4

The Great Temple rose up from the City’s center, all shimmering gold stones and domed towers, the obelisk that was rumored to be the City’s Heart piercing the very center of the Temple itself, feeding magick directly into the City as well as the Temple that housed and protected it from the elements and any who meant to deface it.

Rhyshladlyn gently released Azhuri’s arm and stepped ahead of his mother and Anis, removing the Sülknír from its holster on his back and handing it hilt first to the guard that stood watch just outside the large oak doors that stood open year round, weather be damned. As a member of the royal house, Rhyshladlyn technically did not need to remove his weaponry but he refused to show such blatant disrespect to a place of worship, let alone to the Patrons who walked among Their children within the hallowed halls of the Temple. Once the guard had finished blinking in shock as they all did each time Rhyshladlyn disarmed at the doors, the second in line to the throne of the Sinner Demons stepped inside and closed his eyes, letting out a deep, long breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, orange-amber eyes opening to take in the long foyer with its four branching hallways on either side that opened up into the open air sitting room with its plush cushions and blankets laid out for those who meditated or abased themselves before the sparsely adorned altar at the other end of the long room.

With reverence, Rhyshladlyn kissed the nail of his right thumb before pressing it to his forehead and extending his hand palm up, fingers open in a short, forward sweeping motion from his forehead before he glanced over his shoulder at where his brother and mother stood behind him, blue eyes and orange-amber respectively regarding him with near identical looks of apprehension and curiosity.

“May I make manners, Mother?” Rhyshladlyn asked as he always did when visiting the Temple with Azhuri.

She smiled, taking it as a sign that Rhyshladlyn did not think ill of her for the news she dropped upon him before making for the Temple after the training pits.

“Yes, dearest son of mine. I shall meet you in the Gardens,” she replied, patting Anis’ hand where it rested on her forearm before disengaging from him and stepping away down a hall that branched off from the foyer to the right. Once she was out of sight Anis turned clear blue eyes to Rhyshladlyn and sighed softly, one hand coming up to push roughly over his hair.

“Brother mine, I–” He started but Rhyshladlyn cut him off.

“Nay, Anis-bròtr, you need not say a thing. I understand. Mother swore you to a secrecy of a sort and while I am upset over it, I understand and think no ill of you. Let me make manners in my way and I will meet you both in the Gardens,” he said, voice kind even as his eyes betrayed the deep hurt that he felt knowing his family, his blood, had kept some great secret from him as this. A twin…he had had a twin. Gods surrounding, what had happened to him–to her–to em?

“As you wish, Rhys,” Anis replied, voice soft as he bowed low at the waist, showing the back of his neck as a sign of apology and trust before turning and walking in the direction their mother had gone.

Rhyshladlyn turned and took a hallway to the left and started towards the Shadow Chambers, as they were called, where the more powerful, more ancient of Patrons were enshrined, where those who were Marked or Touched by the Old Ones went to make manners. Idly, Rhyshladlyn wrapped his right hand around his left wrist, thumb pressing against the veins just below the heel of his palm where the Hourglass of the Faceless, also known to some in the Worlds as the God of Time, had shown up all fine white lines and intricate designs, tiny sands falling from the top half in a seemingly endless loop, never running out. It had been over a thousand years since the Faceless’ shrine within any of the Temples across the Worlds had had anyone make manners to them. Sure the clergy who tended to the Temples made small offerings but they didn’t make manners.

Until Rhyshladlyn was born, that is, and had made his first visit to the Great Temple in Shiran City. It had shocked the clergy, his mother and siblings, but especially his father. Anislanzir had looked at his second born son with a keener eye from that day forward. Thankfully, no one but Rhyshladlyn knew that the Hourglass adorned his skin as he was careful to wear long sleeves or keep a leather cuff on his wrist to cover it at all times. It was one thing to chose to kneel at an Old One’s altar to make manners, it was another entirely to be chosen by that Old One to do so.

Taking several turns until he was deep into the inner recesses of the Temple itself, where the torches were more sparsely lit, where the stone seemed older, where the steady thrumming golden glow of the main halls seemed oddly muted, more shadowed, Rhyshladlyn stopped before a pair of black wood doors with an Hourglass carved deep into the wood and embossed with silver and white. With reverence and care, Rhyshladlyn reached out and pressed the palm of his left hand to one of the Hourglasses, eyes falling closed.

“Faceless One, He who is fearsome and yet comforting, She who commands Life and Death in equal measure, Ey who is Time itself — real and yet unreal, ’tis I, Your chosen Scion, Marked by You, come to make manners at Your shrine and ask a question of You if it be allowed,” Rhyshladlyn intoned, voice deep and rumbling, echoing back at him from the muted golden walls, reverberating down the empty hallway before dancing back to him like a laughing, giddy child in the streets during the Midsummer celebrations.

With a subvocal boom the doors creaked open of their own accord and with a smile, Rhyshladlyn kissed his wrist over that Hourglass and walked inside.

*~*~*~*

Azhuri sank gracefully to her knees among the thick lush grass of the Gardens, arranging her skirts artfully around her, ever the picture of poise and grace and paying homage to the royal blood that followed her all the way from Atlanshïr to Shiran City. Anis took a seat on one of the benches the surrounded the Sacred Circle where his mother resided, leaning forward to press her forehead gently to the grass, fingers entangled in the thickness of the foliage, her markings seeming to glow as she made manners to her gods in her way. He waited in silence for a moment once she sat up again, hands folded almost demurely in her lap, her markings’ glow slowly fading until they were merely starkly contrasted against her skin and the green of her dress.

“Mother…” Anis began, trailing off when those orange-amber eyes flicked to him, so intense he was left breathless beneath the weight of them and the beauty of the face they rested in. “How–” he coughed, clearing his throat before continuing, “–how can we break the news to Rhys that he wasn’t just born a twin but a–“

“–speak not the words aloud, my son, for even these sacred walls have ears whose loyalty we know not where it lies,” Azhuri said, voice gentle as always but carrying a cutting quality to it that Anis had rarely heard whilst growing up under her careful, watchful eye.

“Fine, Mother, but still, he must know now. Surely you do not think that simply informing him he was supposed to be born a twin only for the other to die before it could breathe outside your womb, will suffice,” Anis pressed, leaning forward so his elbows rested just above his knees, clear blue eyes pleading and nearly white the color had lightened so greatly. “You know his curiosity as well as I and Alaïs, he cannot be expected to leave it at that.”

Azhuri sighed, the sound almost long suffering if she were capable of making such a sound, and looked away, head tilting back to look up at the canopy of the trees that grew in the Sacred Circle of the Temple Gardens, the sunlight peaking through the leaves and branches, sending dappled columns of light dancing over the grass and plants, a breeze dancing in from the open ceiling, ruffling Azhuri’s skirts and her hair before it settled.

“I know his curiosity will be forever unsatisfied, Anis, but there is only so much I can tell him without risking his life as well as mine own, yours, and your sister’s. And much as I wish to be truthful, I cannot give everything if it risks you all,” she said at length, head still tilted back, gaze locked upon the canopy before her eyes slid closed and she let out a deep breath before looking back at Anis. “He is destined for things I know naught of and his life is important because of those destined things. It was written upon him when he first looked at me after drawing his first breath. I will not defy the gods Themselves to keep my son’s feelings from being hurt because I have withheld information he feels I should not have.”

Anis nodded once before running a hand over his face, a habit he had gotten from Rhyshladlyn.

“I well understand you, dearest Mother, but I do not agree with you, let that be said and known for the saying of it, aye?”

“Aye, my son,” Azhuri replied.

They sat in silence for some time, waiting for Rhyshladlyn to join them, taking in the quiet solitude the Gardens held; a soft hush of a forest that was both ancient and young, the bark of the thick tree trunks creaking as they shifted subtly in the breeze, settling as time marched ever onward, their leaves making soft music as they rustled against each other, the grass shh-shhing, the wild flowers and herbs growing in sporadic clusters seeming to dance to a melody only they could hear.

Azhuri’s head snapped up suddenly, body contorting as she turned to look behind her towards the entrance to the Gardens where a sudden commotion had arisen mere seconds before her attention whipped around to face it. Before Anis could blink his mother was on her feet, body  tensed and ready and reminding him that while she may be Queen-heir to the Ancients and while she may appear to be demure and grace personified, she was still a warrior, still formidable, and powerful enough to have caught the Lord King of the Sinner Demon’s eye and hold it for the many centuries since their first meeting, uniting their respective races.

“What is going on?” Anis asked, body shifting into a fighting stance despite lacking any steel to wrap his fingers around.

“I do not know,” Azhuri replied, voice toneless, eyes and markings beginning to glow as her magick rose to the surface.

At the entrance to the Gardens a group of grey and silver-robed clergy had gathered, exclaiming and talking excitedly, the entrance seemed to darken, the sunlight dimming as shadows raced across the walls. The group of clergy and believers who had come to pay homage to various gods parted swiftly and in their wake strode Rhyshladlyn, orange-amber eyes filled with ice blue lightning, tanned skin throbbing with a humming glow that made one’s bones ache to be near it, golden-frost lined wings spread to their full eight-feet span, hair whipping around his face that was at once masculine and feminine in the wind created by his power.

Anis cursed, uncaring of the insult to the gods the very act was.

With measured steps despite the pure, unfiltered anger that radiated off him, Rhyshladlyn advanced into the Gardens, clergy and faithful scurrying to get out of his way, those shadows wrapping around his legs like a cat would that wishes for attention.

“Mother,” Rhyshladlyn spoke, but his voice was wrong, like there was an echo that happened as he spoke not after. “Is there something you wish to tell us?”

Anis swallowed the second curse that bubbled up in his throat as Azhuri straightened in the face of her second born’s anger, hands clasped in front of her, shoulders squared and back straight, head held high; the perfect picture of grace and royalty.

“Us?” She asked and while to the untrained ear she may sound confused, and genuinely at that, Anis and Rhyshladlyn knew better.

“Yes, Mother, us,” Rhyshladlyn replied, clearly having none of it as one eye became entirely ice blue, the other remaining orange-amber, face shifting so the orange-amber side was more androgynous-leaning but still distinctly masculine while the ice blue side was starkly, and nearly startlingly so, masculine. “After all, I was not only born as a twin, was I?” Rhyshladlyn continued, stopping a mere three feet from Azhuri.

Azhuri raised a perfect eyebrow in challenge but otherwise said nothing.

Say itMah-avtmen!” Rhyshladlyn thundered, voice making the ground shake, the trees creak louder as the foliage around them all seemed to cry under the onslaught of so much negative emotion in such great concentration in a singular being. “I was born a Mu–“

“Rhys, brother mine, do not speak the words…not here!” Anis interrupted, voice wavering with a fear that only knowledge of what their father was truly capable of doing could cause. “If you know, then know, but keep them silent and please, release this anger and the power raised with it. This is still a sacred place, respect the gods that walk here even if They are not your own,” Anis pleaded, body shifting out of the fighting stance, hands held up in front of him, palms visible to show he held no weapons and meant no harm.

Rhyshladlyn turned to face him and from eye blink to another, everything was righted again; the eyes looking back at Anis were both orange-amber, the face they rested in hinting at androgyny but still distinctly masculine, that eight feet of wing span gone, and the power that shaded the sunlight simply snuffed out as though it had never been there in the first place. While Rhyshladlyn losing control like that was a sign of the Ancient blood that ran in his veins, while it hinted that he wasn’t quite a master of his magick, the way he simply was back in control spoke volumes otherwise.

“Mother,” the voice that spoke that one word wasn’t that of a Sinner-Ancient Dhaoine who was nearly 81 namedays old, but rather that of a confused, scared child who felt like his world had suddenly been tipped onto its head and he had no idea whether up was really up or down or sideways. “How could you not… how could this be hidden from me?”

“Because, Rhys,” Azhuri murmured, closing the distance between them to wrap her arms around him in a rare show of affection, one that had it been done anywhere else but in the Gardens of the Great Temple, could have resulted in Anislanzir beating them both, “it was needed to keep you and I alive, and your siblings by proxy.”

Anis averted his gaze while his brother held tight to their mother and his strong, lithe body was wracked with sobs that made no sound.

Please, whatever god watches over my brother, hear my Call. Keep him safe, I beg You. Whatever it is You have planned for him, please keep him safe. 

While no spoken answer came when Anis looked back over towards where his mother and brother stood still in each other’s arms, Azhuri speaking softly into Rhyshladlyn’s ear, voice too low for even Anis’ keen ears to pick up, the heir to the throne of the Sinner Demons saw a tall, cloaked figure with a  long-handled Scythe casually slung across its shoulders, face hidden by the shadows of the hood pulled up over its head. Anis blinked, frowning in slight confusion. The figure nodded once before disappearing from sight.

Thank You, he prayed, knowing not which god it was he had just seen but that it was one nonetheless answering his prayer. While it wasn’t the confirmation he was hoping for, it would have to do.

Yes, he thought as he focused back on Azhuri and Rhyshladlyn as they separated and moved over to where he was once more sitting on the bench, it would have to do. 

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