Sheieh stood up only to weave on his feet as vertigo broke over him like a wave crashing against the unsuspecting shore and stole his vision. One hand flung out to grab anything to keep him upright as his legs gave out but his fingers grasped only air. With a grunt, he released his wings and used them to slow his descent to the floor so that when his knees hit it wasn’t as hard, hearing his impact more than he felt it. He heard Jaro calling his name but it was muffled. As though he were submerged in water, not so deep that his lungs seized for lack of air but deep enough that the water made things softer, darker. Swallowed hard and closed his eyes to allow his other senses to spread wide and give him answers and promptly wished he hadn’t.
The air felt dirty, tainted almost, like it was made of mud but worse. The Currents shuddered and whined as the natural ambient magick tipped dangerously away from Balance, enough that as a Grey Soul Healer he had been caught in the maelstrom of its spiral. Tipped as though the natural Balance Rhyshladlyn’s presence alone lent to the Worlds around him and that of the newly birthed Eyrdo City meant nothing; as though not even together were they strong enough to tamper the shift. There was a horrible taste on the back of his tongue, like he’d eaten something sour and spicy at the same time, not quite rotten but definitely too far passed when it was safe to eat. It slid sticky and thick down his throat until it lodged around his vocal chords, expanding until he felt like he would choke. His skin, where it was exposed by his quarter sleeved tunic and knee-length leggings, felt dry and cracked like he’d spent hours outside in the Cold North’s brutal winter wind, whipped to and fro like the swirls of falling snow. He knew his hands were on the stone floor beneath him but they were numb, as though what he felt wasn’t the floor but something else, something beyond the City that surrounded him.
Everything was wrong, so very wrong, but he had no idea what was wrong let alone why. And no matter how hard he tried, how far he spread his senses and his power, he couldn’t find an answer. But he wasn’t a Greywalker, for all that his race and Rhyshladlyn’s shared a distant familial relation, so he was limited by the focus of his race’s abilities. The Grey Soul Healers read the Selves of Dhaoine and the effect of Balance’s existence, as well as its lack, on those Selves. Greywalkers were that Balance, they gave it a physical form, they gave it an outlet, a conduit. But knowing that didn’t make it any less frustrating that he couldn’t figure out what had called to that common ancestry like a fiddle string being plucked just right so that it harmonized with a vocalist’s song.
Something shifted. A tiny alteration to the air, a burp in the ambient magick he was reading, a whimpered noise from the humming walls around him. He didn’t know what it was but it made his eyes fly open as every instinct in him screamed run and Danger. He sucked air between his teeth at the vertigo that hadn’t abated, that still made the room twist and spin and shake. Closed his eyes again as he lifted his left hand to sketch a quick knot-motion in the air and hissed the words that accompanied the spell, the sound of his native tongue burning his mouth and his ears in equal measure. Beat his wings once to bring himself to his feet as the air in the room around him eased off just enough that he could trust that when he opened his eyes again the vertigo would be gone. Pulled his senses and his magick back in, tucked it close, and held on tight.
Something was really, really wrong and whatever it was there wasn’t much time to prepare before it arrived at their doorstep. By the Many’s ten cocks it was practically already here and worse for that because this wasn’t even the the full of it. He turned and made for the door, tucking his wings away before he’d even taken a step, and swallowed the bile that slammed into his throat at the realization that the reason he had reacted like he had was because whatever this was, it was effecting Selves on an unprecedented scale and not just those closest to him.
And the last time that had happened was when Lílrt had been collecting Selves in jars to ensure that the spellwork carved into Rhyshladlyn’s collar was strong enough to not only contain the Grey Qishir but cut him off from his Court in totality.
“Sheieh, what the fuck is going on!” Jaro demanded as he reached for the door, voice dripping with worry and something that sounded like fear.
“Balance is failing,” he answered as he pulled open the door, refusing to look back at his friend because he knew if he did that he’d stay and he couldn’t. He had to get to Rhyshladlyn, had to warn him, had to make sure that the Qishir knew the danger that was running for their doorstep.
“It’s… failing? You don’t mean like when–”
“Yes, like when Rhyshladlyn was collared only worse.”
“Only worse, he says,” Jaro commented, tone mocking but he knew the Soulless wasn’t mocking him, merely using it as a coping mechanism. “No big deal, obviously.” The eye roll that accompanied those words was so loud his own eyes hurt in sympathy. “Sheieh, what are you talking about? How could there be something wor–“
The Soulless cut off with a choked cry as a pulse of raw, tainted magick punched through the air. The door jerked in his hand but Sheieh kept hold of it and stayed on his feet out of sheer will power. In the too thick, too long seconds between that pulse and the next, he slapped his free hand against the doorjamb and erected the most powerful Shield and Barrier his people were capable of making. One that his Clan especially had excelled at, drawn from his own Self, one that would ensure that even if everything outside of it was destroyed whoever and whatever was inside it would remain just as they were the moment it had been activated. As soon as it closed in a bubble around the room and the Soulless within it, Sheieh was out the door without looking back, without another word. Threw his power into his legs, stretched his legs to their full stride, and ran.
It was probably a bad idea but he didn’t turn back and he didn’t slow down. Just ran and prayed with each bounding stride, as he dodged Dhaoine who were pressed against walls and vomiting in corners, as he cleared out of the infirmary and made for the audience hall, that he’d make it in time. Ran up and across walls to get around mingling groups of Dhaoine when they didn’t get out of his way in time. Thought only of getting to the audience hall where the only three Greywalkers in the entire Seven Worlds were. Hoped that he got there in time because the information he had wasn’t something they’d be able to get on their own.
Another pulse shook the Palace as he took a corner at a blur and he went careening sideways into a wall, feeling it cave just a bit under his weight the the eerie sound of whining stone. He murmured an apology to Eyrdo and pushed to his feet, shook his head to clear it and took off again. He slowed around the next turn, just in case the floor decided to be unstable again, weighing his choices of right, left, or forward when he came to a crossroads. Choose the left hallway and made the turn only to run straight into a warm, solid body, sending them both to the floor.
Groaning, he sat up and fought to keep his stoic mask in place when he saw Relyt blinking owlishly as the male tried to clear his vision, long limbs sprawled across the floor, face flushed, eyes bright, and lips red like he’d been biting them again. He looked regal despite the circumstances, despite the position he was in, despite how he wore the most ill-fitting black breeches and loose black tunic Sheieh had ever seen, feet bare which was odder than anything else about the male. His g’agsha had always hated being barefoot, even to sleep. He looked exactly as he had the very first time he’d ever seen the male, long before he’d learned of Lílrt’s plot, just before the true battle of the war had happened. So young and carefree but with the weight of too many lifetimes that lay like a mask over his face.
“Relyt…” he whispered, the name feeling foreign on his tongue, even after decades of not calling the Soul Healer by his proper title. Even more so because this was the first time he’d seen the real Relyt since Rhyshladlyn had thrown him into the meeting hall what felt like years ago now. Never mind that he could count on one hand the number of times he’d ever used the male’s proper name when speaking to him.
He tried to say something else, anything at all, but words failed him completely. So he just sat there, staring, studying. Waited for Relyt to be the one to speak first, to tell him how this reunion would go.
“My apologies, Sheieh, I wasn’t paying any attention to where I was go,” Relyt shook his head and used the wall to brace against as he got slowly to his feet. “Are you okay?”
“Aye, I’ve taken worse hits,” he replied and rolled to his feet, turning in a circle with a frown, trying to regain his bearings. Of all the Dhaoine to run into, it had to be you, didn’t it? “Where were you going that had you so focused?”
“I’m trying to find Rhys. Azriel’s left the Court, like he went to fucking H’jae in Anglë World left, and according to him has no intentions of coming back. And not thirty minutes after he refused to listen to reason from me, this weird wrongness plopped itself over the Palace,” Relyt pushed his hair out of his face and Sheieh was caught by how clear his slate grey eyes were, how they were the exact same startling shade of grey as his gretkewq. It was a bit unnerving. “And if there’s one thing being part of this Court has taught me it’s that there is no such thing as coincidences.”
“The Many See us all,” he touched his gretkewq and pretended not to see the way Relyt’s nose wrinkled in disgust. If only because that argument was better left for another time. If there ever is one. “I was trying to find the Grey Qishir as well, though I seem to have gotten turned around trying to find the audience hall. Everything is so different since Eyrdo was raised as a City.”
“The audience hall? Rhys isn’t there anymore,” Relyt held up his hands in a hey don’t shoot the messenger gesture when Sheieh narrowed his eyes at him. “Don’t look at me like that. Azriel said they had another fight and that Rhys stormed out of the hall before he did. I doubt highly that he went back, at least not so soon.”
“Why must those two always pick the most inopportune moments to fight?” Sheieh muttered. It wasn’t fair of him to feel annoyance at this turn of events, but it didn’t make his question any less valid nor the observation that birthed it any less accurate. He closed his eyes and rolled his head in a circle to try and loosen the muscles of his neck, one hand scratching at his forehead around his gretkewq. He was definitely starting to grasp what had driven Relyt to be disenfranchised by the Grey Court’s operational structure. The Many smile upon us all.
“Why are you trying to find Rhys?” Sheieh looked at the other Soul Healer and raised both eyebrows, the only sign he would show that he felt any emotion at the question and the insinuation of him having a nefarious purpose in mind that swim beneath it. But he didn’t reply to that unvoiced accusation. Not because it wasn’t worth the fight, for it certainly was, but because he had more important things to do with his time. Like find the Qishir Relyt had suddenly decided to get all defensive of.
“The weird wrongness as you called it, it’s effecting Dhaoine at the Self level and in doing so it’s tipping the Balance of the ambient magick of the Worlds,” he answered truthfully. He motioned vaguely with a hand, fingers twitching with the movement. “And I know that that is something only a Grey Soul Healer could sense. Never mind that it’s valuable information the Grey Qishir would need to combat whatever is doing this.”
Relyt blanched, eyes wide. “What? That’s not possi–“
Sheieh snorted, “Before you say it is not possible, may I remind you why Lílrt had stood even a chance of attempting to collar Rhyshladlyn let alone succeeding.”
“But doing that didn’t fuck with Dhaoine at the Self level,” Relyt snapped back. “So how about you stop being rude and just answer the damn question.”
Sheieh took a deep breath and fought to keep his expression neutral. Relyt being unable to see or acknowledge the truth behind exactly how and why his older brother had successfully tossed the rule book and Balance out the window and damaged an entire three generations of Dhaoine in the process was a conversation for another time. So he shifted focus.
“Well, we seem to have a problem if Rhyshladlyn is not in the audience hall.”
“Oh? And how’s that a problem?”
It took a lot to keep from giving the male an eloquent look, to keep from pinching the bridge of his nose. Gods aplenty, to keep from crossing the distance and feeding the stubborn male his own teeth. I have been spending too much time with Jaro. His mannerisms are rubbing off on me.
“How are we going to find him,” Sheieh enunciated each word carefully and slowly, jaw clenched as he fought not to let his anger bubble to the surface and color his voice. “Because unless you can still sense him, we can only hope that he has sensed the same as we have and is returning to the audience hall where we could meet him.” The dig was childish but if it got those slate grey eyes to stop looking at him like their owner couldn’t decide whether he wanted to kill or fuck him, Sheieh would do it again with glee.
Relyt’s laughter was sharp. “If you are asking if I am still qahllyn, then the answer is yes. Unlike Azriel, I have yet to be replaced.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slow. Sheieh shivered as the cool spring breeze power reached outward. Swallowed as it encircled him, tasted him, recognized him and moved on. Waited until Relyt’s eyes snapped open and he gestured back the way Sheieh had come, “At the crossroads, we take the left hallway. He’s not that far.”
As they fell into step beside each other, Sheieh tried not to wonder what it would have been like to get to know the Relyt everyone in the Grey Court knew. The one who had existed before Lílrt’s meddling, before Rhyshladlyn’s loss, before the war, before Shiran City, before everything. Tried not to think that the g’agsha he had fallen for just enough to make keeping his oath difficult wasn’t real, tried not to excuse Relyt’s choices away with the trauma he’d suffered. Because Sheieh had seen the truth, he’d learned it right alongside Rhyshladlyn learning the truth behind his own involvement in Lílrt’s plot. Had read the Grey Qishir just as easily as Rhyshladlyn had read him, though likely only because the Qishir had let him, but that wasn’t the point. He had seen the moment Relyt’s own hands had put that Fate-cursed collar around Rhyshladlyn’s neck, how his g’agsha had turned and walked away while Rhyshladlyn screamed and begged for him to come back, told him he didn’t know what he was doing, the mistake he was making.
He knew the real Relyt. Knew that the one who ran beside him may look like the one the Grey Court had known before his death and rebirth, but Sheieh knew that death hadn’t changed Relyt. And it was because he knew that that he prayed as they drew close enough to Rhyshladlyn that Sheieh could feel the Qishir’s magickal signature, could feel the way he instinctively fought to control the tipping Balance, that whatever was happening wasn’t Relyt’s fault. Because if it was, he was going to kill the male if for no other reason than to restore the honor Relyt had tarnished for their race. And Sheieh really didn’t want to do that.
They rounded a corner as another pulse slammed into the Palace, shattering the windows to their left, raining glass in all directions. Sheieh cried out and covered his face with his arms but kept running. Relyt did the same with a curse. They took another turn to the right and away from any part of the Palace that had windows, ducking into the next hallway in time to see Rhyshladlyn standing still at the end, orange-amber eyes glowing like captured suns. Watched as his face went slack with some emotion too deep and too old for Sheieh to name as that pulse turned into breath that sighed all around them.
Relyt screamed, a horrible grief-stricken sound, one that Jerald echoed from where he walked behind Rhyshladlyn, as the two males dropped to the ground hard enough Sheieh felt the floor tremble. The tandem screams stole the air from Sheieh’s lungs as he watched in a sort of slow motion as Xefras moved for Rhyshladlyn, one arm outstretched, his hand covered in blood. Tracked the way the Dragaen mouthed words that made Sheieh’s blood go cold because they seemed just familiar enough to be terrifying but he couldn’t remember why.
As Eyrdo let out a single, high pitched howl that danced across many voices, one of which was Rhyshladlyn’s own, he knew what Xefras was doing and why. Because there was only one reason for an unOathed Companion to reach for their Qishir with that level of desperation. The taint he’d scented in the infirmary thickened, grew in weight, and then drowned them all and Sheieh knew even before he watched Rhyshladlyn’s left arm blaze with white-hot light that Xefras was forcibly replacing Azriel’s Blood Oath with the Dragaen’s own. Which could only mean one thing.
“With this Blood, I Oath myself as your Companion. With this Self, I Oath this lifetime and all those that shall follow to you and you alone. My life is yours and with it I will do everything I can to protect and honor yours,” the Dragaen’s voice sounded like a roaring forest fire, so strong, so hot that being even miles away was still too close. Xefras spoke the words rapidly but they were no less powerful for the speed with which they were delivered, wrapped in desperation and Truth so intense Sheieh knew that if he lived through this moment that he would be scarred for the rest of his life.
“Fuck,” his voice sounded so foreign, the word hanging in the stagnant air around him as Xefras’ hand curled around Rhyshladlyn’s left wrist, the searing white light that emanated from the reflected qahllyn’qir that pressed at the Qishir’s skin like they’d break free traveling up the Dragaen’s own arm. Xefras’ own hit the visible spectrum as his voice carried across the deep Silence that was broken only by the sobs of Relyt and Jerald and the whispered sound that was hovering in Rhyshladlyn’s throat, so close to the surface but not close enough to tear apart the Currents and deafen them all. Not yet at least.
“With best Intent, I give this Oath freely. And I Call to you: how do you Answer?”
Between one heartbeat and the next, time stood still though it didn’t keep Sheieh from falling slowly to his knees. Didn’t stop the tears from falling down his face as he watched the same conclusion he’d reached flash across Rhyshladlyn’s face right before the Qishir turned to Xefras as the Dragaen’s words registered. Didn’t stop him from whispering, “O’ Great One, Hear me,” as that white-hot light flooded the hallway, bringing with it terror and regret and a love so strong it should have been unbreakable, all wrapped in the distinct feeling of emptiness that one only found in cursed lands.
And then there was nothing. Nothing but a cold, endless, sobbing darkness and the feeling of things left unfinished.
END BOOK FOUR