When he arrived, he only made it as far as the front door because when he reached for the door handle Azriel’s laughter came from inside and he had jerked his hand back as though burned. He knew it was just a memory he was hearing, a trick of his over-stressed mind, but that didn’t stop his heartbeat from speeding up, his chest growing tight, or tears springing to the backs of his eyes making them burn.
It didn’t stop the guilt from swelling up inside him until he was certain he’d drown in it.
So he turned his back on the front door and stumbled over to the porch railing, swaying forward until his hands slammed against the banister, until his fingers curled around it. He gripped it like a life line, hardly aware of the splinters digging into the pads of his fingers and his palms, of the ones that threatened to slip under his nails. He was barely aware he was making hollows in the wood as he tried to quell the not-so-fine trembling in his muscles while his heart made every attempt to beat its way out of his chest.
But it didn’t matter.
Just like with the pain of the hot water in the shower, he welcomed it. Craved it, even. Not just because he deserved it but because it grounded him. And he desperately needed to be grounded. Because everything was so fucked and and unless he could get his mind to quiet back down, unless he got a fucking hold of himself, it would only get worse.
As if to prove his point, his mind supplied the way Azriel had looked when Anislanzir had run him through with his sword. He made a wounded sound and beat at the memory like one waves one’s hand to disperse smoke or a smell, the attempt halfhearted and weak. But that image didn’t go away and he felt a few tears slip down his cheeks.
He closed his eyes tightly to stave them off, set his jaw when his lips started to tremble, bowed his head so that if he did open his eyes he would see the wood beneath his hands instead of the oasis that spread out from the stairs that lead to the Desert floor. As if not seeing details of the area around his home would help trick him into thinking that wasn’t where he knew he was. You are so fucking stupid sometimes.
But none of that stopped the rush of memories brought on by being back at the cabin for the first time in months. It didn’t stop the flood of countless hours spent laughing and yelling and fighting and praying. It didn’t stop the flood of countless echoes of promises and pleas and curses. It didn’t stop the flood of countless things that made it a home more than Shiran City ever was or would be.
It especially didn’t stop the memory of the last conversation he had with Azriel within the cabin’s walls.
“He’ll be fine, Rhys-kyn. We’ll get him and Alaïs out safely.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“Yes, I can and I do.”
“How, Azriel? How can you be so sure?”
“Because I have faith in you. And that is all I need.”
If only the Anglëtinean had known just how spectacularly he would prove that faith to be misplaced. If only the male had known what would happen. If only his Companion had known what his Qishir would try to do to the one who kept him from saving him.
With a shaky breath, he opened his eyes and looked hesitantly to the left and right at the porch then out at the oasis before him. It was such a simple cabin, sure it had several bedrooms, a large kitchen, dining area, main sitting area, two full bathrooms, and a sizable pantry, it was still far less opulent than what he had grown up in. Than what any of them had been born into, at least as far as himself and his partially completed Triad went. And yet, somehow, the sturdy if not crudely built cabin was home to him. Somehow, the lack of opulence didn’t bother him. Somehow, living a simple life with his males, living as though he weren’t the heir to a throne, made him feel more free, more privileged than he ever had while living in Shiran City’s Palace.
He’d been born royalty but it took living like he wasn’t for him to feel alive, for him to feel real, and now…
Now the idea that may have to destroy this place, destroy his home, was sickening. Because if Azriel died? The cabin and its memories would be all he had left of the Anglëtinean. And the thought of losing every reminder of him was almost too much.
Nameless prevailing, but he wanted to be angry. Because if he was angry? He could think. If he was angry? He wouldn’t be standing on the porch too afraid to open his own front door. If he was angry? He wouldn’t be drowning in a guilt he knew he shouldn’t feel but did anyway. If he was angry? He wouldn’t feel so damn weak.
He begged whatever gods were listening to let his fury return, to let it burn away the guilt and the self-loathing and the fear and the desperation. And if the fury wasn’t available, he’d take the detachment fog again.
But no god answered and his fury remained stubbornly out of reach. By the Cliffs, there wasn’t even a trace of the detachment fog for him to follow to its source so he could sink into it again.
He was alone both physically and mentally and it was his doing. He’d run from the camp, from the looks that he told himself didn’t matter, that he deserved, but that had made his skin crawl in a way reminiscent of when Anislanzir would look at him with fondness.
He’d run from his Court and his Others, blocking them all out, telling himself it was better if he was alone, because he wasn’t a danger to them if they weren’t near him. Ran from them even though what he really wanted was for them to tell him it would all be okay, to feel their arms around him, to feel their magick slip and slide against his.
He’d run because it was the only decision he’d ever made and followed through on that didn’t result in someone dying or being assaulted or being tortured to get to him.
And if he resolutely ignored the voice that murmured tell that to Anis and Ero in the back of his mind? Only he would know and he doubted anyone would judge him for it. He had enough shit on his mind. He didn’t need to add to it.
Not yet, anyway.
“What the fuck am I even doing here?” he gasped out, voice sounding wet.
The sound of his voice was like a dam breaking. What mediocre control he had snapped before he even knew it was at its breaking point and his shoulders began to shake as the tears he was fighting to hold back slipped down his cheeks in earnest, leaving burning trails that did nothing but make his shame and guilt worse.
What right did he have to be crying? None. He had no right.
Not when his sister was carrying their father’s child.
Not when Relyt would have nightmares at the least for the rest of his life because of his father and him.
Not when Azriel was going to lose his wings and gods knew what else before Anislanzir finally killed him.
Not when the entirety of Thayne’s gathered army no longer trusted him.
Not when his Court looked at him like he was a ticking bomb ready to go off and wipe them out at any moment.
Not when he couldn’t think of a single viable option where he could save Azriel and destroy Shiran City and his father.
He had no right to cry. All of the shit he would cry about was his fault, was brought on by his choices and his failures. Sure, others had a hand in it, but ultimately the blame fell to him.
Some Qishir I am. What god thought I was a good choice for this shit? Why did Fate chose me of all the Dhaoine in the Worlds?
With an annoyed huff he lifted both hands to brush the tears from his cheeks. But with each swipe he made, more tears fell until he was on his knees, hands once more gripping the banister, head hanging down between his outstretched arms. He bit the inside of his cheek until the coppery taste of blood danced across his tongue to keep the sobs from escaping but it didn’t work. And it wasn’t long before the sound of his sobs opened the flood gates in all the times he’d cried just like this. And he cried all the harder remembering them.
When he’d learned that she had been on Anislanzir’s side the whole time.
When Azriel had been confined to solitude for 40 moon cycles.
When Anis and Ero had died.
When he had allowed Relyt to go to Shiran City to protect Alaïs.
When he had learned Alaïs carried his neodrx-sibling.
When he had learned that Relyt and Alaïs where dying.
When he had watched the tip of his father’s sword pierce Azriel’s gut and get pulled back out just before Shiran closed the doorway.
But still he asked himself what he was doing at the cabin. He asked even though it was such a stupid question because he knew exactly what he was doing here. He had come to punish himself, to show himself what he was going to lose, what he had already lost. He had come to isolate himself so he could come to terms with what he had to do, with what was going to happen, what had to happen. He had come to say goodbye.
And while the box where he’d buried the memories of his talk with his Patrons following Anis’ murder began rattling at him in earnest, he ignored it. It wasn’t time to open it yet, he didn’t dare. Not with his ability to control his thoughts diminished. Because if any of his Others found out what that conversation had entailed?
The fallout wouldn’t just take him down or his Court, it would take down the entirety of Fènwa World at the very least. And Majik World was still struggling to recover, the Worlds sending every Dhaoine they could spare to aid in rebuilding, in recovering, in finding the pieces of those killed when Amèl had gone nova, in giving the Dhaoine who perished proper burials. The last thing the Worlds needed was another World left in shambles. Especially with the war only just beginning, one that was shaping up to become another Worlds War.
Despite that, Shiran City had to fall and Anislanzir had to fall with it. But burning it wasn’t going to accomplish that. It would take too long, would offer Anislanzir too much time to escape. Never mind that it wouldn’t send the message that Lulphé needed it to, that he needed it to.
He — they — needed Shiran City and its ruler to fall in a way that was so undeniably horrifying that no one would even think to replicate the Lord King’s actions, to resurrect his regime. Something that would leave no question as to why those who knew of what he had gone through, what he had survived, at the hands of the Lord King were either on his side or stayed the fuck out of his way.
And while he knew what he would do, what the only option was, it didn’t make it any better. Because thousands, no millions, would die and there was not a damned thing he could do to change that. Because while he could get Thayne to pull her army out of harm’s way, there was no way he could get Anislanzir’s army to do the same. And if they did leave the Field? The only place they’d go would be right back within the City’s walls. And that wasn’t counting the innocents still inside. The collateral damage just wasn’t worth killing one un-male. That sacrifice wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t justifiable, no matter what Lulphé, or anyone else for that matter, might say.
But it had to be done and no one else could do it but him. He was the only one that stood even a snowstorm’s chance in a desert of pulling it off let alone making it out alive.
Not that he deserved to survive it given the destruction he’d wreak, given the damage he’d already done, but he didn’t have a choice.
Honestly, the more he thought about it, he’d likely never had one.
Is this what Fate had in mind for me? Is this the mantle I placed around my shoulders when I Accepted its Call?
With a breath that rattled hard and worryingly in his lungs, he pulled himself back to his feet, took a deep breath and let it out slow before he wiped the evidence of his tears off his face again, this time with more success. Taking another deep breath he turned to face the cabin without opening his eyes.
You can do this. It’s a building for fuck’s sake. It’s not even a living thing. Stop being afraid of ghosts.
Opening his eyes he snarled out a yelp, hands flying up into a guard position as his feet shifted into a fighting stance when he saw that Relyt’s old rocking chair just to the right of the front door was no longer unoccupied.
Bayls’ laughter made his cheeks heat with a blush as he forced himself to relax, rolling the tension out of his shoulders, fighting hard against the instinct that hollered enemy, danger, kill.
“How long have you been sitting there?” he demanded, turning his back to her so she couldn’t see his blush, once more facing the oasis, hands resting gently on the banister rather than clutching it like a lifeline. “And how the fuck did you get there so quietly? I know for a fact that that rocking chair sounds like someone is peeling metal when you try to sit in it.”
“Nully blinked me in,” he could hear the female’s shrug mixing in with her amusement. “And I’ve been here since about the time that you sank to your knees and cried,” the chair made the very sound he had said it usually did when Bayls stood up. “As for this thing, Nul told me how to keep it from announcing my presence.”
“Well how nice of him,” he grumbled. “I could have killed you. You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that.”
Bayls snorted as she stepped up beside him on his left, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the porch railing, hair tucked neatly behind her ears, hands tucked under her chin as she looked out at the oasis. “You wouldn’t have killed me because I startled you, Rhys. This is your home, you feel safe here. Worse you’d have done was punch me and I’d’ve deserved it. Sneaking up on people is a shitty thing to do.”
So why did you do it then?
“What are you doing here, Bayls?” he sighed, glancing at her before looking away.
“To stop you from doing something really fucking stupid,” came the easy, quick reply.
Best of luck with that.
“They sent you to keep me from doing something?” he asked, knowing the question sounded insulting but he was just surprised that of all those in his Court, Bayls was the one that got sent to talk him off the ledge of stupid decisions.
Talk about drawing the short straw. Shit.
“I’ll ignore the insult there cuz I know it was unintended,” she laughed softly, leaning closer to bump her shoulder against his own. “To tell the truth, I didn’t want to come. I didn’t know how I could keep you from doing something you’re intent on doing. But Rel wasn’t an option, Nhulynolyn thinks you’re pissed at him, Shadi and Xhesh think the same, Thayne is more likely to deck you than talk to you like a rational adult — by the way that female can throw one helluva temper tantrum –, Adïm said he doesn’t know you well enough, Thae’a said the same, Jaro met you less than twenty-four hours ago, and Alaïs still hasn’t woken up. So… that left me.”
He didn’t say anything, just let the silence stretch between them, marveling at how it didn’t feel strained like he expected it would, how it felt almost comfortable. Well, it would have if the knowledge of why she was here wasn’t looming over them both like a storm cloud.
“You don’t have to do whatever it is you’ve got planned, Rhys,” Bayls assured as she turned to look at him, her stare heavy but he still couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze. “Whatever it is, there’s got to be another way, one that doesn’t involve you acting alone.”
“Yes, I do, Bayls,” his voice was soft, barely above a whisper. “There is no other way. There never was.”
“Why?” She demanded then, voice holding a harder edge, one she didn’t have when he’d first met her and he wondered if knowing him had put it there. He prayed that wasn’t the case, even if reality said otherwise. “Are you planning to give yourself up in Az’s stead? Is that it? Or are you going to just blink every single person out and then turn yourself over in exchange? Or do you plan to make the earth swallow the City?”
He didn’t say anything but it wouldn’t have mattered if he did. Because she was somewhat right on all counts and judging by the way she growled lowly, she knew it as well as he did.
His silence was answer enough. It always had been.
“By the Great Mother’s hard nips, you need to stop acting like you’re alone in this,” the Sinner snapped.
With a growl of his own he rounded on her.
“But I am, you insufferable twat!” he snapped back, voice not raising in volume but it rebounded off the wall of the cabin and the sands of the Desert around them as though it had. She flinched but stood her ground, which was impressive and made him not feel too bad for snapping at her. “I am alone, I have been since this shit began and I will be when it reaches the end game. There isn’t any other option for me.”
“That’s just as much of a cop out as Lulphé’s sacrifices speech,” Bayls returned, raising an eyebrow when he narrowed his eyes at her, fighting not to use his superior height to loom over her. “You know I’m not wrong. Now what’s the real reason you keep pushing us all away, that you ran all the way back here even though everyone knows as well as you do that it would only upset you further?”
He shook his head and pushed away from the railing, aiming for the cabin door because he was not about to tell her he had come for his notes, that he had come to say goodbye, that he had come for all the real reasons he had only just finished mulling over before he’d realized she was there.
This time when he reached for the handle he didn’t recoil, didn’t hesitate. It helped probably that Bayls was there and the need to escape her questioning was the distraction he needed to not hear and see the remnants of the times he’d spent making the cabin into his home. And if her presence alone didn’t do the trick, the shit she said certainly did.
“Oh, running away?” He could practically hear her roll her eyes as she followed him over the threshold and into the main sitting area. “Real mature. Do you ever not run away from your problems?”
“Be very careful,” he turned to face her, face devoid of expression, hands twitching at his sides with the need to strike her for her insolence. “I am still a Qishir and I would be mindful of what you say to me. Even under the guise of an intervention.”
The Sinner raised her own eyebrow, arms crossing under her breasts as she cocked one hip to the side, utterly unbothered by him.
“Then answer the questions,” Bayls countered, one corner of her mouth twisting in a smirk that she had to have learned from Nhulynolyn. “And I’m not afraid of you in the way you think, Rhys. So you can drop the whole ‘I’ll eat your skin for a snack’ thing. It isn’t going to work on me.”
He rolled his eyes skyward, tossing his hands up as he turned away from her and crossed the main area to the kitchen. Of all those my Court could have sent, she at least is tenacious enough to not let something go, I’ll give her that much. I hope she drives Nully insane. They’re fuckin perfect for each other.
Counting the cabinets starting at the top row near the entrance to the hallway that led back to the bedrooms, he found the one he wanted and opened it, pulling plates and other kitchen utensils out and placing them on the counter. He was vaguely aware that Bayls was asking what he was doing but he didn’t answer. Just tapped the wall at the back of the now empty cabinet until he found the tab he was looking for, lifted it, and pulled. Setting the false wall on the counter with everything else, he reached in and removed a leather-bound journal. Crossing to the island, he tossed it down, watching as it slid rapidly towards the edge. Bayls caught it at the last second before it went sailing off the edge.
“What’s this?” she asked with a frown, turning it over as she examined every inch of the cover with the air of someone expecting a trap to be sprung on them at any moment.
“That’s what I plan to do,” he answered, leaning his forearms on the countertop, palms pressed together, fingers loosely linked.
When Bayls just stared at the cover and didn’t open it he huffed a laugh.
“It isn’t going to bite you, Bay,” he chuckled when she narrowed her eyes at him. “Go on, open it. Look through it. You want your answers? They’re in there.”
Once she opened it and began reading, he turned away from the island counter to begin making coffee just to give himself something to do. While it brewed he searched the cabinets and coldbox for anything stronger than coffee, water, or tea but came up empty. It wasn’t long before the coffee was brewed and he poured some out for the both of them. When he returned to the island with two steaming mugs in his hands Bayls was staring at him with a mixture of adoration, shock, and a fear that was more for him than because of him.
He smiled mirthlessly at her as he set the mugs down and got out cream and sugar and brought the ingredients and two spoons over. He didn’t say anything while he added three spoonfuls of sugar and five drops of cream to his coffee, stirring it in until the dark liquid was a light brown. Bayls left her mug untouched, eyes wide as she kept staring at him. He just calmly sipped his coffee while he looked back at her and waited.
Eventually she shook herself out of her stupor and reached for the now lukewarm mug of coffee. He snickered when she took a sip and blanched, reaching for the sugar with one hand as she cast a warming charm with the other. He raised both eyebrows at the amount she poured in before she reached for the cream and added significantly less of that than the sugar.
Well, if she’s wired and annoys Nully it’ll serve the fucker right for helping her scare me earlier.
Bayls took another sip and sighed softly, shoulders sagging as the tension drained out of her. He sipped his coffee at the same sedate pace while she practically inhaled hers. By the time he was done she had been staring at the journal for several minutes, empty mug set aside, the comfortable silence from earlier gone, replaced by one that was far heavier.
“So this has been your plan all along?” she asked at length, voice hushed in the quiet of the cabin, one index finger tapping the cover of the journal.
“Yes,” he replied, reaching out to pick up her mug and bring it with him to the coffee pot to refill it. Sitting back down and gently sliding her mug back to her, he sighed. “I had to plan for everything. Initially that plan was supposed to be used after I Oathed Azriel and Relyt… but given recent events, I’ll have to modify it. But regardless of any modifications, the planned outcome is still the same.”
Her gaze snapped up to his at that. “You’re talking about making the land unlivable. You’re not just going to kill people, Rhys, you’re going to destroy the land.”
He just nodded. There wasn’t any point in denying it. The truth was laid out as plainly as he could make it. In his own handwriting no less.
“How can you be okay with this?”
He looked away then, staring passed her out the windows that made up the front wall of the cabin, remembering a similar conversation that he’d had with Azriel and Relyt and his Others. They had basically asked the same thing, asked how he could seem so undisturbed by the fact that he’d be causing so much destruction, so much death, and tainting the earth with it. That he’d be doing something that would not only make him the most feared Dhaoine in the Worlds but also mark him irrevocably as anathema, if not outright mark him for death. His answer now was the same as it had been then:
It wasn’t something he wanted to do, but rather it was something he had to do.
He’d suspected since he was fledgling that killing Anislanzir wouldn’t be enough. That putting his brother on the throne in the un-male’s stead wasn’t going to solve the problems that the Lord King had created, stoked, and reveled in. And after Anis had died? After he’d spoken to his Patrons that final time in the Great Temple? He knew it wouldn’t be enough.
Something cataclysmic had to happen to right the wrongs that Anislanzir had done, to wipe the slate clean. For without a clean slate, there was no guarantee that the past would not repeat itself.
The box he’d been trying to ignore rattled more insistently so he kicked it into the farthest recesses of his mind. He couldn’t afford to be distracted by reminders of how the Way of Things had been disrupted, that the plan set in motion by Fate had been altered, that he still had to restore Balance to the Worlds, that he still had to right wrongs done ages before he was born, that he still had to Awaken. He hadn’t forgotten about those things, but he could only handle one thing at a time.
With a small shake of his head, focused back in on Bayls who was looking at him expectantly.
“I never said I was,” he answered finally. “But sometimes…” he looked away again, not trusting he could speak a half truth while making direct eye contact. “…sometimes it isn’t about sacrifices so much as choices. And me? Well, the only choice I have left is to do that,” he gestured at the journal, “or die.”
And no matter how much I believe that me dying would make things so much easier on everyone, I can’t. I won’t.
Because Fate may have chosen wrong, but I’m its only option now.