Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe ou–
In the moments that it took for time to resettle back into its proper speed, he wracked his brain for a way to deal with the eight Dhaoine rushing towards him, to stop them before they could collide with him. Because they wouldn’t have known that time had frozen, they wouldn’t have known that he was no longer dying. In those moments that it took for time to resettle back into its proper speed, he prepared himself for the questions, for their reactions, for the horror turned to elation as best he could. Prepared himself to deny them answers, at least for the moment, to deny them any ability to check to make sure he was truly okay, because once time returned to normal speeds he would need to be running towards the Palace. Honestly, he should probably be on his way there now, while he had a technical head start, because unlike the rest of at least this portion of the Worlds, if not the entirety of the Seven, he wasn’t affected by the freeze. But he remained where he was against better judgment.
He also should open his link to Azriel, to let the Anglëtinean feel that he was still alive long before time returned to normal. Should open that link so that he could send soothing energy and pulses of power to his Companion to keep him alive until he could get there. But he didn’t dare do it yet. Couldn’t face what emotions would come rushing down the link towards him once that door was removed. Couldn’t face the aftermath of the pain he had caused.
“And then the screaming started. Gods surrounding… the screaming,” those mismatched eyes glazed over and the look that passed across the Anglëtinean’s face was haunted and full of remembered terror.
He remembered the haunted look on Azriel’s face that day in the Healing pools when he recounted how he had fallen from a Line when he had felt Rhyshladlyn die the first time. Remembered hearing the recalled horror and anguish that mixed with the elation and gratitude that he was alive. Remembered how his screams for help, for any aid, had caused Azriel to attempt to tear out his own wings in an effort to quicken his own death because the pain of Rhyshladlyn’s call had been so immense that it had consumed Azriel. And the knowledge that he would hear that again, feel it raw as it occurred? It was too much. He would acknowledge it, but not yet. Not until he handled those around him.
Not until he dealt with Relyt.
His gaze slid to the Grey Soul Healer and his breath caught all over again at the sight of him pulling power and energy from the Shield, at the sight of his eyes glowing the same shade as his gretkewq. His gretluos were still as blindingly bright as they had been when the Faceless had first stopped time around him. The look of fear on the Soul Healer’s face was breathtaking and he had no doubt that seeing the expression was nothing compared to the emotion that powered it and not for the first time he was glad that their link was whole and solid yet so that he didn’t have to live it as though it were his own. And the way his eyes shimmered in the light cast by his gretluos and the lightning that arced behind him between Nhulynolyn and Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú was from tears he was fighting to hold back. The way his cheeks looked wet told him that Relyt hadn’t been able to keep all of his tears at bay. And it made his heart ache. Made guilt swirl hot and fast in his gut.
He had so much to make up for, so much to make amends for. Because that was not the first time he’d made Relyt cry and there was a not-so-small part of himself that seethed with self-hatred at the knowledge that it also wouldn’t be the last time. But what was done was done. All that was left was to pick up the pieces, try and put them back together, and move forward.
–t. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe–
Watching as Relyt ran in slow motion, mouth forming around his name, he realized what he could do to keep them all from colliding and hurting themselves and him by sheer accident. And as the thought took root, his heart hammered in his chest as panic rose hard and fast and he struggled to breathe his way through it as his vision wobbled and darkened around the edges as it tunneled in on Relyt. He shut his eyes tightly against the memories of screams of his name and a panic that was death in disguise rose from the depths.
As his wings snapped out to their full span, every feather fluffed and rustling as though caught in a gale, teeth bared in a grimacing snarl, smoke curling under his nose as his true face began to rapidly burn through its glamour, fingers curled into loose fists as coldfire licked its way up over his hands to his forearms, he didn’t see Relyt as his Steward.
He saw him as his enemy.
“No,” he growled, fighting against the memories, hands fisted in the sand. He didn’t want to do it, but was the only thing he could think of to keep them from moving on him. It was the only option he had and he hated that he had to do it. Especially after the last attempt… after he had nearly ki–
He forcibly cut off that train of thought before it could fully get going and focused back on his surroundings as the Currents began to hum around him, signalling that the Faceless’ halt on time was beginning to wane completely and not just in fits and starts. But the panic hadn’t gone away completely, not yet, and neither had the tunnel vision and the remembered pain and fear and screams. He opened his eyes to see that Relyt was far closer than he had been, glanced to the side to see the same was said of Bayls and he let out a deep, shaky breath. He had no other choice, he had run out of time to deal with it.
So as soon as time came rushing back to full speed, rocking him where he still knelt in a pool of his own blood, he closed his eyes, sent one last desperate prayer to the gods, grit his teeth, and spoke.
He didn’t open his eyes at the sounds of shock that rang out from those within the Shield as they were forced to stand locked in place. He didn’t open his eyes when he heard a smattering of cursing and gasped prayers of thanks. Didn’t open his eyes when Nhulynolyn all but snarled his name, didn’t open his eyes when Shadiranamen spoke in her native sibilant tongue or when Xheshmaryú made a choked sob of a sound. Didn’t open his eyes when he heard the thumps of bodies sinking to the sands around him as knees gave out. Didn’t open his eyes to see the looks he had tried to prepare himself for, the expressions that would make the guilt roiling in his gut all the worse. Because Relyt had been right. If he had killed them all with that Working, the guilt would have destroyed him. But what he hadn’t counted on was surviving an Oathing Sacrifice to see the aftermath of the emotional devastation such a thing would have caused his Court to experience.
So he kept his eyes closed.
And he kept them that way until he heard the soft, oh so hesitant whisper of, “Your Majesty?” And even then he was slow to open them. But when he did finally look at Relyt he let out a choked sob before he could swallow the sound back. The look of pure joy that radiated from his Steward, the look of grateful piety on Relyt’s face made drawing a proper breath nearly impossible. If he was unprepared for experiencing Azriel’s raw loss and anguish and pain, he was doubly unprepared for seeing the same on Relyt’s face.
“Your Majesty? Is it really you?” the Soul Healer asked, voice still barely above a whisper but the hope that laced those words, the breath of uncertainty that tainted that hope ever so slightly, made his heart thump hard against his breastbone as though punching him for making him hurt the male in the way he had.
Rubbing a hand against his chest, he nodded and shakily rose to his feet, swaying where he stood as he waited for the World to stop spinning. Pressing the heel of his right hand to his forehead he let out a trembling breath, swallowed back the tears that threatened to fall, and looked back at Relyt, holding up a hand as everyone took a collective breath.
“I don’t have time to explain so please don’t waste what time I do have asking questions,” he said, eyes never leaving the Soul Healer. Even if he had wanted to look away, the intensity in those grey eyes made it impossible. “Relyt, I need you to get to Alaïs, by now she’s no doubt awake and in a lot of pain. The Faceless allowed me to live, Healed me, took her child as payment for my sacrifice and Nhulynolyn’s Working to save her. I need to get to the Palace immediately before Anislanzir kills Azriel because while the Oath was completed, Accepted, and made solid, he was not marked untouchable.”
“Wait Al is ali–”
“You are not going alo–”
“This is some insane bullshit–”
His Others’ voices tumbled over one another and he smiled slightly at hearing them, of it sounding just like it always did when they stumbled over one another to argue with him, eyes drifting closed in a long blink before Relyt’s voice cut through theirs, effectively silencing them.
“I am going with you,” Relyt argued but Rhyshladlyn shook his head before the Soul Healer had even finished talking. “I am needed at your side. There are other skilled Healers here to look after–”
“No, Rel,” he interrupted, “you are the strongest Healer in this camp and I do not trust anyone else to touch her right now. She could be bleeding out for all I know so I need you here.”
“I just watched you do the same before your Patron saved you,” Relyt retorted, voice holding an sharp edge and he winced at hearing it. “You are not going alone into certain death. Not again. I will not allow it.”
“Excuse you?” his lip curled at Relyt’s absolute audacity. Who the fuck is the Qishir in this equation, exactly? “You won’t allow it?”
“I did not stutter, your Majesty,” came the tart reply and he had to give it to the male for having some balls to stare him down unblinking, locked in place by an attend as he ordered him, a Qishir, not to do something.
“Someone is goin’ w’you to that shit’n’ass place, my twin,” Nhulynolyn interjected before he could respond to Relyt, keeping him from saying something they’d all regret. The Other’s voice was as hard as his eyes but it was to hide his elation, to hide his breath of relief at seeing his twin alive, to hide the fear that he had very nearly lost his other half. I’m sorry, Nully… “An’ that ain’t negotiable, y’hear?”
“I know,” he murmured, glancing at Relyt who stared right back, jaw set, ready to argue.
But he wasn’t about to give him the chance. With a wave of his hand he dropped the Shield and turned to address everyone else and stubbornly ignored the way that Relyt’s lips shifted into a thin line. Be prickly all you want, Rel. Not changing how shit is.
“Thae’a, Adïmshyl?” He looked at the Dreamweaver and Lupherinre who both nodded, expressions nearly identical ones of relief. “You and Nully will be coming with me to the Palace,” he said, pitching his voice to reach those that had been on the other side of the Shield as he looked around, one fang worrying at his bottom lip as he thought.
“What about us?” Shadiranamen piped up, one eyebrow raised, sibilant accent making the words nearly impossible to understand as she didn’t even try to hide her teeth.
“I’ll need you and Xhesh to stay here and guard the camp. I’m not taking the chance that my father will try and attack here when he realizes that the army has moved on the City.”
Thayne made a spluttering sound, confusion written plainly on her face, eyes shifting around to look at all of them before settling back on him.
“We can’t move on the City,” it was a statement but she gave it the lilt of a question at the end. “The City is impenetrable from the outside. That’s why we needed you to get us inside in the first place.”
“And you still have me to get you inside. You just have to trust me, Thayne. Station half the army at that backdoor I showed you and the rest at the main gate to the City. On my signal, they’ll move on Shiran.”
“Okay, and what will your signal be, exactly?” the General asked.
“The walls will fall.”
Thayne frowned at him but didn’t question whether he meant it literally or not. And even if she had asked, he couldn’t give her an answer as he didn’t have one. Yet.
He turned to look at Bayls whose eyes still shone with her tears, face a riot of relief and irritation and another emotion he couldn’t name and some instinct told him not to try to.
“Bayls, I need you, Chebnir, Jylen, and Yrei to be stationed at the door we escaped out of and be ready to run. Soon as I get Azriel out I will need you four to carry him to camp and begin immediately Healing him. I do not know the state he will be in but assume the worst and prepare for it,” Bayls nodded, expression hardening into one of sheer determination.
Then he looked at Jaro who stared back, one eyebrow raised at him from where the Soulless had come to stand next to Relyt, arms crossed over his chest, having been unaffected by the attend since he hadn’t been fully inside the Shield at the time he’d spoken it. At the sass inherent in that look, he snorted. He was definitely Ero’s son a pang of loss lanced across his heart at the thought.
“Jaro, you will be at Relyt’s side at all times. If any enemies somehow make it out of Shiran City and past me, kill them. Relyt is your first responsibility. If any harm befalls him? You’d best pray I never get my hands on you.”
“Aye, your Majesty, I shall guard him with my life or I shall die by my own sword,” the Soulless replied, lips twisted in a smirk and Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes. But despite the brevity Jaro had spoken with, they both knew the power of the oath he had spoken just then. He will be good for Relyt and I will feel better for him having someone to guard his back when I cannot.
Having finished assigning everyone their tasks he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and released the attend. For a long moment no one moved and he opened his eyes to find that everyone was staring at Relyt. Everyone was watching as his hand fell, gretluos losing their glow, his gretkewq going still once more. But Relyt had eyes only for him, a question the male wouldn’t ask aloud written clear as day across his face. With a soft smile that was really nothing more than a twitch at one corner of his mouth, he nodded his answer. With a choked sound, Relyt covered the distance between them and all but tossed himself at him, arms wrapping tightly around his waist, face buried in his neck. The Soul Healer shook against him, body wracked with sobs so strong they made no sound, magick winging out around them as he let go of his impeccable control over his emotions.
Rhyshladlyn collapsed under the added weight and they sank to the bloodied sand together but he wasn’t bothered by it. It didn’t matter that he was smearing his blood all down Relyt’s front. It didn’t matter that they were kneeling in his blood, it didn’t matter that they were on a time crunch. He didn’t snap at Relyt that they had no time, because while it wouldn’t have been a lie he needed to wrap his arms around the Soul Healer just as much as Relyt needed to hold him, to feel that he was real and alive.
He let out a soft chuffing purr, arms encircling Relyt’s neck, nails of one hand digging into the male’s upper back as his other hand slid up the back of his neck and into the thick mass of black, wavy curls that rested there. He pressed his nose into the spot just behind Relyt’s left ear and inhaled deeply, taking in the clean scent of ice, crisp winter air, wood smoke, and sweet spices. It was a scent that was wholly Relyt and one that he’d never thought would smell like home and love and acceptance, never mind one it was one that he’d never expected to smell so fucking good. But it did and he was grateful that he was able to smell it again.
He had no idea how long they knelt like that with Relyt sobbing into his shoulder and him making soft, soothing sounds in return before the Soul Healer spoke. The Soul Healer’s words made holding his own tears at bay an act of sheer will power and one that very nearly didn’t work.
“Don’t you ever fucking do that again,” Relyt murmured into his shoulder and he laughed, unable to help it because hearing the Soul Healer curse was always entertaining because he didn’t do it often.
And if his laughter sounded wet and wrong? Neither of them commented on it.
“Only if you promise to cuss more,” he ribbed but Relyt nipped his shoulder, a low growl telling him the Soul Healer didn’t appreciate the joke. He nuzzled his face against Relyt’s in apology. “I didn’t have another choice. I couldn’t risk all of you.”
“I know but I don’t care. I cannot lose you anymore than Azriel can, so please do not ask me to. Not yet. Not for many, many more years.”
“I understand, Rel, I’m so sorry.”
They stayed like that for a few more minutes until someone cleared their throat softly but pointedly and he lifted his head to see Nhulynolyn smiling down at them, blue eyes nearly as dark as Shadiranamen’s and he sighed. Giving Relyt one last squeeze, he leaned back, hands coming up to cup the Soul Healer’s face.
“I’ll see you soon, I promise you that. But I have to go.”
Eyes the color of slate stared back at him for a heartbeat before Relyt lifted his hands and pressed them over his own, holding them to his cheeks for just a heartbeat longer. He watched in wonder as Relyt visibly wrestled for, and won, control over his emotions, his stoic mask slipping back into place before he nodded and moved to stand.
“I will give you three hours before I come in after you,” Relyt commented as he helped him stand again, looking sheepish for having knocked him back down.
“That’s very generous of you,” he snarked in an effort to break the tension.
Relyt just hummed back at him and he chuckled.
“If everything goes according to plan then I won’t need three hours,” he added and this time Relyt snorted.
“When has anything ever gone according to plan where you are concerned, gh’Shŷr?” he asked, using the Gretlök word for “honored leader” in the endearment form. Rhyshladlyn just stared dumbly back at him, not knowing how to respond to that but feeling he didn’t deserve the honor of it.
“Rhys?” Bayls asked, gently touching his shoulder and sidetracking him from his self deprecating thoughts before he could voice them out loud and ruin the moment. “We’re ready whenever you are.”
He looked at her and nodded. “Gotcha. Go on and get headed out, I’ll be right behind all of you.”
As Bayls turned away and motioned for everyone else to disperse, Nhulynolyn took a few steps away before he paused and looked at them.
“I promise you, Relyt Greymend, that I will see to it that Rhys returns alive,” the Other intoned, voice vibrating with his power. “I cannot speak for getting Azriel out alive, but I can speak for getting my twin out.”
Relyt smiled then, but it was shaky and could hardly be considered one. He would take it regardless.
“Thank you, Nully. Be sure to bring yourself back as well,” Relyt replied, then glanced at Bayls’ retreating form and his smile grew mischievous. “Otherwise I may have my hands full of a short, very feisty Sinner Demon and I would rather not deal with that.”
“Yeah,” Nhulynolyn drew out the word as he looked at Bayls and visibly paled. “Makin’ that one mad is not somethin’ I’d recommend. For someone so small she has a lotta rage.” He made a strangled sound that was half moan, half fear-laugh, shook his head and took off at a jog after Bayls without elaborating.
“When do you think they’re going to admit they are in love?” Relyt mused conversationally.
“Probably not until one of them is dying,” he retorted absently.
“Oh, so that shit runs in the family then?” Relyt quipped and he turned a frown on him. That mischievous smile only grew and he squinted at it. “Took you basically dying for either you or Azriel to admit you loved each other. If that’s what it takes for Nully and Bayls to do the same, it must be a family trait.”
He rolled his eyes fondly at the the Soul Healer who chuckled but it was just as strained as his smile was. And as Rhyshladlyn looked closer at him he felt his stomach twist all over again with guilt. Because while it wasn’t obvious to those who didn’t know him that Relyt had been crying well before he’d collapsed against him, it was obvious to him. It was in the strain around his smile, the way that smile didn’t touch his eyes when every smile used to. It in the haunted look in those slate grey eyes that had caught his attention the very first time he’d met the male. It was obvious in the tightness at the corners of his eyes. Because Grey Soul Healers may not always cry with tears like many Dhaoine in the Worlds, they still cried, it just showed up in different way. And he hated that Relyt had seemed to lose his shine, his glow, his strength, in the year and some months since they had met. Felt guilty that it was because of him that such a strong male had done something that was so incredibly rare for his race and actually shed tears.
He didn’t regret his decision to do an Oathing Sacrifice, but he regretted the impact it had on those that he would have left behind. He reached out and wrapped his hands around Relyt’s, looking down at the contrast their skin made against each other, remembering all the times he’d admired it before. Something Relyt had thrown at him before he’d attempted the sacrifice.
“I had every right! I am your Steward first, your friend second, and your lover third!” Relyt countered, punching the Shield to emphasize his aggravation, making it ripple and shake.
He tried very hard not to flinch at the memory but by the way Relyt’s hands squeezed his own it was a safe bet that he failed.
“You need to go, your Majesty,” Relyt whispered, voice kind and full of understanding and a forgiveness Rhyshladlyn knew he didn’t remotely deserve. “I shall await your and Azriel’s return with bated breath.”
He didn’t say anything, didn’t look up, just gave Relyt’s hands one more squeeze before he let go, pivoted on his heel, and took off in the direction of the City.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.