I Hear your Oath and in Answer I give my Life for yours.
The second the words were out of his mouth sheer agony lanced its way across every single nerve as the Oath solidified between him and Azriel, as the magick called to being by his sacrifice hit him full force and began to tear him apart. He fought to swallow the scream that bubbled in his throat as Azriel’s own pain rocketed down their now complete link and he fought with every shred of power he had left to spare to slam a door on it and end the looped circuit of shared pain. His was bad enough, he was dying after all, he couldn’t handle Azriel’s as well. Never mind that Azriel stood a chance of living through his own pain. But if Rhyshladlyn’s was added? If the Anglëtinean felt him die? Experienced firsthand him dying just like he had a year ago only far more intensely thanks to their link? Azriel wouldn’t survive that. Not with their Bond completed. At least from Azriel’s side.
And his own pain was intense. More so than anything he’d ever felt before. It stole his breath, literally, from his lungs as he sank to his knees in the sands that had stopped boiling but continued to undulate like some great-backed beast slumbered beneath them. Instinctively he clapped a hand to his neck to try and stop the bleeding but he knew it was pointless. The arterial spray that marked the Shield and half-hid Relyt’s face from him was testament enough. He was dying, by his own hand at that, and all to save Azriel. He was being torn apart, his magick shredding his body at the molecular level as his sacrifice Called out for Acceptance and nothing short of divine intervention could stop it.
Dimly he was aware that Relyt was howling in Gretlök, the words harsher than anything he’d heard before, wings spread wide, as he tore at the Shield, grey eyes wide and filled with a fire that he knew was the Soul Healer’s magick rising to the surface and demanding an outlet. But he didn’t acknowledge it. He couldn’t. Doing so took energy he just didn’t have anymore. He didn’t even have anything to spare to numb his own suffering; he would experience every single moment of dying up until his final breath. Because what little he’d had went into making a door between him and Azriel so his death only took one of them. So that his sacrifice wasn’t rendered moot before it could even be completed.
Admittedly, he probably should have thought this through a little longer than he had but the outcome would have been the same. The Oath and its Bond had already been established before he’d given his Answer. If he denied Azriel’s Oath, they would both die; Azriel at the blow back and him at the Anglëtinean’s death. And if he’d Answered it? Same result, different timeline. But if he Answered it and sacrificed his life by his own hand for the male? Then only one of them would die. Then Azriel would be untouchable. For while a Blood Oath was considered an act of divinity, a life sacrificed in the midst of an Oathing Ceremony was an act of the Ahlüt nes Nühnet, the only deity worshiped in the Worlds that was omniscient and omnipotent. Its Mark was what would make the Anglëtinean untouchable. For even Anislanzir wasn’t stupid enough to try and mess with the Creator of All and Nothing.
And even if he was? The Lord King would perish for the attempt.
So really it was a win-win situation no matter how he looked at it. Sure he would die, but that was bound to happen eventually. For as powerful as he was, as powerful as the gods that had Marked him as Theirs were, he wasn’t immortal. And he’d already shown he could die, at least this time his death would actually mean something.
All around him the sound of splintering ice rebounded off the walls made by the Shield. But he didn’t open his eyes to investigate, when did I close them?, didn’t do anything else but sit there with his wings trailing in the sands, head bowed, hand pressed to his neck while his blood still flowed in a stream through his fingers and down his body. Everything hurt and he wondered if this was the pain he was too in shock to experience when he’d died the first time he’d ever met Relyt.
The sound of splintering ice grew louder before a crack pierced the air with enough force that the displaced wind buffeted his body but he still didn’t look up, still didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t need the last thing he ever saw to be the hope leaving Relyt’s eyes when the Soul Healer realized that there was one type of death that he couldn’t Heal. He didn’t want to see the moment when Relyt realized that being a Gret’yinl meant shit in the face of this kind of death.
No, he wanted the last thing he ever saw to be the memories of Relyt and Azriel laughing together as the Anglëtinean taught the Soul Healer how to cook only for Relyt to botch it each and every time.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be the memory of hardened determination as Relyt looked down at him, hands glowing with his power as he spoke with a tone of terse command that only Healers were capable of, “Stay awake, your Majesty. I need you to focus on breathing for me and staying awake.”
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be the memory of Azriel’s face when they first kissed, the feeling of being home after eons of travel showing in the Anglëtinean’s expression of abject wonder and fondness.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be the memory of Alaïs and Anis speaking in perfect unison because they knew it bothered him only to laugh seconds after they did it.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be the light dying from her eyes as he stole her life from her.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be Shiran City sinking beneath the sands of Shiraniqi Desert.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be his Patrons telling him that he would win, that he had won.
He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be Azriel’s mismatched eyes brimming with tears of happiness as he told him he was carrying their child.
But he wouldn’t get any of that. Not anymore. Not after this. All he would see would be the looks of horror and shock that had darkened the features of Relyt and his Others as they’d appeared beside him. All he would see would be his memories of snapshots of good times that existed within the bad ones. All he would see would be the darkness that spread behind his eyelids as his life fled his body from the tear in his neck as the scent of clean water and wild flowers filled his nose as the sound of the River rushing past rocks grew louder by the moment, almost loud enough to drown out the cries of his name and denials of what had happened.
There was so much he wanted to say in that moment as the last tether that held him to the living realm began to fray, seconds away from snapping completely, but all he could get out past the burning in his throat and the gurgling of blood as it flowed from his mouth was two simple words. He prayed they’d be enough even though he knew they wouldn’t be.
“I’m sorry…” and everything went quiet and still.
“Do not apologize for so noble of an act. Even if the purpose of it is far more underhanded than any of Us expected from you, Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn.”
His head snapped up and he frowned at the sight of Relyt three yards away frozen mid-running stride, right hand outstretched, his gretluos blindingly bright, his gretkewq glowing a pulsing grey that matched his eyes, streams of magick flowing from the domed ceiling of the Shield to his right arm as he ate the energy of it to replenish his stores. Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú were only half a step behind him, also frozen mid-step. Fear, anguish, and anger fought for dominance on his Others’ faces and he almost reached for them as he always used to to soothe them, to show he was fine. But he wasn’t fine and so he stopped himself just in time. But he knew he would never forget the way he could just barely make out the shadows of Nhulynolyn’s wings, wings his twin had never shown, spread out behind him as tendrils of power drifted from the Shield as well to him, arching in lightning strikes to Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú. Because so long as they live, I cannot truly die.
“I hear You, but I do not see You,” he replied, looking around and jerking when he saw Bayls barely even five feet away on his left, hazel eyes like storm clouds, arms bloodied to the elbow, chunks of what looked like glass sticking out at various points along her forearms. It took him a moment to realize it was pieces of the Shield. Holy fuck, she literally tore her way through the Shield to get to me. Her face was marked with tears, eyes glistening with more, mouth opened around a yell that he didn’t doubt was his name. It was obvious in that moment what had drawn his twin to the female; her determination and desperation to get to him, to save him was beautiful. I hope the two of you spend many happy, peaceful years together.
“You needn’t see Me to know I am here and who I am.”
Such a cryptic answer meant the god that spoke was the Faceless. He was the only one capable of freezing time like this. But it made no sense for him to be here, to have done this. He didn’t deal in lives, the Nameless did. So why was death conspicuously absent?
“Faceless?” he asked, still casting his gaze around, determined to find where the god was. He wasn’t the type to not physically appear. That was more the Nameless or Soullessly Heartfelt. Those two preferred to show up as lessons or the acts of people rather than be physically present; especially if They had to manifest outside Their respective Temples or Shadow Chambers.
“Yes, My child, it is truly Me,” that rumbling voice answered from seemingly all around him.
“Why am I not dead yet? Why is it You that greets me at my death but not the Nameless?”
Laughter rolled like thunder and shook him all the way to the core of his Self.
“Because the Nameless will come for you only when it is your Time to go. Until that moment, I and I alone shall visit you. For it is I who determines when one’s Time has come to make payment to the Ferryman.”
His blood ran cold. They aren’t accepting my sacrifice?
Before he could say anything else his eyes came upon the rest of his First Circle and he hissed sharply through his teeth when the full body jerk of surprise set off an even louder riot of pain along his dying nerves.
Thayne’s crimson eyes looked like fire, sparks trailing to either side of her face like tears blown to freedom by a strong gust of wind. Adïmshyl had his teeth bared in a snarl that he knew was meant to hide the fear the Lupherinre couldn’t keep from darkening his eyes. Thae’a’s mark was visible and thrumming with her power as she ran beside her mate, hands frozen mid-motion and he wondered what reality she was Weaving before the Faceless had frozen time, marveled that she would risk her life to try and save him.
Jaro and the rest wore similar expressions of fear and anguish and anger, but they weren’t fully within the Shield yet though not for lack of trying. Jaro was halfway through, hands pushing at the edges as though to shift them just enough that he could slip through, uncaring of the way it sliced open his palms and forearms in much the same way it had Bayls’. Yrei, Jylen, and Chebnir were in various degrees of pulling apart the Shield in front of them with Yrei’s left arm cocked back to punch her way through but she had been frozen by the Faceless’ arrival before she could follow through.
Seeing all of them, the Court members whose names he knew by heart already and those whose names he had yet to learn, having fought–or still fighting–their way to him, desperately trying to beat the clock to save him, even though they had to know they’d never make it, it made his heart clench hard. They still tried, even when the act of doing so was a hopeless one, one doomed from the start to fail.
“The irony of that should not be lost on you, Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn,” the Faceless remarked, the snark of his words clear in his flat tone. “You were never one to cease trying in the face of hopelessness. If anything, the knowledge that an endeavor was destined from the start to fail only seemed, seems, to spur you on.”
He snorted, unable to help it. “You cannot blame me,” he retorted.
“No, perhaps not, but you know what the outcome of this first set of battles is meant to be, what it will be, My child. You know because We told you.”
The god was right. He did know but They hadn’t given him specifics. Didn’t tell him a when or a why merely a what and there wasn’t much he could work with when it came to that. And if things were to go like They told him it would, well what other choice did he have? They had told him he would Know when it was time for that event and that Knowing hadn’t hit him yet. So he had done the only thing he could think of that had more than a snowflake’s chance on the Cliffs of succeeding so that that event could still come to pass as it was meant to. Did they see this coming? Did They know all along that this would happen and that it would merely be a stepping stone? Or was this a test? He had so many questions he wanted to ask, but he didn’t waste the effort to do so. Didn’t dare risk upsetting the god that now literally held his life in his hands, and not just his but Azriel’s as well.
“I know, Honored One,” he said, bowing his head again as he let his hand fall away from his neck to lay with his other one on his thighs, admiring the way his blood made the burned swirls on his forearms stand out more starkly than they did without it. “But if I didn’t try this, if I didn’t do something, what You told me would happen, what You warned me of, would never have had a chance to come to pass. And as much as I don’t want it to, I know it has to.”
“We know, precious one, We know,” he jumped when a hand touched his shoulder and looked up into the endless gaze of the Faceless. “It is why We will accept your sacrifice but not your life. Instead We shall take the life of another.”
Horror raced through him and it must have shown on his face because the god chuckled at him.
“Fear not, little one, We are taking a life you meant to sacrifice anyway. As the Old Ones to whom it would have been offered, We accept both your attempted sacrifice and the one that would have been given at another time.”
Confusion replaced the horror. “Honored One, I don’t understand.”
“Alaïs Rin’zhur’s ill-gotten child,” the god replied, face that was at once old and young and every form in between softened, the hand that was on his shoulder brushing up the side of his neck and Rhyshladlyn sucked in a startled breath when he felt the wound in his neck close under the deity’s fingers. “We will Take the Lady Queen’s unborn child as the life and blood payment for what your attempted sacrifice was meant to achieve so Azriel Kasuske shall live as shall you.”
“But… he will die if the Oath is completed!” he protested, reaching for the Faceless as he pulled away. “Please, Anislanzir will kill him if Azriel is not labeled as untouchable. Please,” he begged, hating that he was reduced to this but accepting that it was necessary.
“Then you will need to make it swiftly to the Palace before your sire realizes what has happened.”
And with that the Faceless was gone and time returned to normal.