to Awaken wouldn’t have been strong enough to help her survive her Awakening and if she didn’t make it, too many of you would go down with her.”

Ahdyfe dropped her guard, staff pressing into the ground in order to keep her standing as her knees gave out completely. She knew her mouth was hanging open but she couldn’t bring herself to close it. At least she wasn’t the only one gawking at the motherfucker like a lover faced with a larger than expected cock at Midsummer.

“Then who the fuck did you choose?” Bayls and Relyt hissed in tandem.

Rhyshladlyn opened his mouth to answer but it wasn’t his voice that shattered the quiet, it was Alaïs’, “Eiod!”

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